Night mode

Life is Strange Episode 1 Review

Life is Strange Episode 1 Review

The game is visually stunning with an emotionally engaging story and a new twist on the fast-growing genre of choice-based gaming.


Written by on

Developed by

Published by


Genre: Adventure

If you like instant gratification, you’ll have complicated feelings about Dontnod Entertainment’s newest episodic adventure game, Life Is Strange. On one hand, the game is visually stunning with an emotionally engaging story and a new twist on the fast-growing genre of choice-based gaming. On the other hand, you’ll have to wait awhile for all five episodes to come out. But I think it’s a pain worth bearing for a game that, so far, shows promise of becoming an indie touchstone.

Story and Characters

Life Is Strange eschews the split-second life or death decisions of previous popular choice-based games in favor of a struggle that can feel just as perilous: surviving high school. You play as 18-year-old Max Caulfield, an aspiring photographer who’s moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to attend an elite arts academy after leaving five years prior for Seattle. Instead of choosing which of your friends will be eaten by zombies, you have to navigate the complex web of social groups and determine your niche. Will you be the savior of nerds or kiss up to the popular crowd? Play dumb to misdoings or tattle to the principal? The choices are less about deciding between good and bad than they are about picking loyalties, any of which could pay off down the line.

The twist? Your choices don’t have to stick if you don’t want them to. A regular day is made strange when Max witnesses a horrible accident in the school bathroom and, in trying to intervene, discovers she can reverse time. The implications are far-reaching—Max now has the power to prevent disasters, manipulate the environment, and replay conversations, guiding them in new directions with information she now possesses. The first episode sets up several scenarios which will undoubtedly fall like dominoes later, including a rivalry with some of the popular students, a missing girl whose absence seems to indicate a large and sinister crime, and a gathering storm that threatens the entire town of Arcadia Bay. The plot of the first episode is ambitious and promising and I hope it lives up to the anticipation it has created.

I was initially less sold on the characters than the story. I liked Max but found her classmates to be contrarily stereotypical and precocious. Many of the high-school tropes are present here: meathead football players, preening drama queens, and twitchy geeks all make appearances, which seems unexpected given the alleged pedigree of the program. How could an elite art school like Blackwell Academy sustain a population of dumb jocks? Yet at the same time characters would seem almost too cool to be real, name-dropping famous photographers and bands with an ease I found suspicious. To make matters worse, the dialogue is overly slangy; so completely a product of 2015 that it can be downright distracting. The milieu was, in short, difficult to reconcile.

But it helps to remember that we’re seeing this world through Max’s eyes. It’s not so impossible to believe that an outsider to this community would, in seeking out her place, polarize it between the malicious and the valiant. The characters closest to Max, such as her former best friend Chloe Price, are more developed and complex, while her enemies are irrational and less dimensional. It’s a perspectival story, well told, that takes some adjusting to settle into.


There’s no arguing that this game is gorgeous. Every setting of Arcadia Bay is lush and drenched in light. The interior spaces feel surprisingly dense with detail, containing far more than the requisite amount of set dressings. Max’s photography classroom is crowded with equipment and her room is stuffed with photos, posters, books, clothes, and a guitar that serves no other purpose than to be picked up and idly strummed. Much of Max’s character is revealed in the way she prowls around Blackwell, touching, taking, and tinkering, so it’s good that she has a lot to interact with.

The menus and interaction icons add to an artsy aesthetic that seems to fit snugly in the world of a teenage girl. Objects of interest are indicated by a white outline overlay that looks as though it’s been hand-drawn, and information about characters and important documents are stored in a handwritten notebook Max carries around in her bag. Even the visual perspective of the game could belong to Max, or at least to her photographer’s eye; we often see characters framed in a way that belongs less to video games than to movies. The episode’s final sequence, a succession of different shots evocative enough to make your heart skip beats, displays cinematography skilled enough to rival any film in a theater right now. This is a game that understands and makes use of the everyday magic of sunlight streaming through a window.

