I know that earlier this year I said that I wasn’t going to do game reviews anymore. I was concerned about the time involved and possible conflicts of interest, but I just played a game that I really want to talk to you about. So I came up with the idea of the “unreview.”
I’m not going to be doing a traditional review of the game where I weigh the pros and cons and decide whether or not to recommend it. Games that are “unreviewed” are already 100% endorsed by yours truly. Instead, I needed a space to talk about games I enjoyed and feel important enough to share with all of you. A sort of explanation of why you should play them that takes the flaws into account, but isn’t trying to produce a score based on pros vs. cons.
The first game to get the Unreview treatment is Life Is Strange, an episodic game by French developers DONTNOD. The game is narrative focused, there isn’t a lot of “gameplay” as we usually define it, but it’s still more involved than most of what I’d consider “interactive fiction.” It’s more like a playable TV show, inspired by classic high school dramas like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights.
Life Is Strange also distinguishes itself in the video game sphere by focusing on two female characters and their relationship. You play as Max Caulfield, a typically awkward, but talented teen recently enrolled at the prestigious Blackwell Academy. Blackwell Academy also happens to be located in her former hometown, where she left her best friend Chloe 5 years ago when her family moved to Seattle. Max is nervous about how to reconnect with Chloe, given that they’ve barely spoken since she left, but she keeps getting sidetracked by mean girls and pushy teachers. When they are finally reunited, Max discovers an incredible power. But what is it for, and will she be able to find out in time?
The power in question is the ability to reverse time, a mechanic that perfectly complements the narrative gameplay so that you really feel like you have power over the outcome of the story. Didn’t like the way a conversation went? No sweat, just reverse time and give the answer you should have. Made a hasty decision and someone got hurt? Rewind that sucker and see if you can change the way it plays out. There are the occasional puzzle that involves rewinding time in the right sequence in order to collect needed items, etc. but that’s as difficult as the gameplay gets.
If you can operate a keyboard and a mouse, you can play Life Is Strange.
Others have criticized the game for sounding like a bunch of French dudes trying to write like teenager girls, but I found a lot of the time the cringe worthiness of some of the name dropping dialogue was due to its resemblance to how I spoke as an uber-pretentious 19 year old. That said, there is still a lot of awkwardly treehorned-in slang, but there was enough sincerity to even the most eye-roll worthy lines to give them a pass. I especially like how vulnerable Max is as a protagonist. Her earnest, yet snarky inner dialogue really reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s heroines, brave but unaware.
Finally, if gameplay and story weren’t enough for you, the game is beautiful to look at. Yes, some of the animations are a little wonky here and there, but the painterly style of the art (ironic given that photography is a major part of the plot) is really stunning. It really gives a warm, sunny, nostalgic cast to the Pacific Northwest setting and reinforces the sort of hyper-real atmosphere Max finds herself in. If you don’t take my word for it, just check out some of the amazing screenshots from the game’s Steam page.
The first episode is available on PC and consoles for $5 and if you like YA novels, you will like this game. If you like comic books about real girls with crazy powers, you will like this game. If you like high school shows with kickass girls, you will like this game. And if you like games that involve more than just shooting things, you will like this game.
Seriously. Play this game.