Warning: this text contains spoilers.
You play Max Caufield, a would-be art photographer, attending the Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay at the age of 18. You return to this location at the US west coast (I recall, it’s Oregon) after spending 4 years abroad. You experience strange daydreams involving a tornado hitting Blackwell and eventually are the witness to the murder of your once best friend Chloe by a classmate of yours. It is this when you discover that you have the ability to rewind time and change the course of actions. First, it is just a little tiny fragment of time. Later on, you discover how to go back by a large amount by focusing on old photos. What started off as a coming-of-age story turns into a thriller in which you are drawn into the secrets of Blackwell, discover the fate of the disappeared Rachel Amber and finally face the antagonist. The game keeps you reminding that it is about choices made and experiencing the consequences.
The game mechanics are Square Enix attempt to create a story-driven narrative cinematic episodic game like TellTales “The Walking Dead”. In a 3rd person manner, you walk around, talk to people and are confronted with several dialog options which do have moral implications not easily answered. There are some riddles too, yes. But like in the TellTales games they are no real challenge anywhere (e.g. fetch 5 empty bottles at the junkyard, bring Chloe a cup of water …). Sometimes the riddles take Max ability to rewind time into account: restart a dialog with a person, since you discovered some secrets during the same dialog before or walking to a spot, rewind time while staying on that place put and start walking again. At the end of each episode you a presented with a résumé about your choices, those of your friends on Steam and worldwide.
The Unreal Engine 3 is working under the hood to provide a nice looking scenery especially when it comes to lighting. I thought the game music fitting though not everybody’s cup of tea. The graphics also bear some impressionistic touch which some argue about. Besides having sometimes failed lib synchronizations – speaking with lips closed – I had no glitches or any bug at all.
All in all very well done on a high technical level.
But… It seems to me, that all the characters in the game are perfectly technical designed to attract a certain audience: white US teenagers, preferably female, at the age of 16 to 20. Max is talented in arts and some sort of outsider not directly entangled in social life at the Academy though she knows everyone as everyone knows her. She tries hard to find her own way and place in life, come along with each and everyone and generally speaking has a very good, golden heart. Oh, and a very handsome, charming teacher too. Writing this I realize how cliché this actually is. There are all stereotype characters of young female teens assembled: the plotting bitch (Victoria) and her girls, the sweet, nice nerd (Warren), your best friend, always giving you a headache reflecting your relationship over and over again (Chloe), …. and even the prime antagonist fits in nicely: the gardener is always the killer, the least suspected person. Sadly, being older, male and European and thus having a totally different cultural background I could not get emotionally attached to Max. Ok, well, I’m clearly not part of the target group for this game.
Then I could not get around some aspects and decisions done in the game by the characters. Some were even quite moronic to me: e.g. laying down to chill on active (!) railway tracks, leaving the Dark Room without any evidence of its existence to face the prime suspect already known to be a psychopath and not going to the police instead, etc. Or take the walk-rewind-walk powers of Max: to anyone watching her, this has to be seen as if Max is warping around the street. Disappearing in one place and reappearing some meters away in a blink of an eye. Yet, nobody seems bothered or cared.
The world is well done with a lot of details. Though your interaction ability is very limited and most of the time somehow boring too. To a great extent, you spend the game talking to people giving you little new information on average or walking around examining mainly unimportant items. I lost track how many posters I checked or to any of Max’s comments on photography equipment. The pace of storytelling is soooo slow. I do understand that some gamers felt bored and quit the game right in the first episode.
The developers always remind you that this game is about choices and their consequences. However, this is *not* meant for the game mechanics: yes, there are some different results (e.g. Kate jumping off the roof or not), but in the end, you are always presented with a binary decision no matter what you did in the game. This statement rather reflects the whole theme of the game, the whole story: rewind time and see the outcome.
In here is the main shortcoming of all: nothing is explained in the game. Zero. There are always some hints to Chaos Theory (one episode is actually named that). As for Chaos Theory, there is really a great deal of science behind it, a lot of math actually. But the game uses this buzz word for any justification and keeps very superficial about it. It is as if you constantly ask “Why?” and “How?” and the game responds always “Oh, Chaos Theory of course! The Butterfly Effect, you know!” without explaining anything at all. Note, Max ability rewind time is left uncommented also. Magic?
This leads to having Max feeling guilty for everything since in her strenuous but vain endeavors to make things right by rewinding time and change the course of actions other bad things happen. I failed to see any connections. E.g. there is no reason at all, why having William kept alive will cause Chloe to be bound to a wheelchair. Even more strange: Max could have picked up a photo of Chloe right before the accident and changed that. Done. All happy.
This has its climax in the last, fifth episode where it culminates into some real gibberish. It has given me the hardest time. I even thought to get myself a gun and shoot stupid Chloe myself as we have been on the way to the party a second time. Just in order to get it over with. Though I saved here in the end. The sneaking sequence did not bother me as most other players did. Yes, the camera placement in this scene has been quite awkward and the whole thing seems misplaced. But, well… The fifth chapter has the notion that the developers run out of ideas and tend to integrate some crazy experiments into the gameplay. Since quite soon in this episode, there is no real news: the murderer is revealed and the end is just a matter of time, lurking around the corner. So they coded in some crazy, interesting, yet unimportant stuff into this episode to make it worthwhile. E.g. experiencing the reverse time effect at the Academy was quite intriguing.
Yet, the last few moments are a great example for how well the game was designed from a psychological, technical point of view: right in the nightmare scenes you are confronted with Chloe insulting you deeply and making fun of you (A), then shortly afterwards you recall all your good moments with her by walking by many of these nice moments with her on path in a dark dream-like world (B) and finally she confronts you with the epic question either to kill her and save Arcadia or keep her alive and let Arcadia Bay suffer (C), causing a heavy moral dilemma.
I did the later and watched the outcome of the other on YouTube. It didn’t touch me. I got totally disconnected at the moment Max blaming herself for killing William in order to get her “old” Chloe back.
I value story, immersion, and attachment higher than technical perfection. So, sadly, for me: 3/10. I know this is in stark contrast to the main line of reviews. Again: YMMV.