Life Is Strange: Episode 1 - Chrysalis marks the latest release from French developer DONTNOD, the studio behind Remember Me. Being an episodic game, it marks a change of pace for the firm, and allows it to join the ranks of Telltale Games, who has essentially defined the model in its current guise. Series like this are extremely difficult to execute, as each episode needs to feel like it contributes to the overall story, while still managing to stand on its own. The real question is: does this plot hit the ground running, or end up dead on arrival?
You assume the role of fledgling photographer Maxine Caulfield – one of several on-the-nose references to literary classic The Catcher in the Rye – who's just enrolled at the prestigious artsy high school, Blackwell Academy. While there, she must deal with the everyday stresses of having moved back to her hometown, where she's forced to interact with the stereotypical high school cliques – and get to grips with her ability to, er, rewind time.
Yes, after opening the episode with an Alan Wake-esque dream sequence, Max discovers that she can undo events ordinarily lost to the passing of time. Where did this power come from? Why does she have it? Well, we don't really know – but we can only hope that it will be explained in more detail as the season runs on.
In the meantime, it far and away makes for the most interesting and unique facet of the title. The thing is, even though the protagonist can only rewind time, she is able to recall things said by people in the future as well. For example, if she doesn't know the answer to, say, a question in class, she can hear the solution, rewind time, and then say it herself. This makes for interesting exchanges, and creates new options in the dialogue trees. It's a good thing, too, because without the added choices, you'd have very few things to say; most conversations have two selections for each interaction, until you rewind to generate more.
Beyond the turn back time mechanic, the gameplay very much graduates from the 'walk around and interact with objects' school. While this isn't exactly original, though, the environments are very well done; it really does feel like you're in a creatively accomplished academy, complete with a swimming pool, dorms, and other main campus buildings. It's a very believable environment, and this greatly enhances the overall feel of the experience. Unfortunately, as already alluded, this leads to clichés; between the snotty rich kids who think that they run the school to the skateboard bros and jocks, you'll happen upon some yawn-inducingly predictable personalities.
Fortunately, there are a few stronger characters among the weaker ones. Max herself, and her once best friend, Chloe, are two good examples of this. After growing up together, the duo's lives have both diverted in different directions, and when they meet again, unlike most video games, Life Is Strange portrays them as strangers rather than long-lost accomplices. This is especially obvious when problems like domestic violence and even rape are brought into the equation – all handled tastefully and respectfully. All throughout this reunion of former friends, the stage is set for some intriguing mysteries in future episodes – pay special attention to Chloe's step father.
During the game's various exchanges, the release relies on licensed music for much of its duration, but the soundtrack suits the game exceptionally well, and bands like Mogwai and Bright Eyes really help make it clear that a lot of thought and care has gone into getting the right songs for the right scenes.
There are problems, though – most noticeably the lip syncing. This is out of whack throughout the entirety of the opening episode, and it's really off-putting. This is furthered by some atrocious dialogue, which seems hopelessly out of touch with the kinds of terms and phrases that kids are using these days. It's almost as if the writer saw a bunch of popular old sayings, and tried to cram as many of them as possible into a single episode. Phrases like "Are you cereal?" and "Go f*** yourselfie" don't really jive with the title's overall tone.
That latter example actually accentuates a curious kind of fascination with selfies that's ongoing throughout the entire game. This, combined with the cringe-inducing dialogue, led to us laughing through much of our time with the title. Fortunately, the developer's taken care not to include it during the serious moments of the story, but this is all the more frustrating, because it proves that it didn't need to be such a common occurrence in the first place.
Despite all of the missteps, though, we're still eager to see where this season goes moving forwards. While this opening episode isn't particularly strong, you do still get a sense that it's setting the groundwork for more interesting things. Think of it more as an investment into the future, then, rather than instant gratification.
Life Is Strange: Episode 1 - Chrysalis certainly is strange, but perhaps not in the way that DONTNOD intended. There's enough ground work laid here to pave the way for future instalments, but a lot of the good is undone by lip sync issues and some of the most mind-bogglingly bad dialogue that we've heard in recent memory. While some of this is inadvertently hilarious, it does end up hurting the product at points. There's definitely still hope for this season, but the jury's out right now.