Life is Strange: Arcadia Bay Collection - Lighting is Strange
Remakes and remasters are always a gamble. Will this still be the game you love but with a bit of a face lift, or will it be a step backward that messes with your favourite mechanic? Will that thing you loved be as perfect as you remember, or has the world evolved to a point where it’s now outdated or deeply problematic? These are the risks you take when playing an old favourite, particularly in an updated form. Life is Strange, and Life is Strange: Before the Storm are two of my favourite games, and I felt every bit of the fear that came with jumping back in to check them out in the Arcadia Bay Collection on Switch – and I’m sorry to say that fear was entirely founded, but not for the reasons I necessarily expected.
Life is Strange came out at a time when games featuring queer characters were minimal, and trying to find a game that felt like it was marketed to my particular demographic (a woman who liked gently spooky mysteries and stories about female friendships) was a huge struggle. For all her flaws, the protagonist of the original game, Max Caulfield, was basically the closest I’d ever come to seeing myself represented in a video game. Not the part where she’s a photographer at a wanky school, who cares deeply about art and aesthetics, but her mannerisms. She’s unsure of herself most of the time, but knows that she wants to fight injustice when she sees it. She’s a people pleaser at her core, who values her relationships with others highly even though she isn’t the best at showing it. She’s equally compelled by anxiety and passion in a world that’s terrifying, a true foil to the game’s other protagonist, the rebel Chloe Price. This review doesn’t need to digress into a Max Caulfield appreciation post, or an analysis of my personal psyche, but the point is she was a different type of character to the ones I was used to seeing.
The gaming landscape has evolved since then. We’ve seen more games like Life is Strange emerge, many of which handle some of the themes it tackled in far more elegant ways, and some which don’t quite capture its magic. What this game meant to me, and meant to a large part of the community, will never change. Playing it again, I agree with some of the criticisms of the time. No, the characters aren’t perfect representations of teen girls, and yes, it is weird that they say ‘hella’ all the time, even though that world has become a big part of my own vocabulary since the 2015 release. The game goes to some dark places, and it doesn’t always pull it off, but for the most part the fact that it was trying to handle these things with any kind of nuance at all was groundbreaking. Playing it today requires an acceptance of the context in which it was released, but that’s true for all remakes. The game’s core ‘decisions matter, but you can rewind time to change them and experiment’ mechanics still hold up. The story, and the mystery at its core, are still compelling. It remains one of my favourite games.
Before the Storm is the same. The game has a different feel about it, because as a prequel, you already know how it’s going to end – in tragedy. It entices you into falling in love with characters who you know are going to meet a violent end, which makes it into a bittersweet love story. The mechanics are a little different, and with Chloe Price now as the playable character, situations are approached differently and problems are solved with a little less grace. But she, like Max, is still a rare protagonist, one who will stick in my mind forever even though I wish that like 25% less of her personality had to do with the fact she smokes weed. In many ways she’s a stereotypical rebel and at times they lean too hard into that trope, but she too has moments of vulnerability and depth that make her a more well-rounded character. Her talkback mechanic, which forces you to listen to the words of the person you’re arguing with and use their terminology to make a point, is still a neat way of conveying her combative nature – even if it is a less interesting power than literal time manipulation.
I’m talking a lot about the games themselves because I want to stress, before I talk about this collection specifically, that these games are still worth playing. They’re genuinely innovative titles, and both will remain some of my favourite games of all time simply because of the way they made me feel seen. They have problematic elements, and they taught us lessons about how it might be nice if we didn’t kill all gay characters, but they’re ultimately wonderful. You should not, however, play this collection. If you want to experience the games, and you haven’t yet done so, you should do it in their original forms, and not on the Switch – as long as you have the means to do so.
The remasters of both of these games are… odd. I’m not sure how much of what I struggled with had to do with the changes they made, and how much was due to the lack of processing power of the Switch, but it was an unfortunate combination. Most of the changes they’ve made in this collection are around the lighting and shaders, as well as some revamped motion capture, in an attempt to make the characters look more realistic – and in that they’ve sort of succeeded. There were moments where the characters looked particularly expressive, or where the light hit just right, and in those moments the games looked beautiful – but they were upsettingly few and far between. I’m of the opinion that the games always looked pretty good, and the environmental storytelling that goes on in every scene of these narratives fits the overall vibe perfectly – but I can appreciate that they wanted to improve it. Unfortunately, these improvements seem to have introduced huge loading times, assets struggling to load at all, and frequent frame rate issues, to name a few. Both games are perfectly playable, but it’s frustrating not to experience them at their best.
I love Life is Strange and Life is Strange: Before the Storm, and I always will. I want everyone to experience them, and hopefully, to love them too. They’re not perfect by any means, but when they were released, they were the only thing like them – and that meant a lot to me, and many others. If you can play them in their original form, I implore you to do so. If you can’t, and this Switch collection is the only way you’ll be able to experience them, then you should give the Arcadia Bay collection a go – just maybe have a crossword on hand or something to do while you’re waiting for the next game section to load.
Life is Strange: Arcadia Bay Collection was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code kindly provided by the publisher.