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LIFE IS STRANGE EPISODE 2 Review: Out of Time, Out of Luck

Life is Strange is nostalgic in a way that’s hard to describe. The mix of sepia filtered visuals, soft guitar tunes, and folk music that’s almost too indie to function conjure a feeling of longing for a life and a time you’ve never experience.

The world of Life is Strange takes you to the sleepy mysterious seaside town of Arcadia Bay, home to Blackwell Academy. The school and town are both ripped straight out of eighties teen movies and television shows, transplanted into the modern world with talk of selfies, viral videos, and social media. The plot very much takes inspiration from Twin Peaks and the game world is rife with references to the pop culture relics that inspired it, including bathroom graffiti that implores the player to Fire Walk With Me.

Recap

Episode 1 dealt with student and protagonist Max Caulfield (yes, a The Catcher in the Rye reference) discovering her power to rewind time backwards a limited amount, which is discovered when she saves the life of a girl who later turns out to be her childhood friend, Chloe Price, who is the type of buddy who has their picture in the dictionary next to “Bad Influence”.

While the first episode set about establishing various characters and clichés around Blackwell Academy, Episode 2, titled Out of Time is more focused on the relationship between Max and Chloe as they test the limits of her power.

Along the way, various story strands that Episode 1 introduced us to continue. While Out of Time could have felt like a weak episode purely because it’s the awkward second episode, where conflict needs to build up but a denouement can’t be reached just yet, the time rewinding power excellently allows for a sense of peril without sweeping the rug out from under the player. The lives of Chloe and Max are genuinely in danger on a number of instances, and when Chloe implores Max to play with a gun, it’s revealed that her time travelling power isn’t infallible.

Time to Choose

The choices really come into their own in Out of Time, too, and a late episode, major choice seeks to have major repercussions for the continuing story and puts the player firmly in the shoes of Max, giving the feeling of teenage helplessness a palpable, heart wrenching realness. That’s the essence of Life is Strange, to revisit a sense of adolescent nostalgia, where the world began and ended at the school gates, where whispered comments could destroy in an instant. A world of a pecking order, of proof that stereotypes exist for a reason. Developers Dontnod perfectly sketch this world and make you feel very much a part of it. Even with Max’s power, she’s often totally helpless.

You can change time but you can’t change people’s minds. What makes Life is Strange work so well is that the time travel mechanic is not the be all and end all of the game. It makes for some clever set pieces and satisfying puzzles but the central choices always hinge on Max, not her unexplained gift. At the end of Out of Time, the crucial choice falls on you having paid attention, paid attention to your friends, and the world around you. A seemingly meaningless letter, or even the smallest action, like wiping words off a mirror, can have the strongest effects.

This is a central theme of Life is Strange, and indeed, the upcoming Episode 3 is titled Chaos Theory, and the character Chloe discusses Chaos Theory in Out of Time. In a scene in the junk yard, the wide range of actions that can result from purely from firing at a different part of a junked out old car. Some minor, some catastrophic. A butterfly is a recurring motif throughout the episodes and it’s clear that the game isn’t about time travel, but rather about the wide-ranging consequences the smallest choices can have.

Time to Talk

That being said, for all the ways that Life is Strange gets storytelling so right, it drops the ball many times. The dialogue continues to be awful, sounding more like adults trying to talk like teenagers, and it really breaks the immersion. Does anyone ever actually say hella? we doubt it, and with all the effort that went into the sublime music, the superb atmosphere, and the fantastic voice acting, it’s a shame that the developers didn’t take the time to run the dialogue past a couple of teens and see if it sounded real. It’s the game’s one biggest failing, and it constantly pulls you out of the moment with a line of jarring, cringe worthy dialogue.

The dialogue could do with a lesson in subtlety too. When Max uses her new-found time travelling knowledge to navigate the minefields of teenage life, she generally does it in such a way that screams suspicious. At the end of Out of Time, she literally lists the things she has or hasn’t done to try and win, bluntly stating that she answered the phone, she wiped a nasty quote from a whiteboard, and so on. There’s little subtlety at times, and other times it’s so wonderfully understated that it just highlights the failings elsewhere.

Life is Hella Strange

Episode 1: Chrysalis was a very strong start, and Out of Time continues with the intrigue. Why can Max control time? What is the cataclysmic tornado she keeps seeing? What’s with the freak weather? There are an array of questions spinning in your head as the episode ends with a gut wrenching montage. You really feel for these characters and their internal conflicts, and the stereotypes begin to break down to reveal nuanced, layered people with their own issues, goals, and their own muddled moralities.

Overall

Out of Time takes a number of the story strands set up in Episode 1 and brings them forward. While obviously the story is still in the process of being set up, we’re starting to see mini resolutions and the evolution of Max’s character beyond whiny teenager. The setting, soundtrack and voice acting remain stellar but the dialogue really drags the rest of it down. While the central game play and conversations are excellently executed, some of the actions Dontnod have Max perform feel like attempts to stretch out the running time rather than a way to genuinely forward the story, but even the most gregarious of these instances serves to force you to explore an environment and spot a number of subtle hints to the past life of a character, so there’s method to the repetition.

Episode 2 is just as strong as the debut, but the extra time and space for characters to grow and chance forges a genuine connection between Max and the player, as she starts to move from whiny teenager to reluctant time bending superhero, of sorts. The teen angst is still stronger than ever, but now it feels justified, pain with a basis in shattered family lives, bullying, and the black hole of a dead-end town.

The episode ends with danger approaching from multiple sources for Chloe and Max, and the tornado approaching is both a metaphorical and a physical one. It’s a force of nature set to tear Arcadia Bay asunder come Episode 3: Chaos Theory, and we await part three with bated breath. Just fix that dialogue, please. It’s hella awful.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

 

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Categories: Video Game Reviews

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