‘Life is Strange’ is a wondrously realized and effectively nuanced slice of life

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Life is Strange: Episode One–Chrysalis
Dontnod Entertainment
Square-Enix
PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC

In many ways Life is Strange, the new serialized adventure title from Dontnod and Square-Enix, has set the benchmark pretty high for future episodic releases. With it’s gorgeous presentation, high production values, and tons of replayability, this is going to be a tough game for the format to top for a long time to come.

Telling the tale of  a newly minted adult returning to her hometown, Life is Strange is very much a typical coming of age story. What’s special about this particular effort though is the amount of detail which is put into the details of our protagonist’s world. After a thrilling and ambitious prologue set amid the endless dreamscape of our central character, Max(ine), the game opens in a classroom and immediately gives you access to an almost daunting amount of information. Things to read, look at, examine, or do, all pop up in the first few minutes alone, even as you’re trying to get your bearings and understand the nature of the lecture currently being given by your highly elite art school teacher.

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This tone is deliberate, and amazingly effective in its execution. Much like Max, you feel immediately disoriented and overwhelmed by your new setting, and begin struggling immediately for the approval of your peers. Like Max, you won’t know the answer to the first question you’re asked, and you’ll take it personally when a fellow student makes fun of you for your lack of knowledge. Already Life is Strange is building a world which you are emotionally invested in as a player, and by making you feel like a rookie from the start, it places you firmly in Max’s shoes.

As if this weren’t already impressive enough, you also have access to your journal, your phone, and your photos to learn and develop even more about this reality. Even more ambitiously, Life is Strange introduces a shocking plot line in which you witness someone being shot in the girls’ washroom, and further expands by abruptly giving you the unexplained ability to reverse time and change the outcome of certain events. Suddenly you’re back in that opening class segment, except this time you’re prepared. You know the answers to the coming questions, and you’re more than ready to use the information you’ve gained to get ahead, and maybe even become an everyday hero.

Where Life is Strange really soars is in the almost infinite minutiae of its world-building. Every place you go is brimming with a cavalcade of  infinitesimal details that help you to learn about Blackwell Academy and its many inhabitants. You learn a lot about Max and her insecurity, about how badly she wants to make it and prove herself with this new opportunity, about a missing girl named Rachel Amber, a lapsed friendship with a colorful girl named Chloe, and the elite society of the Vortex Club.

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In many ways it’s the gaming equivalent of Veronica Mars, framing you as a character on the fringes of a world that you were once a part of. It deals heavily with elements like bullying, cliques, high school/college society, and the general concerns of growing into an adult in a complicated world. The choice mechanism is a natural extension of this, allowing you to rewind time and re-examine or change the choices you’ve made (something every high-schooler would probably trade their Instagram account for in a heart beat). Wisely Dontnod only allows the use of this power during each specific scene, so that it cannot be spammed and abused as you begin to see the effects of your actions–at least, not without replaying the entire episode.

Life is Strange also gets points for being one of the first games of this console generation with a genuine bead on the pulse of the growing millenial population. Though it sometimes flounders into the teen angst category, and occasionally flubs an awkward cultural reference, the experience is generally only improved and timely due to the inclusion and focus on this particular aspect. Surprising additions like overweight students, underweight students, students of varying styles and ethnicities, and two interesting female protagonists who spend most of the game NOT talking about boys, make Life is Strange a huge step forward for progressive gaming.

Even being a January release, Life is Strange is setting itself up as an early contender for game of the year. Here’s hoping it can keep up this level of exceptional quality with its remaining episodes.

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