A hella letdown.
The first time I played Life is Strange, it was in five distinct sittings over the course of ten months in 2015. The game’s original release in an episodic format was comparable to other narrative adventure games of its era, like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. In the years since this format has fallen out of favor, and the latest game in the series—Life is Strange: True Colors—was released in a single complete package. This change in context is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot while revisiting the original Life is Strange, since many of the things that I forgave or even forgot when there was a two month gap between each two hours I played, and playing the episode back to back over the course of a single week have revealed a lot of problems that I never noticed before.
Life is Strange follows Max Caulfield, a teenage girl who has recently returned to her hometown of Arcadia Bay to finish high school. Upon her arrival she reunites with her childhood friend Chloe and discovers that she has the mysterious ability to rewind time and change the past. As Max tries to reintegrate into Chloe’s life she receives visions of a doomed future where Arcade Bay is wiped out by a terrible storm, and that future seems to be mere days away.
Naturally the story is front and center since this is a narrative adventure game where Your Choices Matter™, but there are a lot of things that didn’t quite enchant me this time around like they did years before. It’s a popular sentiment by now that your choices don’t really matter in any game that tries to have a relatively linear story like this, but I was surprised to discover that at times Life is Strange doesn’t even bother pretending. The opening sequence sees Max witnessing the school bully Nathan Prescott shoot Chloe to death, which she obviously rewinds to prevent. Afterwards Max is confronted by the principal, who suspects her of hiding something.
At this point, I recalled how this choice went in my first playthrough seven years ago: I told the principal I had seen Nathan with a gun. The principal would later shield Nathan from any consequences, and Nathan would find out in the process that I had seen him, going on to threaten Max in an attempt to silence her. This time I chose differently: I feigned ignorance, claiming to the principal that nothing was wrong. He was still suspicious of Max, but there was now no way for Nathan to find out that I’d seen him. An hour later I reached the scene where Nathan had threatened Max in my first playthrough, and I was surprised to see that Nathan still somehow found out that I had seen him and still threatened me. My choice didn’t just “not matter”, but the game didn’t seem to know what to do after I chose the “wrong” choice, so it simply acted as though I had chosen to snitch on Nathan anyway.
This was literally the very first major decision in the game, and it set a tone for things to come as Max’s power to rewind became relevant in the gameplay. Conversations often allow you to choose different dialogue options, and then once the conversation is complete you can rewind time and try answering differently. Frequently I would discover that the different dialogue options got the exact same response from whoever I was talking to, and in a couple of instances Max herself even said the same thing between two different options. This is very common in games with dialogue trees and wouldn’t even be worth mentioning in some of them, but since you have the power to rewind and immediately try different options in Life is Strange, the illusion doesn’t even last to the end of your first playthrough; it breaks down in the very first conversation of the game.
The story itself has a number of problems separated from the big decisions you make that I didn’t quite realize in 2015 when I had a couple of months to forget the finer details between episodes. The most obvious is the sheer amount of filler that pads out each episode. It’s incredibly common for the characters to state plainly the next thing you need to do only for some bizarre problem or obstacle with no real bearing on the plot to get in the way. A brief trip to Max’s dorm room to pick up a USB flash drive ends up being a quarter of the first episode’s runtime as you must first set up a Rube Goldberg-esque series of events to drop a paint bucket on a bully, prompting her to move away from the front door, and then once inside you’ll discover that you actually lent the flash drive to a girl down the hall whose roommate is currently blockading the door to their room because the aforementioned bully tricked them into fighting, so then you’ll have to sneak into the bully’s room to find evidence that she made the whole thing up in order to convince them to let you in and take back the flash drive.
Moments like these are all over the story, and the actual character scenes waiting at the end of the filler have also been tough to revisit. The core appeal of Life is Strange is the relationship between Max and Chloe as they try to rebuild their friendship and move on from the traumas that Chloe had to deal with in the years that Max was gone. Unfortunately that deep friendship has gotten a lot harder for me to accept nowadays; without the months between episodes giving the chance for my vague memories of events to romanticize things. There’s a lot I could say about Chloe’s character and the contrast between how sympathetic the game wants her to be compared to how needlessly hostile she is, and how many of the choices that contribute to the game’s hidden affection system with her involve reinforcing her rebellious, hostile demeanor.
As for how things run on Switch, there isn’t a lot of good to say there either. The ports in the Arcadia Bay Collection are based on the remaster that was released on other platforms earlier this year. Personally I already didn’t like a lot of the artstyle changes that were made in the remaster, but the Switch really struggles to run the updated version, often looking and running even worse than the original 2015 version. Load times that were near instantaneous on PS4 are now incredibly long, regularly taking at least 30 seconds and occasionally going as high as more than a minute. The difference is so bad one transitional cutscene at the beginning of episode two which has three loading screens in the middle of it has gone from 2 minutes and 44 seconds on PS4 to 4 minutes and 28 seconds on Switch.
The look of the game is also substantially affected. Camera cuts will frequently stutter between multiple frames before settling on the correct shot, and object pop-in slowed down enough to be easily noticeable while turning the camera. The biggest issue with the visuals is a poor temporal anti-aliasing effect that seems to be out of sync with the objects it’s trying to smooth over. The result is an ugly smear over anything that moves, and the faces of characters that aren’t close to the camera will disappear into a messy pixel soup. Given the Switch hardware can easily clear the recommended PC specs for the 2015 version, it’s likely that choosing to port the remaster instead is the cause of many of these problems, and it makes the game look and feel substantially worse than it ever did before.
The strangest part of all of this is the prequel story Before the Storm, which appears as a different app entirely on the Switch home screen. A majority of technical problems with the Switch version of Life is Strange are not there in Before the Storm. The messy smearing is gone entirely, greatly increasing visual clarity. Visual glitches on camera cuts are gone, and even load times are usually better, coming in at a rough average of 15 seconds (though I did clock one loading screen that lasted 70 seconds even here). This is still definitely a port of the remastered version from earlier this year, but it somehow feels like a completely different port. If for some reason you want to pay $40 for a two-game collection and then only play the second game that doesn’t really make sense without playing the first, then I guess this port is pretty good.
Returning to Arcadia Bay has been pretty disappointing for me. The magic that I felt from the game in 2015 is gone as playing the episodes in quick succession makes their flaws all the more obvious. I would be unsure about recommending the best port of this game now, but my feelings on the Switch version specifically are far less complicated. This is not a very good port, and the baffling difference in quality between the original game and its prequel only makes that more blatant. If I could rewind time, I would go back and avoid playing this port so I could simply live with my positive memories of the original instead of confronting the serious letdown the remaster has turned out to be.