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Friday, 6 February 2015

Life is Strange E1: Chrysalis.

Life is Strange
Episode 1: Chrysalis.

This game seemed to come a little bit out of the blue - or maybe I'm just not as hip with the times as I should like to think myself, who knows - and nobody seemed entirely sure what it was. I had heard tell of it being a walking simulator (not true), of it having a Telltale-oid decision making mechanic (very true), of it being a survival horror game (not true, but I can certainly see where some people might have gotten that impression from some shots of the game), and it having a time travel mechanic (mostly true - it's actually a time reversal mechanic). 

Life is Strange follows Max Caulfield, a scholarship student and photographer at prestigious private school Blackwell Academy, in the sleepy town of Arcadia, Oregon. As is the case with every single sleepy town ever depicted in fiction ever, Arcadia is full of secrets, and as Max's day wears on, she finds herself being embroiled in more and more of the strange, unnerving happenings going on in the town, from the internal politics of Blackwell's popular clique; to the spiralling breakdown of a gun-toting rich kid; to the life of her depressed former best friend and her paranoid, overbearing stepfather; to the mysterious disappearance of a young girl. Odder still, Max seems to have time manipulation powers, acquired after a mysterious vision of the future in which a massive tornado destroys Arcadia. 

Yes, that's the one.

Let's get my major bugbears with this story out of the way first: The dialogue. Oh good god, the dialogue. It is truly dire. The writing staff are trying so hard to replicate what teenagers of today sound like, but it feels like their 'research' consisted entirely of browsing tumblr and twitter for hours and hours. The result involves things like popular girl Victoria cattily remarking "You're so in the retro zone now. Sad face!" in the middle of class. I - I mean, really, nobody has ever talked like that anywhere that isn't online. It's grating. I'm reminded, vaguely, of the recent run of Young Avengers, which a lot of people criticised as sounding like it had dragged its dialogue off of tumblr - but that, at least, was vaguely self-aware of it. Life is Strange delivers its absurd dialogue with the utmost seriousness.

My second major bugbear is that Max is utterly unlikable. She veers between irritatingly passive and annoyingly pretentious, sighing sentiments about how she's in the wrong time. Much like the dialogue, she feels less like she was constructed for merit and more out of a slightly desperate attempt to appeal to a demographic the game's creators don't really understand. As I write this, I can still practically feel Square-Enix breathily hissing 'Are we cool yet?' through the screen at me.

That must be using a ton of electricity.

But, you know, those two things aside, this is a really good game. Max aside, the characters are very strong and likeable - and the story easily passes the Bechdel Test, which is a massive plus for me - and the plot, while it feels unfocused in this episode, is interesting. It feels like it draws from a long tradition of mystery dramas that includes worthies such as Broadchurch and How To Get Away With Murder, where premise, character and setting are almost indistinguishable from each other for how tightly they're wound together. While I hope it feels a bit more tightly focused in future episodes, it certainly piqued my interest, and there were several striking moments, not least the closing montage as the town starts getting snow in the middle of summer. 

It also feels very much like an evolution of the Telltale formula. Telltale games are very fun, but the choice mechanic can grow thin without much else to pad it out: Life is Strange is very much a point and click adventure game, with puzzles (albeit simple ones), exploration, a range of dialogue choices, and choices - six big ones and a dozen small ones, which isn't bad at all for a two hour episode - and relative freedom of exploration. The time reversal mechanic also means that you're not as pressured as you are in most games of this type, as you can stop and reverse time to try out your different choices before settling on the one that most appeals to you.

(Most of the choices have an element of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose to them, but that's to be expected.)

"Screw the rules, I have blue hair."

The voice-acting is very strong, and the soundtrack, mostly consisting of crooning ballads, is pleasant to listen to. The graphics, too, are utterly beautiful - every shot is colourful, visually interesting, and cinematic. 

The first episode is available on Steam for about six quid, and the entire series (consisting of five episodes, as is more or less standard) for about sixteen. I would definitely recommend it, so long as you have a relatively high tolerance for a pretentious main character. No, seriously, that is a massive glaring issue in an otherwise wonderful game for me.

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