Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 1, Chrysalis (PS4)

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Title: Life Is Strange: Episode 1, Chrysalis
Format: PlayStation Network Download (1.9 GB)
Release Date: January 30, 2015
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: DONTNOD
Original MSRP: $4.99 (Single Episode) / $19.99 (Complete Season)
ESRB Rating: M
Life is Strange is also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Golden Minecart Award Winner 2015
– Best Newcomer (PS3)

Reviews of the Rest of the Episodes:
Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 2, Out of Time (PS4)
Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 3, Chaos Theory (PS4)
Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 4, Dark Room (PS4)
Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 5, Polarized (PS4)

The opening theme along with the ambient sounds of surf, wind in the trees, and birds singing is the perfect accompaniment to the gorgeous title screen. Take a moment to look and listen. It’s like an antidote to the frigid temperatures and grey skies many of us in the Northern Hemisphere are currently enduring. It might make you believe in Spring the same way the fireplace video on Netflix makes you believe in Santa Claus. Thankfully Spring comes whether our parents buy it for us or not. So if you’re feeling blue just put on a pair of shorts, crank up the heat, and pretend your TV is a window.

Gameplay:
Whenever I start a new game I always check out the options menu first. There is a “How To Play” in the menu but it’s greyed-out and unavailable before starting the game. I like that they keep their cards so close to the chest.

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There is a scroll along the bottom left of the screen entreating players to engage via Twitter and Facebook. If you’re a spoiler-hater like I am you may wish to limit your exposure to these until you finish each episode. Also of note, each episode has chapters so try to avoid chapter titles as they may hint at the content contained within. At least at the beginning of the game don’t check out the Play Episode menu.

As this is a story-based game you’ll want as much of the story as you can get. Do not rush anything. Examine everything. Pay attention. Read Max’s journal. It’s necessary but also fun. Call of Duty this ain’t, thank goodness.

To elucidate something from Max’s journal, The October Country, which I am ashamed to say I have yet to read, is a collection of macabre short stories by Ray Bradbury, who is and always will be one of the greatest American storytellers in a league with Mark Twain, Edgar Alan Poe, Stephen King and the playwrights Aurand Harris and Duncan Pflaster. I have eclectic tastes.

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Episode 1 basically sets-up characters and situations and introduces the game-play mechanics.

Arcadia Bay mirrors Dawson’s Creek? Blackwell Academy mirrors Sunnydale High? Maxine (Max) Caulfield Mirrors Veronica Mars, Holden Caulfield and the star of Grease 2? Victoria Chase is a nod to Cordelia Chase? Warren Graham is a nod to Warren Mears? Ms. Grant the science teacher is an homage to Lou Grant? I just jumped my own shark. The game doesn’t so much borrow directly from any one 90s teen TV hit as it seems inspired by all of them to date. For instance the Vortex Club is a clique unlike The Bronze which was an actual club club.

… It can be challenging. Be patient …

As for gameplay, the time mechanic is tres cool. Although the first time it occurs I wish I could just get back to the action… but you need to go forward to go back, like Gene Wilder says as Willy Wonka in that crazy hallway just before he sings Pure Imagination. You’ll have a circular indicator in the upper left corner of the HUD which may have marks to show you where in the timeline an important event occurs like making a decision that will effect changes in the story. It’s not as tiring as it may sound. You’ll find yourself switching decisions before you know it.

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Sometimes the rewind mechanic presents a puzzle. The player must perform certain actions in order while finding the elements as time changes. It can be challenging. Be patient.

There is also a mechanic for taking photos. There are optional picture-taking goals. Not so unlike the ones from Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The difference here is that in Life Is Strange photography is contextual. You can’t take photos at will. The game will tell you when.

The game says the photos are optional in order to complete Max’s journal but a trophy pops for each one. You won’t be able to go back in and hunt for trophies without engaging the story too so if you miss any you have to play again. Thankfully there are three game saves available so you can use one for trophy hunting, YO!

I played through the first episode twice for this review to see how different decisions and player commitment changed the story. My first careful and deliberate playthrough took about four and a half hours. My second more carefree playthrough clocked in at about an hour and a half.

