Life Is Strange: Come home to an engaging and unusual adventure.Preview

Life is Strange is a narrative driven adventure with mild puzzle elements, coupled with the high concept of being able to rewind time at any point. You can rework entire scenarios to your liking, or explore what would’ve happened had you chosen different dialogue options. This comes from Dontnod, makers of the problematic Remember Me  (which you’ve ironically forgotten). From the ashes of that pretty lame sci-fi platform adventure they’ve extracted the two best bits and dialled in on them: the art direction and the brief sections where you play with narrative continuity. Playing to the team’s strengths was wise, but it’s the subject matter in Life is Strange  that’s worth paying attention to. It’s about real life.

A 17 year old called Max returns to her hometown after five years away. We find her reunited with Chloe, the former best friend she lost contact with, who is now blue haired, drug taking and regularly falling out with her stepdad.

Some of that has to do with the fact Chloe’s other friend, Rachel Amber, has disappeared. There’s a story based reason for being able to rewind time that Dontnod isn't keen to share yet, but since this is meant to be a coming of age tale, rewinding time is a metaphor for making choices and being forced to live with them.
Rewinding time is a metaphor for making choices and having to live with them
 There’s not a lot else inthe wider story worth discussing right now, because my demo was a very specific demonstration of how rewinding works in Chloe’s house. In one puzzle where Max has to reach a tool to help fix her camera that’s on top of a washer, I was shown how one approach makes the tool fall out of reach altogether and fails the puzzle. Hit rewind, and you can just try again until you retrieve it with no fuss.

 Rewinding has more interesting applications in cutscenes. Now we’re in Chloe’s bedroom, where she and Max are talking about the torrid last few years of their friendship (or lack thereof). Chloe’s got hold of her step dad's gun, which she’s casually brandishing, while smoking weed. When her stepdad comes up the stairs wondering what the commotion is, there’s a choice of whether to hide in the bedroom cupboard or not. On the first time around, Max stays where she is and during the confrontation with the stepdad, blames Chloe for possession of the weed, leading to a tense encounter. When he leaves, Chloe is angry at Max for stitching her up.

Now, rewind to the beginning of the scene. As the stepdad comes up the stairs, Max hides inside the cupboard and only intervenes when Chloe is getting a proper bollocking she takes the blame for the weed and the cutscene ends with Chloe showing Max a degree of respect. This is what rewinding is for in Life is Strange. You can keep going until you get the outcome you want, and while the dialogue might repeat itself a bit, there is a cause and effect aspect at work with the characters that will supposedly shape the story, Tell tale style. The rewinding is quite contrived, but with surprisingly strong voice acting, solid characterisation of the two leads and OK animation, both timelines of the scene were pretty entertaining to watch.

There are hackneyed elements: why are all stepparents in popular fiction awful? Can’t it be the DNA parent who’s a total dick? And Chloe’s acting out amounts to little more than blue hair, extreme posters and marijuana generic middle class fodder as far as rebellion goes. But then maybe that familiarity is quite useful inthe fiction they’re creating here. Perhaps it’s fine that these are meant to be relatable people who might live in small town USA.

Life is Strange has a really specific vibe that isn't quite like anything else, though I can see people leaning towards Gone Home as a comparison because it’s (a) partially set in a house (!) and (b) features young female characters going through some shit. But  it looks more like David Cage’s Fahrenheit in terms of how interaction plays out.  It’s a contemporary point and clicker the rewind factor notwithstanding.

It all looks functional, and every interactive object is spotlighted with a pencil sketch filter for a nice artistic flourish. But it’s the ambience I really like here. I wasn't shown many environments, but Chloe’s bedroom is impressively detailed, with a low autumn sun creeping in through the window and a ton of objects on floors, shelves and walls, extensions of her personality. While I think the art style leaves the characters looking like they’re lacking a layer of detail, nothing in the environments looks throwaway.

Good feelings extend to the leftfield score, too. Life is Strange is soundtracked by a breezily inoffensive acoustic vibe that’s a little bit Sarah McLachlan or Aimee Mann the sort of music likely heard over a Buffy montage circa 2002 (that’s a compliment I love Aimee Mann and Buffy).

The title sounds like Dontnod is trying too hard to be a bit Sundance Channel, but the audiovisual design is well judged and the tone isn’t comparable to anything else.

Ignoring the fact Dontnod uses the nails on a chalkboard term ‘triple-A indie’ to describe Life is Strange, this is a strong first showing for a curious adventure.

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