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Twin Peaks By Way Of John Hughes: Life Is Strange Episode 2 Review
The second episode in Dontnod Enterainment’s charming graphic adventure Life Is Strange is the true indicator of the series’ quality. The first episode, Chrysalis, did a fantastic job of introducing Arcadia Bay’s cast of odd, enigmatic characters. Dontnod smartly laid a lot of pipe for narrative pay-offs further down the line. Chrysalis sucked me into Life Is Strange, forcing me to make choices that were still tough despite the fact that I could rewind and choose over and over again.
Here’s the important question: does the game follow through? Do all of those hard choices have consequences? Are the characters deep enough to spend more time with and captivate players even further? Writing the pilot episode of a TV show is much easier than writing the second, third, fourth in a season. I’m happy to say that Dontnod nailed their sophomore effort.
Episode 2 introduces us to a brand new part of Arcadia Bay, the rough, blue-collar areas outside Blackwell Academy. Like the rest of the game, there is a dark undercurrent to all of these new locales. Despite the cutesy art style that looks like a 12-year-old girl’s journal doodles, Life Is Strange never shies away from the ugly side of small town life. During Maxine’s journey off the academy’s sheltered campus, she witnesses (and photographs) the effects economic depression, homelessness, gentrification, and Arcadia Bay’s very wide wealth gap.
Episode 2 also pushes our characters along nicely, with the plot focusing in on Maxine’s balancing act between bullied Kate Marsh and rediscovered BFF Chloe Price. At the beginning of the episode, Kate is reeling as Nathan Prescott’s latest alleged victim. At the same time, Maxine is dealing with the complications of her new powers, and navigating the murky waters of her decayed friendship with Chloe.
The meat of this episode is more typical of a superhero arc: Maxine, the nascent hero, experiments with her time-bending powers and pushes the limits of what she can and can’t do. This leads to Maxine “predicting” the future by watching what happens and then rewinding to recount it to Chloe. This leads to some fun puzzles that are a bit more pronounced this time around, more than just the trial-and-error sort found in Episode 1. There’s a new focus on detail retention and observation in real-time, and I really did feel like I was a superhero. Dontnod has implemented the time-rewinding mechanic in such an unobtrusive, streamlined way. Arcadia Bay is a playground that will freeze, reverse, and play over and over at my whim.
We also learn more about previously-introduced characters and meet some new ones for the first time. My reaction to a particularly intense introduction in the junkyard will likely come back to bite me. Maxine sees Chloe’s mom for the first time in years, which sheds more light on Chloe’s complicated home life. Maxine and Chloe finally uncover a bit more about Rachel Amber, but the information raises more questions than answers.
This isn’t the reason Episode 2 succeeds, though. Remember those hard calls you had to make 6 weeks ago, back in Episode 1? The ones that had you pulling your hair out, rewinding and rewinding to pick the best one? From the big to the small and every choice in between, Episode 2 is proof that Dontnod is out to make you pay. I’m still suffering from the fallout of accusing Nathan way back at the beginning of Episode 1. Security guard David Madsen won’t let me forget that I took the blame for Chloe’s weed. I’m also enamored by the little things, like watering Maxine’s plant and pranking Warren in the science lab. These actions all have cross-episode consequences that made me worried about some of the dumb choices I made in Episode 2.
Nothing, however, scared me as much as the outcome of the final ten minutes of this episode, a convergence of hours worth of choices. I was kicking myself for what I did and didn’t do in the past. In an episode full of empowerment for Maxine, the finale finds her stripped of what little control she has. She’s forced to face the cold realities of her world without the comfort of rewinding time.
Dontnod struck me down from a temporal deity to a pleading little girl in a matter of minutes, all with a simple gameplay change. This magnifies the emotional climax even more, considering that the outcome was completely within my control. I willingly made every choice. The responsibility is mine and Maxine’s alone, and we failed despite having control over time and space.
Episode 2 ends with a shock, though it doesn’t reach for the bombastic heights set by the first. Episode 2 proves that Dontnod is playing the long con with Life Is Strange. They open with a strong hook in the first episode, then dial things back and take the time to explore the world they created. Life Is Strange is running at a slow burn, peeling back layer after layer of the mystery surrounding Arcadia Bay, the Prescott family, the Vortex Club, and Rachel Amber. The IV-drip of information is tantalizing. The more I learn, the more I want to know.
Life Is Strange isn’t for everyone, and the game is lacking the polish that most of Telltale’s masterpieces in the genre exhibit. The lip-synching is laughable, and there are some odd graphical glitches. What the game does so well is also what will turn off many potential players. Dontnod never sacrifices narrative for gameplay. In Life Is Strange, storytelling and character come first. Gameplay serves the narrative, not the other way around.
Aside from the new plot movements, Episode 2 is more of the same: indie tunes, sharp writing, stellar voice acting, and detailed environments ready to be explored. John Hughes would be proud of Dontnod’s biting depiction of teenage life. The studio treats these kids like adults, and never condescends or trivializes. This is the key difference between a truly engrossing coming-of-age tale and teen-lit trash. Life Is Strange Episode 2 proves that the series is well on its way to reaching the former.
Life Is Strange Episodes 1 and 2 are both available for download online for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, and Steam. There is no official release date for Episode 3, but Dontnod has promised to try and keep the windows around 6 weeks.
Check out Leviathyn’s review of Episode 1 here.