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The first time I played I didn’t hit the “Look” button on one particular object but rather just did the action of taking the photo. The Look button in Life Is Strange does more than simply focus your view on an object, it adds more information. Usually that’s good, but sometimes it’s like the writers are hitting you over the head with their symbolism by using really specific signs to point out how clever they think they are. It’s better to just let it go. Those who get it will be thrilled and them that don’t, well, they done spent their dosh anyhow. It isn’t ever clever to point out how clever you think you are. It’s always better for the audience to have a “Eureka!” moment but if they don’t it won’t matter and doesn’t change anything. If you miss some plot points the game will still interject them by means of quick cut scenes and the like.

… Life Is Strange is a beautiful game …

Holy moly, different choices do seem to make some real differences. Different characters in different places becoming friends with different people than in the other playthrough. That is, maybe or maybe not if you don’t walk up to them and engage them.

After the credits roll a page appears with how your decisions stacked up against other players. It’s a hoot to see how your decisions differed. I was part of only 17% of players who took a photo of a character being harassed while 83% intervened. I guarantee that those 83% wished they’d kept to themselves. At least I THINK that may be true because with four more episodes to come I don’t know how deep these decisions go or how much they actually affect the outcomes.

Sidebar, one vehicle’s license plates say something awesome, partially covered in mud and a tad obscured and even out of focus. I hope David Lynch is honored, because whether or not it’s an official demarcation it’s also a reference of something cooler.

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Visuals:
As I was looking at the opening screen it struck me how much like the opening part of inFAMOUS Second Son it seems. The whole color palette is very similar and both games are set in and around Seattle.

Life Is Strange is a beautiful game. The lighting is fantastic but just occasionally there’ll be some odd pop-in which happens even in the foreground.

… there are also idiotic blind spots …

Audio:
“To All of You”, performed by the French band Syd Matters, is the de facto theme song for the game due to its placement during the opening in-game credits which run much like a TV show’s credits. The reason for its placement may be that the song was featured in a Third Season episode of The O.C. The song is the perfect accompaniment for Max’s hallway-walking introduction to many of the game’s characters. The front man for Syd Matters, Jonathan Morali, also composed the music for Life Is Strange.

The voice acting is best by Hannah Telle as Max and Ashly Burch as Chloe. Most of the supporting cast is good but once in a while there’s bound to be a dud. Ambient sounds are appropriate.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only.

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Conclusion:
Game devs have been playing with this kind of branching off of story elements for a number of years now. The first game which included choice and story options, that I recall, was Indigo Prophecy by David Cage, a genius in video game development, and Quantic Dream on PlayStation 2 ten years ago.

Since then there have been several games with this gameplay dynamic. The PlayStation exclusive inFAMOUS series springs to mind as probably the most successful example of the type of game which encourages multiple playthroughs not only for Platinum Trophy status but also because of how different and enjoyable the gameplay is.

If the folks at DONTNOD, which is an über clever palindrome that may signify replayability in the same way the name Burger King signifies great hamburgers, can continue to solidify their brand by building-in multiple plays instead of the current trend of needing to buy a ton of DLC….Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty and even Destiny, I am looking right at you, then we may be on the cusp of a new kind of gaming paradigm.

But the game is not perfect.

There are some differences between choices here but there are also idiotic blind spots. For instance, someone catches a bully being mean and breaks it up, but later the bully seems to not recognize the good guy in what should be a crucial moment. That is hella poor writing. It seems quite lazy considering the aim of the game and the decade since these kinds of storytelling mechanics were first introduced. If I blatantly tell you to make mad love to your mother and fifteen minutes later, in REAL TIME, you don’t know who I am then we have a serious problem!

As gamers we tend to overlook these shortfalls and just keep playing but the truth is that if this were another form of entertainment we would not tolerate such sloppy and stupid storytelling. As this is a storytelling game which is all about story, a decade after the genre was invented and now on powerful systems capable of all the story branches they could hope for, these faux pas are no longer alright.

Yet even considering its shortfalls, this might just be my favorite game of the year so far. They actually referenced Russ Meyer’s film Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill! which is one of the greatest female power movies of all time from before the women’s lib movement, masquerading as a kind of titillation film aimed at the deeply patriarchal society of the time. Well, the guys who went to drive-ins anyway.

I almost feel like someone reached into my brain, took much of my normally useless pop-culture knowledge and wove it into a story-telling video game.

Score:
8.5

Written by Keith Dunn-Fernández

Keith Dunn-Fernández

An actor/director and more lucratively an Administrative Assistant at a small paper company in NYC, Keith loves his games. And he loves to write. And he is a bit of a sarcasmo.

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