I was cautiously optimistic about the first episode of Life is Strange and fully satisfied with the second. I thought I had a good handle both on what the game’s level of quality would be going forward and what direction the story would take. Apparently I was wrong on both counts, because Chaos Theory is far better than the two episodes that came before it and takes the story in dramatic, shocking and exciting new directions. I have no idea where the this thing is going to end up, and I’m excited as hell to find out.
After the events of the second episode Max and Chloe start earnestly investigating the seemingly linked mysteries of Rachel Amber’s disappearance and the dark events bubbling away below the surface of Blackwell Academy. Their search for answers leads to some unpleasant revelations about Chloe’s former “best friend”, and the newly-repaired relationship between her and Max is in jeopardy of becoming the next casualty to Chloe’s anger and resentment.
Meanwhile Max’s time control powers continue to evolve and grow ever stronger, which presents a startling opportunity to right the wrongs of the past once and for all….
I obviously can’t talk about what makes this episode so mind blowing without spoiling it, but let’s just say the scope of the plot balloons to much greater proportions than what I had expected after playing the first episode. Dontnod are committing fully to their time-travel conceit, and they’re making some fairly well-worn tropes feel fresh by embedding them into a story that’s very pointedly not “about” time-travel.
That the human element of Life is Strange remains at the forefront is it’s greatest strength. Even as the plot heats up and the stakes become larger, this episode isn’t afraid to devote major chunks of its playtime to fleshing out and developing the friendship between Max and Chloe. The story is 100% about them; the time-travel is secondary.
That said, I can’t help but worry that the game is going to run into pacing issues as it approaches its finale. The mysteries surrounding Rachel Amber and the other sinister events around the school remain elusive and largely in the background, which could make the answers, when they finally arrive, seem perfunctory or rushed. I worry that the heavy focus on character-building has eaten into time that could or should have been spent building up the serial killer/conspiracy/whatever the hell is going on aspect of the story. I guess we’ll find out in the next episode, which seems to be where Dontnod are finally going to start pulling the curtains back.
As well as advancing the main narrative, this episode is also where Life is Strange starts cashing in its romance chips. The hints that Chloe is harbouring the mother of all unrequited attractions for Max and has been doing so for at least five years grow so obvious here that even the predictable “they’re just friends” brigade can’t possibly ignore them any longer. If you’re like me you’ve been laying the groundwork for your reaction to this since episode one, getting into Chloe’s good graces and steadfastly friendzoning Warren (no I’m not going to watch Planet of The Apes with you dude, fuck off).
This does lead to some odd player/character disconnects. I’ve known that Chloe was in love with Max since the first episode, but I’m not sure if Max herself realizes it yet as of the end of the third; Dontnod seem to be trying to walk a fine line between giving the player agency to shape a character’s personality a la a Bioware protagonist and making sure that character still has definitive traits that are outside the player’s control, and in this one instance they might have gotten the balance wrong. Max’s dialogue and thoughts seem to be picking up on my above-mentioned friendzoning enough to have her refer to it in-game, so I was frustrated with her continuing obliviousness with regards to Chloe.
Chaos Theory makes some welcome improvements to gameplay. The puzzles are now much more challenging and require some creative and non-intuitive uses of Max’s powers to solve, and the hand-holding from the first episode has largely vanished completely. The game is no longer obsessed with ensuring that players get to see and experience everything, with the result that it’s quite easy to miss several apparently-important choices if you don’t really go digging for them. These are all welcome signs of growing confidence that will hopefully make the final two episodes stronger.
It’s a real looker this time, as well. The second episode’s re-used environments and somewhat blander appearance had me worried that Dontnod were dropping the ball after the opening chapter’s strong visual style, but nope. Life is Strange continues to be cinematic in a way that actually counts as more than an empty marketing buzzword, employing the language of cinema to deliver striking lighting, colouring and framing choices both in gameplay and cut-scenes. Some atmospheric night-time sneaking adventures push things in an interesting new direction as well, with Max using her phone’s light to explore familiar locales in the dark.
Life is Strange certainly doesn’t push the technical capabilities of the Unreal engine, but it still delivers one of the prettiest and most striking games in recent memory. Art over graphics is a cliched adage, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Episodic gaming has been around for a while now, and I’m increasingly convinced that this is going to be remembered as its first true success story, more so even than Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The fan community around Life is Strange has become a buzzing hive of wild speculation as people dig into the episodes to untangle metaphors and repeating symbolism and try to guess what will happen next. There’s an excitement around this game that truly captures the feel of a TV series at the height of its popularity, except it’s telling a story that no other medium could handle.
I recommended the first two episodes with minor qualifications. Those qualifications are still present, and yes, the dialogue continues to trip over its own feet (someone on the creative team for this episode doesn’t seem to know what the word “twee” means) but the game itself has become so exciting and ambitious that I’m not recommending it any longer; I’m urging people to get on board before the hype train reaches its final destination. If you’re at all interested in story-based gaming, you need to check this one out.