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Life is Strange review: Time-traveling teenage-girl-simulator is one of 2015's most poignant games

Hayden Dingman | Oct. 27, 2015
Girls just wanna have fun. And break into swimming pools and solve a mystery and occasionally time travel.

Back to the future

The irony is that these menial glimpses of “real life” are the most compelling part of Life is Strange, and it’s the more game-y pieces that fall apart.

Life is Strange

Moving through Life is Strange’s five episodes, we simultaneously move further and further away from Max-as-Teenager. The low-key character study of earlier episodes is steadily supplanted by two larger stories: 1) Max’s ability to rewind time and 2) The disappearance of another Blackwell girl, Rachel Amber.

Max discovers the time travel ability early in the game and, to its credit, the game makes good use of it. Since this is a choice-driven game, you’re given the ability to make a decision on how events play out, then rewind and see how the other option plays out, then decide. It’s the type of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too plot branching players usually get by save-scumming, but codified into the actual game mechanics. And I like that.

But like I warned when I looked at Episode One in January, the time travel in Life is Strange makes more sense as a game mechanic than as a plot device. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny—at all. Any rules about Max’s ability are largely arbitrary, held to only until the moment the story calls for them to be broken. Plot holes abound. And the mystery of how or why Max was granted this ability? Never properly addressed.

Life is Strange

It’s fortuitous she got it when she did, though. Rachel Amber’s disappearance is a near-constant presence in Arcadia Bay, her face staring out from dozens of Missing Person posters. There’s something wrong with Blackwell Academy, and Max dons her deerskin cap to try and uncover the school’s darkest secret.

Life is Strange doesn’t pull punches. There are some truly depraved moments in the story, the likes of which I’d expect more from Condemned than some twee game about high school kids. And what’s worse: Some of those moments are avoidable, if you make the right choices. Knowing you caused something horrible is far worse than knowing it was destined to happen.

The denouement fizzles, though. Despite some incredible sequences, Episode Five is largely on-rails and nullifies many of the choices you’ve made throughout the earlier chapters. Numerous characters are relegated to supporting roles and are never given a proper ending. And the villain? Life is Strange abandons its trademark subtlety and knack for writing morally-gray characters, turning the villain from a “real” person into a caricature.

Life is Strange

It’s not that Life is Strange ends on a particularly bad note. It merely doesn’t measure up to what came earlier—in part because it stops focusing so much on Max, The Troubled Teenager and starts focusing on Max, The Video Game Character Who Needs To Save The World. And the latter’s not as interesting.

 

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