Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis Review – My Hella Emo Life

Posted February 6, 2015 by Sean Mesler in Video Games

Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis

Developed By: Dontnod Enterntainment

Published By: SquareEnix

Available for: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Release Date: January 30th, 2015

Life is Strange is an interesting approach to the Telltale model of adventure games – light puzzle solving, lots of character drama, and very little consequence. It’s an interesting and relatively engaging way to tell a story, even if the gameplay elements leave a bit to be desired due to a limited set of actual things to do. Some minor, but glaring, issues rear their head frequently enough to detract from the overall experience, but I was left engaged nonetheless.

After a five-year absence, angsty teen, Maxine Caulfield returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. After experiencing what seems to be a nightmare of a giant tornado, Max discovers she now, inexplicably, has the power to rewind time. Using her new found power, she can rewind a bit and get a “do over” of her immediate situation. When she reconnects with her former best friend, Chloe, she discovers that something bad is going to happen to the town in 4 days.

That’s the basic plot of Dontnod’s latest game, Life is Strange, and it wastes little time before it introduces the rewind time mechanic. The game itself, begins with Max in the afore mentioned storm and then dumps her into her mundane life as a student at Blackwell Academy, a private school, with dorms, but seemingly no school uniform. In the intro, we are introduced to Max’s world through inner monologue as she peers at her surroundings and her belongings. She’s a photographer – that uses Polaroid-like instant film, she’s shy, introverted and apparently a star pupil of her photography class even though she seems to not be turning in much work.

Life is Strange Max

Max is actually a fairly realistic portrayal of a 15 year old girl that has fringe interests and tastes.

After class, she takes a walk down the hallway of school while listening to particularly snooze worthy “emo” music (I use that in quotes because I’m a music snob who refuses to accept that term for anything that didn’t come out of DC in the late 80’s – see Rites of Spring and Embrace for examples). She inspects her surroundings and offers her thoughts on every individual in the hallway before winding up in the bathroom where she witnesses the murder of what appears to be a female student at the hands of local, spoiled rich kid, Nathan. Freaked out, she reaches out after the fact and rewinds time all the way back to when she was sitting in photography class.

From here Max, quickly (and somewhat believably) comes to terms with what just happened and decides she wants to try and save the girl from being murdered. It’s not all dire circumstances, however. Many of the things Max has the option to redo are as simple as saying the right thing. Going through a conversation might reveal something about the person she is talking to and after saying the “wrong” thing she can rewind time, and choose a new option that allows her to win the favor of the whomever she is talking to. Sometimes these conversations and situations have consequences and the game tells you as much. How these situations play out will probably become clearer in future episodes but here the game just informs you that the action or conversation will have consequences. Life is Strange also features some light puzzle solving which involves not only time manipulation, but also things as mundane as turning on a power strip to give power to a stereo so you can insert a CD.

As this is a first episode, it mostly serves to introduce the situation Max finds herself in and the cast of characters. Most of which, come off as reasonable facsimiles of actual teenagers. Max, herself, is seemingly shy and introverted; however still comfortable being who she is. She knows she’s different, likes whom and what she likes, but also knows that she’s not popular for a reason. She’s a pretty believable character, despite her unbelievable gift. The rest of the characters run the gamut of snobby “mean girls,” lonely outsiders, petulant rich kids and so on. They all play to type and the time-honored tropes of high school dramas.

What I’ve always enjoyed about these types of set ups is that there is always a character I can identify with in some way. Be it the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (who, for my money, are the most realistic teenagers I’ve ever seen) or broad strokes like the cast of Dazed and Confused, which is full of “people I know.” In Life is Strange, that character is Warren. A movie geek who has a crush on Max and lets her borrow his flash drive full of movies -and props to Dontnod for name-dropping Cannibal Holocaust a few times. For those that don’t know, yes, it’s a very real, very disgusting movie that I don’t honestly recommend anyone watch, but the most hardcore of gore fans. Unfortunately, Max doesn’t have a lot of screen time in this episode but I hope he makes more appearances in future episodes.

Life is Strange Dialogue

This is Chloe. She is pretty much terrible.

Who does have a lot of screen time, and is by far my least favorite character so far, is Chloe – Max’s former best friend before she moved away from Arcadia Bay. For reasons that are never made clear, Max stopped keeping in touch with Chloe, which apparently turned into to the most clichéd rebellious teenager ever. With purple hair, a beanie, tattoos, and over reliance on the word “hella” and the fakest purported punk rock kid ever, nearly everything she said grated on my nerves. Maybe it’s because I’m a long time fan of punk and hardcore music, but nothing that comes out of her mouth seems like it’s from a real teenager into punk music in any way shape or form and thus sounds utterly disingenuous.

That said, even with the clunky dialogue at times and barring, the performances are actually pretty good across the board. Hannah Telle does a good job portraying a teen who straddles the line between having herself figured out and is still unsure of how to be with others. And Carlos Luna also stands out as Warren. Really, it’s only Ashly Burch who stands out as the weakest performance, but I honestly blame her writing.

Life is Strange is clearly a low budget title, however, Dontnod do a good job overall with their budget. The setting and the environments are well realized and in still photos they all look good, if not fantastic. Character models have a nice, almost water color painted look to them that is subtle and striking. The game itself runs smoothly while not seeming to tax the hardware in any way (take lessons Telltale – fix your engine). Sound design is also very good, beyond the afore mentioned performances, the music selection adds to the overall melancholy tone of the story. Mostly acoustic, indie sounding songs with female vocalists, it gives off a teen TV show vibe, despite the use of profanity throughout.

Life is Strange Options

Rewinding time offers options that will make characters react more favorably.

Lamentably, where the budget rears its head, is in the lip-syncing. I won’t mince words here – it’s bad. Hella bad, terra bad, laughably bad. The timing doesn’t work at all and the characters’ mouths open and close as without any kind of regard for inflection, vowels, register, or anything else.

At the end of the day, Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis is much stronger than the sum of its parts because Dontnod is taking a chance telling a unique story in a familiar, if mundane, setting. It’s a fascinating opener to what I hope is a great arc, with stakes, drama, humor and hope. I can forgive the shortcomings of the writing and the technical limitations of the budget, as long as they keep delivering and improving upon what they have shown here. I’m looking forward to seeing, and changing, what happens next.

About the Author

Sean Mesler

Sean is a semi-retired hardcore kid, semi-grown up and transplanted from his original home of New York to Los Angeles. A lover and critic of movies, music and video games, Sean is always quick with an opinion, a heaping dose of snark, and a healthy dose of pragmatism. PSN & Live Gamertag: N2NOther