Life is Strange impressions: Stranger by the minute

Dontnod Entertainment (makers of Remember Me) provoded a first look at its upcoming adventure game, Life is Strange, at this year's New York Comic Con. In this coming of age story, a young girl named Max Caulfield reconnects with old friends while trying to uncover a mystery using time bending powers.

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Max Caulfield is a typical young American girl who returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon after being away for five years. She has a talent for photography and opts for retro Polaroid instant cameras instead of digital. Max also discovers a talent for reversing time while searching for a high school friend named Amber, who has suddenly gone missing. Life is Strange might appear to be a straightforward episodic adventure game, but going beneath the surface reveals a mature themed story that's hidden behind the veneer of ordinary small town life. Judging from the special New York Comic Con preview presented by Jean-Maxime Moris, creative director and studio co-founder of Dontnod Entertainment (makers of Remember Me), Life is Strange is shaping up to be part Veronica Mars-style mystery and part coming of age story, tied together with some light supernatural themes.

One of the most stunning aspects comes from the art-style, which features all hand-drawn textures for the characters and environments. The near comic book style truly makes the characters and environments pop, especially the T-shirt art, and small details like the freckles on Max's face. Combined with the sunlight effects, the graphics can be nothing short of spectacular. Interactive objects are highlighted using handwritten text and drawn arrows pointing them out, which turns the world into a sort of living diary.

Time travel lets Max reverse time, but only to the last game checkpoint. It can be used in a variety of ways, including saving Max from danger - a game trailer shows her saving herself from a crumbling lighthouse - and physical travel. She can walk to a location and reverse time so it will seem like she teleported. However, the primary use for this power is in solving puzzles and exploring different decision paths throughout the game.

The gameplay demo introduces us to Chloe Price, Max's childhood friend who has had a rough time of things in Max's absence. In their conversation, it's revealed that Chloe would have died in a confrontation if Max had not been there to intervene on her behalf, but it's far from the first or last time she'll end up in perilous trouble. While exploring Chloe's messy room, Max accidentally breaks a snow globe, which upsets her and would impact conversations with her. A quick rewind sets Chloe back to a better mood and avoids the snow globe incident altogether. The game's dialogue system works in a similar fashion. If you end up saying something that you regret or want to explore different conversation paths, rewinding time allows you to do that. Max retains knowledge from all her conversations, so if she learns something useful, the knowledge might unlock new dialogue paths.

Where Life is Strange gets a little iffy is during some of the puzzles. For example, there's a section where Max needs to find a set of small tools to fix her camera. After rooting through a messy garage, she eventually spots the tools sitting atop a stack of boxes on a washer/dryer. It doesn't look TOO far out of reach, but Max insists that it's too high for her. In real life, most people would look for a chair or crate to stand on, but this is an adventure game, so indirect and creative solutions are required. Max switches on the dryer, and its shaking causes the tool set to fall to the ground and under the counter, where it's once again out of Max's reach. That's when she spots a small piece of cardboard, but instead of using it to help reach the toolset, Max rewinds time and slides it into place before switching on the dryer again. This time, the tools fall neatly onto it, and Max can pick it up without any fuss.

Not all the puzzles use roundabout solutions, but the game seems to lend itself to using this kind of gameplay. However, some of the other decision points help make up for them. After a heartfelt one-on-one, where the two friends appear to be genuinely reconnecting, Chloe starts to loosen up and dance while Max takes pictures with her newly fixed Polaroid camera. The lightheartedness of the scene is underscored by the soundtrack, which features a nice collection of indie folk music. The use of Polaroid pictures also makes for a great motif, because it's such a specific and retro aesthetic. It also represents moments that are frozen in place for a girl who sees time as fluid. 

Their moment is soon interrupted by Chloe's overbearing stepfather's return, who comes pounding at the door. Max searches for a place to hide, but the room is such a cluttered mess that no place seems to work. Opening the closet door hits a lamp, which falls over and breaks a shelf and blocks her way with debris. Chloe has no choice but to let her stepfather in, who is none too pleased to find a stranger hanging out in the house with her pot smoking stepdaughter. The two get into an argument almost immediately, and Chloe tries to convince her dad that the joint is Max's not hers. At this point, the player has to make a choice about whether to throw her friend under the bus or be thrown herself. In the demonstration, Max denies responsibility. Chloe argues further with her stepfather and the altercation ends with him slapping her. Feeling angry and betrayed, Chloe refuses to speak any further with Max when the scene is done.

After a rewind, Max moves the lamp to a safer spot and hides in the closet. Chloe and her stepfather still have an argument that plays out in much the same way, but this time it's not fueled by Max's presence. When the stepfather discovers the joint, Max decides to step out of hiding to claim ownership of it. Although the move brands Max as a bad influence, the situation isn't quite as heated as the previous iteration, and it strengthens the relationship between the two friends. In fact, when the stepfather starts to threaten Max, Chloe comes to her defense. When the stepfather departs, Chloe trusts Max enough to show her the gun she has hidden away under the bed.

The episodes are said to offer a ton of different paths for players to explore, but every decision has consequences, even if they're not immediately realized. Part of the "coming of age" theme comes from learning about consequences and standing by your choices, with the "strange" part coming from how Max can fix her mistakes... so what kind of lesson will she learn? We'll find out soon enough.

Life is Strange will release across five episodes during in early 2015 for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, and PC.

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