In that scene from the final episode of Life is Strange I speak of below, you feel the impossibility of Max’s situation collide with the love and trust of Chloe. The writing isn’t completely sharpened to that point but the voice acting, Hannah Telle barely keeping it together as Max reaches so desperately to grasp Chloe, serves as a miracle of sound and emotional grip. With what became one of the most recognizable themes of the series playing in the background, everything hits a peak of desperation that should make Telltale blush and take notes.
That scene serves as an obvious highlight to me that summarizes the fear and seemingly random disaster growing up can feel like. I still can’t abide those graphics or the clinically insane Samuel being allowed to amass a squirrel army on campus. I’ve even grown to have issues with the bottle hunt in the third episode that, no matter how much fun is poked later, feels repeatedly tedious when you’re just looking for a way out of the scene. And, you know, shakabra….
Issues aside, this is a series greater than the sum of its parts that I’ll play again and again because of how it captures moments.
Originally appeared on the Gamer Square October 21, 2015.
There is no accounting for features a developer decided to leave as an unimplemented idea. Reviews don’t take into account what isn’t there, and a lot of people would just rather play than consider alternate realities where their favorite titles look much, much different. Dontnod Entertainment decided against so many episodic-gaming standards that, while seeming small, would’ve changed Life is Strange considerably and probably for the worse. As it stands, this is a series that works through sublime and bombastic life events at its own pace, marking a high point for episodic gaming as a whole.
As the series began, you could immediately sense that this wasn’t going to be any sort of breakneck adventure against time and space. The first episode established the quiet of Arcadia Bay and Blackwell Academy, making the percussion of events that followed feel all the more disturbing to this sleepy town. Telltale Games, for all that’s done well in their respective series, does not usually worry about their worlds. Those are just sets for choices and a story to unfold, but one of the consistencies that Dontnod brought to each episode is the building of their world as a breathing, vulnerable entity that had to be protected.
The only one capable of that protection, by way of her time travel abilities, is Maxine Caulfield. She stands as a shining example of one of those standards Dontnod chose against: making the main character a player avatar. Max had to be her own character for this story to unfold properly, and to stand up to her angry, ill-tempered best friend Chloe Price. The player is basically made to be Max’s moral compass during the basic conversations and her mental process during puzzles, both of which are interesting, uncommon roles for a player to be in. These roles also keep the story moving on track with Max’s character evolving and her actions becoming bolder, if you allow them. Either way, she finds the strength to protect what and who she loves, bit-by-bit, in each subsequent episode of her crazy week.
The heart and soul of Life is Strange itself is Max and Chloe’s friendship. From the first episode, it was clear that their scenes together were the ones that inspired Dontnod; the backgrounds and settings of the first three episodes always felt unique and dipped in brighter colors when those two shared time together. Their dialogue was teeth-grittingly bad at times, but their level of care made up for that for the most part. These facts made the fourth episode – Dark Room – feel that much more like the story’s largest misstep. A double-gotcha ending sacrifices Max and Chloe’s main story to serve one that was clearly a building background tale. While that choice ultimately melded with the conclusion just fine, it still sacrificed the story being told for a story the team suddenly wanted to feel more important to the player.
The series finale – Polarized – seemed like a response to that criticism directly. Instead of being invested in the danger before her, Max put Chloe above everything else throughout with side characters almost feeling like obstacles with her single-minded goal. Still, just about every character from the series is available to close out their loops, and one moment in particular between Max and Chloe really delivers how much one cares for the other, even on the brink of annihilation.
Meanwhile, gameplay has felt like the most consistently evolving part of this series. Puzzles involving time remained at the center and steadily let go of your hand more and more with the examples in Polarized being interestingly layered. Other one-off segments – finding bottles, a door code puzzle – are pace alterations, and are even poked fun at by the end as annoying game tropes. Wandering the world didn’t feel great as Max had herself quite the turn radius and a slow speed, but the environments were usually small enough to where those factors didn’t grate on. Overall, this was a story-based series where gameplay served its purpose to bridge the gaps and add layers as the series went forward.
Unfortunately, Dontnod was not as consistent in the evolution of their graphics engine. From the first episode to the last, the characters all look like repurposed Dreamcast models with slightly more expressive eyes and the same warbling mouths. Some don’t even have separate textures for clothing or hair, but the most distracting lack thereof is the emotions on characters’ faces during charged scenes. The voice acting goes a long way to cover this up but it’s a visual medium too, and very few emotions can be seen in the game at all. Environments did seem to pick up as the series went forward, to the team’s credit, with the final few hours of Polarized featuring some really fantastic, thematic designs and locales.
Life is Strange comes to a close with Polarized as its high mark, but it’s the entire journey that engaged the player base into a frenzy. The graphics weren’t anything impressive and the gameplay, while offering interesting concepts and topping Telltale’s attempts, was never the priority. You had to feel for Max, Chloe, Warren, Nathan and so forth to move yourself ahead, and those feelings came back to you through their characters that kept you caring more and more about their potentially deadly outcomes. The final moment of Dark Room aside, Dontnod pulled their new property out of thin air to create a moving, personal story that handed you black and white choices, then showed you how often those extremes turn into an unpredictable grey blob. There is no right choice in Life is Strange; you just have to do what you think is best for Max, and how much you care about her will influence exactly which shore her storm will crash against.
Life is Strange Series Score:
Original Score: 8.5
Updated Score: 7