And yet while the visuals are stunning, the most immersive atmospheric element of the game is the soundtrack. Max’s life is scored largely by her own imagination, a fact that becomes apparent in a particularly arresting sequence where she steps out of class and, relieved to be free of the pressures of teachers and judgmental peers, pops in earbuds. Suddenly we’re plunged into her world as a song plays loudly, drowning out all of the bustle and chatter of the hallway. It’s an effective metaphor for the way teenagers often use music as a means of escape, and the different songs that appear throughout the episode are indicative of Max’s mental state. The atmosphere of the game is taut and substantial, well worth seeing even if choice-based adventures aren’t normally your speed.


The reversing-time mechanic is the distinguishing gameplay factor of Life Is Strange, and so far I’ve enjoyed it (once I got used to using it). It was a delight to realize after regretting a decision a split second after making it that I could go back and try it again. The ability to replay conversations multiple times and try all the different dialogue options will also satisfy gamers who enjoy having more control over the story, though it by no means removes the suspense. You can only rewind up to a point, so all your decisions become permanent one way or the other and the consequences are as yet undetermined.

I was most intrigued by the many smaller decisions I had to make that didn’t seem to have any immediate relevance. These choices were as simple as deciding whether or not to water a plant or to leave a mean message about a classmate written on a dry-erase board, so it will be interesting to see whether there’s any real impact.

Time reversal can also be used to solve the game’s few puzzles, which are usually time-sensitive sequences of events Max has to orchestrate correctly to reach the desired outcome. They’re not at all taxing and are a fun diversion to figure out. I sort of wish there had been more of these challenges, but too many would have probably distracted from the narrative. There are a few finicky elements of gameplay, like the object-interaction method that involves an unintuitive form of clicking and dragging toward the right command instead of just selecting it by clicking, but overall the game is straightforward to play.


This game has a lot to deliver on and a lot of room to fail. It’s set up some big premises that could fall apart in the execution stage, and only time will tell if the choices made in Episode One have a satisfying payoff later. But the game is attempting a lot of interesting things I’m extremely excited about. Perhaps the most ambitious success of Life Is Strange so far is how it tackles interiority through music and stillness—some of the best, most resonant moments are when you allow Max to settle down beneath a tree or on her bed and ponder as the camera pans around her from different angles. We get a sense of the chaos and confusion within, without using over-the-top dream sequences or acted-out fantasies, an impressive feat for any game. But they’ve also managed the noble task of turning the story of a teenage girl’s problems and emotions into a landscape of adventure. This game is worth keeping an eye on.

Grade: B+
Original Story
Complex female hero
Striking visuals                 
Immersive soundtrack
– Insufferable minor characters
– Wonky control system

System Requirements

    • OS: Windows Vista
      Processor: Dual Core 2.0GHz or equivalent
      Memory: 2 GB RAM
      Graphics: ATI or NVidia card w/ 512 MB RAM (not recommended for Intel HD Graphics cards)
      DirectX: Version 9.0
      Hard Drive: 3 GB available space

Bailey James

Bailey James

Bailey’s lifelong love of adventure games began with the Nancy Drew game Message in a Haunted Mansion, when she learned that you can drop chandeliers on bad people without getting in trouble, and has since expanded to include a panoply of other favorites like the Myst games, the Monkey Island series, any game involving Sherlock Holmes, the Tomb Raider franchise, and the all-time best adventure game ever created, Grim Fandango. She's added more recent releases like Firewatch and Life is Strange to her list but nonetheless loves diving into the old classics. She still spends large amounts of time searching for secret passages in the hope of finding an unsolved mystery lurking out of sight. Bailey graduated from Oberlin College and lived in New York City for three years before returning to her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is a business development representative for a trucking software company. In addition to hoarding adventure games, her other interests include film, cooking, running, writing fiction, and eating copiously.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.