Life is Strange Episode One: Chrysalis (PS4) Review
Ben Sheene / Feb 4th, 2015 No Comments
If you had the opportunity to go back in time and change something, would you do it? Would you take the chance to make a wittier joke or instead allow an awkward silence to punctuate the conversation? Would you try to reclaim lost love or change the course of your happiness with the knowledge of the future? Do you go back and say yes, or say no? Would you save someone’s life?
In the first episode of Life is Strange, some of these concerns are touched upon. With the promise that players’ choices will echo throughout the season, Dontnod Entertainment enters the episodic adventure genre that Telltale Games has happily sat atop for several years. But rather than rotting zombies or deadly fables, Life is Strange tackles something a little more grounded: life as a teenage girl. Though that premise alone seems to lack enough gaming “meat,” Chrysalis lays the foundation for an intriguing story that players may want to stick around for.
High School 101
We meet Max Caulfield in the middle of a nightmare. She stands on a cliff side next to a lighthouse while a violently massive tornado churns up the ocean off in the distance. We see the tornado slowly ripping apart a town on the coastline as a boat suddenly flies over Max, crashes into the lighthouse, and sends a chunk of it rapidly falling towards her head.
She wakes up with a start, back in her photography class, back in her every day, high school life. The opening moments of Life is Strange give players all they need to know to become attached to Max. She’s a loner who spends a lot of time in her own thoughts. After a five year hiatus, she is back in her home town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon studying at the prestigious private school Blackwell Academy. The puppy-dog-eyes of admiration she gives her photography teacher (a driving force behind her desire to atten Blackwell), the loving way she describes the camera equipment in the classroom, and the devotion to her analog camera make it painfully obvious how in love she is with taking pictures.
[adsense250itp]And then she walks outside the classroom. Stressed about an upcoming photography contest, Max puts in her earbuds and she begins her trek down the school’s hallways while a plucky indie song comes on. In a matter of moments players are swept up into the fiction of Blackwell Academy, where many cliché personalities from high school television shows and films come to play. As Max, players can inspect the posters lining the hallway or listen to her comment on the various students she sees.
For its opening episode, Dontnod leaves little grey area for these students to live in. Stereotypical jocks, mean girls, nerds, band geeks, and rich kids litter the hallways. In games, subtlety isn’t always the easiest brush to paint with and some of the students seem over-the-top just to fill a “typical” high school kid checklist. Despite the bluntness of it all, it does a good job at positioning both Max and the player as an outsider looking in. Many of these students have yet to spend much time with Max and they have already formed impressions. Like Max, so will the player in a matter of seconds.
Throughout the game, players are given ample opportunity to explore and interact with their fellow student body and the world around them. Whether it is searching through a character’s belongings or trying to get to know them, Chrysalis establishes a setting that is easy to be invested in. Curious players will want to explore every bit of Arcadia Bay to fill in the narrative gaps and give Max’s world further depth.
Twice in a Lifetime
Max concludes her long, introductory walk by heading into the bathroom to wash her face and clear her mind from the unsettling nightmare. During a quiet moment attempting to take a picture, an erratic boy bursts into the girl’s bathroom soon followed by a girl with blue hair. A squabble over what sounds like drugs leads to the boy pulling out a gun and shooting the blue-haired girl. As Max reaches out her hand in a desperate attempt to intervene, the world freezes and before she knows it, she’s back at her desk in photography class, right where she woke up from her nightmare.
Yes, Max can travel back in time. And after performing a few tests to make sure she isn’t actually going insane, Max realizes her ability isn’t a fluke. She knows she has time to save the girl’s life and makes her way back to the bathroom to relive the moment with the knowledge of what will happen. Life is Strange’s time travel mechanic is very unobtrusive. Players can hold down the L2 trigger to rewind time up to certain points, speed up the rewind with R2, or rapidly shoot back to a specific scene or dialog option with L1. Any items or knowledge Max obtains can be taken back in time with her.
