Sunday, 27 March 2016

REVIEW: Life is Strange (PS4)*

When Square Enix and Dontnod Entertainment announced they were making a new episodic adventure game back in August 2014, I couldn’t help but feel excited. I’ve been a die-hard fan of Telltale Games’ episodic titles since I first got my mitts on The Walking Dead: Season One back in 2012, so I was super-stoked to hear that a new contender was entering the episodic game scene.
The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015. Word of mouth quickly spread and before too long all I was hearing was how great it was, and how those playing it couldn't wait for more.
I like to wait until all of the episodes are out until I play an episodic game, but even when the fifth and final chapter launched in October 2015, a lack of funds meant I still had to hold tight. Only recently did I finally get around to buying the full game from the PlayStation Store, and I'm so glad I did.

Life is Strange sees the player taking on the role of Maxine Caulfield (or Max, for short), a shy, attentive 18-year-old student who has just moved back to her old hometown after five years for college. Max attends Blackwell Academy, a small art school which specialises in photography (something she’s loved since she was a small child). After accidentally witnessing a murder in the girls’ bathroom, she instinctively develops the power to rewind time, which she uses to undo the murder and save the girl’s life.
Unknown to Max, the girl she saved is her childhood best friend Chloe. Over the years since they last met, Chloe’s suffered a loss of her own, which in turn has led her to become the thick-skinned, tough-talking punk she is today.
Over the course of the week the game’s set during, Max and Chloe become inseparable once again as they work together to solve the disappearance of Chloe’s other best friend, Rachel, who mysteriously went missing six months prior. But a literal storm’s a-brewin’, and its ever-approaching threat to wipe out Arcadia Bay forever looms over Max, putting incredible pressure on her young shoulders. Will she be able to stop it and save the day?

Max’s time-rewind powers become the crux of the game's story and gameplay, and are crucial in letting the player reverse certain actions in order to test out various different responses and situations. I’ve honestly never played a game that made me feel the way I felt whilst playing Life is Strange — it made me laugh, but also caused me to cry like I’ve never cried before. It broke my heart, but also mended it.
You take control of Max as she scopes out her ever-changing surroundings, and explores various areas in and around Arcadia Bay. Your time is spent interacting with a plethora of different objects and characters to solve puzzles.
Examining objects and engaging in conversation with people often gives you clues and vital information, which you can then use to your advantage by going back in time and unlocking further options that you were unable to access previously.
Life is Strange is similar to titles like Telltale’s The Walking Dead in that each decision you make has an impact on the future, whether it be a negative or positive one. A choice you might feel horrendously guilty about having made may actually turn out in your favour later on – you just don’t know. And that’s what great about it.
Of course, if you feel as though you have made a wrong choice, you do have the option to use Max’s time-rewinding ability to go back and right any wrongs. Have you upset someone and they’re not refusing to talk to you? Or did you accidentally knock over a glass of water so that it’s now drenching your friend’s textbook? Simply rewind time and start all over again.
But know that no matter what paths you decide to go down, the result will always be the same at the end of the last episode. In the words of Jared Kintz: “Same destination, same distance, same amount of work, but two different paths.”
One of the things I love most about Life is Strange is its fearlessness when exploring sensitive and controversial subjects. It forces you to take a plunge straight into an agonizing depth of pain, loss, and sadness by giving you a first-hand insight into topics that range from overdose and suicide, to domestic violence and cyber-bullying.
If Life is Strange is one thing, it’s raw. It’s raw to the damn bone. You can’t go into this game expecting not to feel anything for its characters because you’ll fail, and you’ll fail hard. It’s what makes the game so much more real, and what really sets it apart from others.
But although some of the issues that Life is Strange touches on are definitely subjective, they’re handled with incredible care and respect – it’s crystal clear that the developers wanted to do it right, and they definitely did.
An equally contributing factor as to why Life is Strange feels so real is its relatability. When you’re wandering around the campus, watching people throw footballs and falling off of skateboards, it feels as though you’re back at school: the same b*tches, same drama, same popularity contest. It has the same types of characters you’d expect to see in a real school, from the posh totties and the jocks to the nerds who spend every lunchtime talking about homework. You get a real sense of reality, no matter where you are in the game, and it’s so beautiful as a result. Obviously the whole time-rewinding mechanic is about as far from reality as you can get, but that aside the game’s remarkably lifelike.
If there’s only one thing you learn about Max throughout the whole game, it’s that she loves to take photographs. It’s what she came to college to study, after all. No matter what situation Max finds herself facing, there’s always an opportunity for her to take a photograph – it keeps her sane.
These photography opportunities come as a little optional side quest of sorts, and are the only collectables in the game. There are ten optional photos to discover littered around in each episode, and even though they are sometimes hard to find, it’s nice that they offer some sort of challenge among the endless conversation and emotion that forms Life Is Strange. If you find that you've missed a photo, you are able to replay the episode in Collectable Mode to look for it, safe in the knowledge that any decisions you make won’t affect the main story.

The only gripe that I have with the game is that it lacks other ‘proper’ collectables. I really wish Dontnod had added more than just photographs, as having even more reasons to explore its vibrant settings would have made the overall experience even more enjoyable. This is only a minuscule flaw though, and once you really take how good the whole game is into consideration, it doesn't matter much at all.
Life is Strange’s soundtrack is definitely one of the things that really makes the game special. You know when you’re watching a really emotional movie and you’re trying your damn hardest to stop those pesky tears from falling, then the depressing music kicks in, and you turn into a blubbering mess? That’s exactly what Life is Strange does to you, but ten times worse.
The music selection is diverse, and is implemented perfectly in all the right spots, making every single scene just that little bit better. Its splendid soundtrack is perfect for listening to in the car, or relaxing after a long day, and I often find myself sticking my headphones on and immersing myself in its glory. It’s a selection that will calm and ease anyone’s troubles, even if just for a while.

Life is Strange is honestly one of the best video games I've ever played. Its beautiful, yet harrowing story is absolutely marvellous and had me in tears multiple times throughout the few hours I spent with it. I found myself helplessly falling in love with the characters: I felt almost protective over my favourites, and I found myself mourning every little thing the game threw at them. The game took me on an overly emotional rollercoaster, and it’s one that I'm so glad I decided to journey on.

[Screenshots taken from the PS4 version of Life is Strange. The * in the title means I've used this piece in an assessment for university, but that doesn't affect my overall view!]

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