Life is Strange Episode 2 'Out of Time'
Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC
Back in 2012, the success of the Walking Dead game heralded the heartening return of the episodic game. Many had tried to innovate in this area, shooting for cheaper, more fulfilling experiences amongst a glut of wafer-thin ‘campaigns’ attached to most big titles. Though most of the good episodic story still comes from Telltale, Life is Strange’s first episode marked it as another good one to watch. Retaining a more human, mature take on high school and time travel, the story of Max Caulfield is one of the few not tied to an already successful property. Standing on its own two sneakered feet is a big ask in such a big industry, so after a good start, the question becomes: is it still good?
For those who came in late, the first episode of Life is Strange introduced us to Max Caulfield, a teenage girl returning to her hometown for the first time in five years. With a deep passion for photography, Max has earned a scholarship to the prestigious Blackwell Academy, and with it, the chance to be taught by one of her photographic idols. Aside from that, Max hopes only to keep her head down, learn everything she can, and get out of high school. This goes fine until, after class, she enters a bathroom and witnesses a boy and girl argue in the bathroom. When the boy shoots the girl, much to her surprise, Max finds out that she can rewind time.
This girl turns out to be Chloe, Max’s best friend who she hasn’t seen for five years, and the two quickly fall back into fast friendship. In the final scene of Episode 1, Max confides her secret with Chloe, along with a disturbing vision; within a week, a gigantic cyclone will engulf the town of Arcadia Bay, destroying everything. As snow falls amidst a very warm day, many mysteries are left up in the air, all looking to fall squarely on Max’s shoulders.
Like every good drama, there’s a lot more going on than just the main plot. Chloe is mired in drugs and at odds with rich-kid Nathan Prescott, scion of the family who owns most of Arcadia Bay; Kate is being bullied and tormented terribly; Chloe’s step-father, a war veteran who works as security guard for the school, is obsessed with his personal quest for justice. Behind it all is the mysterious Vortex Club, an elite rich-kid organisation, and hanging over that is the shadow of Rachel Amber, a missing girl who became Chloe’s best friend during Max’s time away.
All around you is drama and danger, but in this second episode, the focus is on Kate and Chloe. As one might expect, reconnecting with a friend who you haven’t spoken to for years doesn’t always go well. Early scenes reacquaint you with Chloe’s mother, now remarried and very interested to see whether you’ll be a good or bad influence for the already troubled Chloe. Most of the episode is spent like this, Max and Chloe together, your choices subtle but significant in how their rekindled relationship plays out. Chloe brims with love for Max and hurt at her abandonment all at once, and it’s through this internal conflict and external rage at the world that her own brilliance arises. Chloe is no static character, waiting for you to interact with her. She’s rude, abrasive, affectionate, brave and terrified – teenage and rebellious to the core. Her life has not been put on hold since Max moved to Seattle, wholly possessing her own agenda which comes with its own set of consequences. Through these scenes, Max and Chloe continue to be the heart of the piece, portraying a more real, nuanced friendship than I’ve ever seen in games.
The ‘trouble’ for the episode, however, is definitely Kate Marsh. A Christian girl who publicly promotes abstinence amongst the whirlwind of drama that is a girl’s dormitory, Kate has been bulled constantly and viciously. Mean-girl archetype Victoria makes it her mission to torture Kate, security guard David seems to be hunting after her, and a videotape of her at a Vortex Club party making out with several people is making the rounds on the Internet. One of the few people who initially tried to make friends with Max, it’s up to the player how much they engage with her and help during this time of need. Here is one of the truly shining moments of good design in this episode: not everything needed to help Kate is presented in the main flow of the story. In order to be a friend to Kate, one has to actually be a friend – pay attention, listen, and actually know about her life. When games often don’t trust you to walk down a hallway without a glowing mission marker and a text box spelling it out, it’s refreshing to have an intelligent cause like this one.
In fact, it’s smart decisions like these that permeate much of the game. Your rewind ability is put to the test, but stays at a human level. Convincing Chloe, for example, takes some effort, for like a normal person, she’s not willing to believe such an outlandish claim without proof. A larger price to be paid is even hinted at through Max’s nosebleeds, triggered by overuse of her power. The overall theme of ‘everything has consequences’ stays loud and clear, a storm of factors and choices swirling around Max, guided only by the player’s personal sense of morals. As before, it’s much easier (or harder) to make these choices when they’re about helping a bullied kid or choosing between friends rather than saving the world from an alien menace. Many times, when the Big Choices came up, I was rocking back in my chair, having to actually stop and really think about it for several minutes before I could make a choice.
But nothing is perfect, and Life is Strange retains its flaws. One ‘game moment’ requires Max and Chloe to completely lose their common sense – they had seen a train go past several times in the last scene and then decide to lay down and chill out on those same tracks? Why?! – and the rest is small, niggling details. Some choices are very vaguely worded, other dialogue is incredibly obviously meant to convey that you’ve given the correct answer. Like before, these are small but glaring imperfections on a wonderful tale.
In my review of Episode One, I expressed concern that Life is Strange might not be able to keep the heart and the human focus it had shown initially while continuing to expand the time-travel aspect. So far, they’ve not disappointed. The second episode builds upon all the choices of the first, introduces new and even weightier decisions, but still allows Max to be the nervous, awkward teenage girl she is rather than an all-conquering heroine. Even while keeping itself at the sedate pace of the small-town oceanside locale, an awful lot still manages to happen. With the final moments of this second jaunt, I’m more excited than ever to see what comes next.