Life is Strange Episode One: Chrysalis PS4 Review
There are many TV shows I ended up watching start to finish even though I did not fall in love from Episode One. Let’s take something like Fringe for example. That show went almost half way through its first season before finding its feet – then some loose ends got tied together, and the show started to work. Going further back, Star Trek: The Next Generation took William T Riker growing fantastic facial hair for the show to engage on the upward curve of quality. My point here is that any form of entertainment, regardless of medium, may not always be compelling right from the get go – but can have a small spark of quality about them that make you want to keep going.
That whole clumsily put together metaphor sums up my feelings for this episode of Life is Strange.
Episode One of Life is Strange shares that same problem many TV shows have early in their run. Taken as a singular entity, it does not get everything right – but knowing that more is coming gives it a valid excuse for some of its mistakes. This is very much a world building episode of what is scheduled to be a five part series. As a result, a huge amount of effort is exerted during its short runtime to introduce characters and unique features rather than taking time to build and expand on them. In fact, it almost takes the full length of the episode for something big to actually happen – although when it does actually occur, it gives players a great reason to want to come back for Episode Two.
For the most part, this episode sets its sights on telling you who you are (Max Caulfield), where you are (Blackwell Academy in Oregon), and why you are here (you moved from Seattle to attend high school). Episode One tries its best to introduce you to Max, and make her seem a grounded, real life person, with likes, dislikes, and problems. She is an 18 year old that enjoys photography, sometimes plays her guitar, and might water her singular plant if she remembers. She is still a teen, taking her first steps into adulthood, and she seems to share all the problems you’d expect a growing woman that age to have. She does have a little time travel wrinkle to add to her life though that is certainly unique. She also seems to have a bit of a crush on her photography teacher Mr Jefferson.
Apart from doing a great job devoting time to build Max’s character, one main problem with this episode was that not all the characters are as well rounded as her. Some can seem very one-tone in nature. Some behave like timid stereotypes of the character you want them to be, whilst others go too far in the other direction, playing a boisterous caricature that the game wishes you’d identify as a real life person. This all could be intentional – with the developer wanting these characters to mature and develop as the series goes, but looking at them based solely on this singular effort something felt a bit off.
Life is Strange is an episodic adventure game, but that previous hint of time travel I mentioned is important. Max’s time warping skills are core to the game’s appeal. If you took them away, the game would play almost identical to Telltale’s recent efforts in the same genre. But whereas Telltale’s titles are usually rooted in some fantastical setting, Life is Strange tries to restrain itself to a more real world setting – albeit with some capricious moments to shake things up.
The first hour of the game is a veritable gauntlet of teenage highschool drama – albeit compelling drama when you use your social encounters as an opportunity to test your new skills out, Max’s time travel skills let her rewind time whenever she deems it necessary. For a game that primarily focuses on conversing with characters, with those conversations shooting off in various tangents with different outcome, having control of time is a crucial tool.
Where Telltale’s genre efforts have a countdown timer forcing you to quickly make snap judgments, Life is Strange is the polar opposite. Not only is there never a countdown timer to rush you, but you have the luxury of stepping back through events as many times as you want to make them play out exactly the way you want them to. A clever wrinkle in the whole time travel nonsense is that you remember details obtained from conversations even after you rewind time. The result of this is that if someone scolded you for saying something unfavorable, you can simply roll back time, and give that information to them before they even know they need it. They’ll think you’re absolutely wonderful!
Even though the episode starts with a bang – climbing a hill to a stereotypical lighthouse on a stormy night to be greeted by a huge tornado that even Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt would be in awe of – the rest of the episode is a bit more laid back. Other than a few moments where things get tense, and a collection of nods to a missing girl called Rachel Amber, there is not a lot to get your pulse racing. The use of indie-folk song “To All Of You” (by Syd Matters), as you walk down the school hallway trying to block out the madness of school life in the early minutes of gameplay sets the tone for the episode well, and the game is not afraid to commit to it.
One little facet of I really enjoyed was that the developers were not afraid to use real world creations as part of their story. They casually name dropped the likes of Kickstarter, Facebook, and The Twilight Zone along with a few more, instead of making up similar sounding fake monikers like many others do. Friendface and The Scary Door anyone?
I’ve always thought that people who critic TV shows have a much harder job than us folk over on this side of the fence. If a show has a season long story arc going on, I feel you can’t really criticize one singular episode for lacking a certain something whilst you have no idea how the story may continue or conclude in the episodes that follow. As with all of these newfangled multi-episode games, Life is Strange presents game critics with the same problem of not having access to the whole picture to form an opinion.
Someone once told me to not buy things for what you want them to be, but buy them for what they currently are. Based on that sound reasoning, I would recommend holding off on Life is Strange for a while, but keep an eye on how well future episodes are received. There is a certain air of quality about the current product, but it is not enough. However, as more episodes come, I feel (and I hope) it will evolve and get better. Lets hope Max does not have to grow a beard for that to happen though,