Based off of what’s offered in Chrysalis, Life is Strange’s focus is going to be more on story exploration rather than puzzle solving. While The Walking Dead never went too heavy with puzzles, it did contain some scenes of action where the player had to mash a button or move in a certain direction. A typical puzzle in Chrysalis finds Max reversing time so she can give the correct answer in class or trying to get a group of girls to stop blocking the entrance to her dorm. Nothing is a brain teaser but in this case, it’s okay.
When Max and the player interact with the people and the world around them, the real use of rewinding time becomes apparent. Dialogue-heavy games are packed with branching conversations that can change based on the player’s response. Usually, you must live with the one response unless you restart or play through a second time. In Life is Strange, players can rewind to the beginning of a conversation and see the consequences of one response over the other.
Some may feel that this mechanic lessens the gravity of what choices are made. But rewinding isn’t infallible. There’s a set amount of actions that can be reversed before Max’s vision blots out in pain. In reality, being able to go back in time opens up everything the game has to offer. At first, confronting a security guard about harassing a fellow student may seem like a good idea, but what the player doesn’t know is how that action will directly affect a later scene in the episode. Yet there isn’t a way to rewind and try again.
When the game presents “big” decisions to the player, Max’s inner dialogue will play out when either choice is made. This simple touch is appreciated because Max directly acknowledges her choices and what they could mean for her. Every time I made a major choice I would rewind just to hear what Max thought about what she did. She comes off as a thoughtful, intelligent character because she recognizes her actions. It’s also enjoyable to rummage around people’s belongings and discover bits about them only to rewind time and give Max the information without anyone else knowing. There’s definitely potential there for Dontnod to use this concept in future episodes to a bigger degree.
Strange Things Brewing
Before long, Max discovers that the girl with the blue hair is Chloe, her best friend from when she lived in Arcadia Bay. In all that time, Max never reached out to Chloe–something Chloe doesn’t mind bringing up. At Chloe’s house players can get a sense of the friendship between the two girls. Hints are given of the pain she felt after being abandoned by her best friend and the death of her father.
As fascinating as Dontnod’s portrayal of this young girl’s life can be, there are some sore spots. While most of the writing is handled quite efficiently, some of the dialog comes across as ham-fisted. Where a movie like Juno had high schoolers talking in rapid fire witticisms, Life is Strange tries a little too hard. It’s doubtful that many teens these days use “hella” in a conversation more than once in their lives, let alone multiple times a day. The game’s attempt at coming off as hip and current feels more contrived than anything. Even the cookie-cutter cliques are more believable than some of the dialog they spout out. In the attempt to establish a tone, Dontnod stumbled in this aspect, hopefully it gets cleaned up as the season continues.
From a technical standpoint, what’s least forgivable is the bad lip-syncing. Some might be able to cut Dontnod a bit of slack because they are a French studio but remember, it got the backing of Square Enix. When watching characters talk, it can be very distracting seeing their mouths flap along with the words like a bad dub. It stings when accompanied by the quality voice acting of Max and (sometimes) Chloe (the “hella” violater) or during emotional moments. But it makes you cringe on the back of some of the other lower-quality voice acting. In the end, these gripes were the only thing to ever truly nudge me out of Arcadia Bay.
During the course of Chrysalis, players will see missing person posters of a girl named Rachel Amber decorating Blackwell’s campus. Because she disappeared months ago, Max never knew her and neither does the player. In conversations with students we get the sense that she was known to almost everyone. Soon we learn that Chloe and Rachel shared a strong bond. While it doesn’t blatantly go out and say it, the strange disappearance of Rachel looks like it will be the driving mystery behind Life is Strange’s future episodes.
This mystery and an episode-ending revelation allows Chrysalis to give players just enough to be tantalized and want more. In many ways, Life is Strange’s first episode feels very much like any pilot of a television show should. The small tastes of characters and settings beg to be explored. Why does Max have these powers? Where is Rachel? How will choice A or B come back to haunt the player? Telltalle has handled it pretty well so far, so it will be interesting to see how Dontnod’s vision of the genre plays out. In the end, however, the real tragedy is that Chrysalis is over before it really starts, but then again, isn’t that the sign of any promising episodic game?
tags: dontnod entertainment , Life is Strange , Life is Strange Episode 1 , Life is Strange Review , ps4 , review , square enix