The very title “Life Is Strange” (Multiplatform; $4.99 per episode, $19.99 for the season pass; Rated M) hints at the contents within. It suggests a constant rather than an event, an observation rather than a thing that happens.
For a game that spends so much time on observation – its central character sees the world through camera lenses and windows, while the player succeeds by taking in the whole environment – it’s a perfect title. And the first episode’s subtitle, “Chrysalis,” is the perfect representation of where protagonist Max Caulfield finds herself.
Max is a new student at Blackwell Academy, a photography school that feels somewhere in between high school and college. It’s clear that Max has been identified by both the instructors and the students at the school as one to watch; her photography shows talent, which sets her up as a threat to her peers and a source of intrigue to her superiors.
And as she finds out early in this first episode, she also has the power to control time.
Not much gameplay
There’s been no mention of gameplay thus far, and that’s because there isn’t much. Most of the player’s time is spent guiding Max through the maze of Blackwell Academy, looking at the graffiti on the walls, the interactions between other students, the butterfly that just flew into the bathroom. “Life Is Strange” is set on telling a story, and there aren’t all that many instances when the story being told turns into a game being played.
What gameplay does exist tends to hinge on the times when time-control becomes a factor. Aside from one instance where it’s used to reverse a tragedy in the school, the time-control mechanic tends to exist as a way for Max to hold conversations with other students and not make a fool of herself. It allows her to experience things that would otherwise have been shut off to her, giving her a side of human interaction that doesn’t come naturally. The player doesn’t have to rewind conversations in most cases, but as conversations are tried and retried, more options open up, offering opportunities to speak from an informed position rather than an ignorant one.
A short exploration
A few puzzles do present some minor challenge, but the whole thing is over in about three hours, and that’s if some time is spent exploring. There’s plenty of potential here, especially given that it’s made clear that decisions made over the course of those three hours will have effects far beyond the immediate gratification they offer. It’s somewhere between an episode of a TV show and a commercial for the next one, and that’s bound to leave some players a little empty.
That said, the atmosphere of “Life Is Strange” fits well in a gaming landscape that has embraced games like “The Walking Dead” and “Gone Home,” games that are at least as much about thinking as they are about doing. It’s tempting to call it an adventure, since there is some peril to be found, but it’s really more of a character study. We spend our time learning a lot about one person by learning a little bit about all the people around her.
There’s a certain comfort to a game like this that goes well with cold weather and hot chocolate. Let it wrap a blanket around you for a little while, and maybe you’ll find enough to hook you for the rest of the story. At five bucks for the episode, there’s not a lot to lose.
“Life Is Strange” is available for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
New this week: If hunting monsters in 19th-century London sounds like your bag, “The Order: 1886” (PS4) is the game for you. Long-running fighting franchise “Dead or Alive” arrives on current-generation consoles as well, with “Dead or Alive 5: Last Round” (XOne, PS4).