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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Life is Strange E2: Out of Time.

Life is Strange
Episode 2: Out of Time.

(Spoilers below.)

I feel pretty safe in saying that this is long-awaited. The wait between installations of episodic games always feels very long (two months is a considerable length), but I'm not sure anyone was in danger of losing interest in Life is Strange: Its unique concept and style alone has, in a way, guaranteed its success. We're also likely to get other episodes a little bit quicker, as the developers have committed themselves to a roughly six-week turnaround, and that this episode took a little bit longer is more down to delays than aught else.

Life is Strange's second episode picks up the day after its first one. Following the unexpected snowfall in Arcadia Bay, Max is thrust back into the various bizarre goings on at her school: Her friend Kate has been drugged by Nathan Prescott, resulting in a humiliating viral video; and Chloe, now aware of Max's powers, is eager to test them out. Meanwhile, the mystery of Rachel's disappearance thickens, as Max meets a sinister fisherman, surmises that there's a link between Kate and Rachel, and starts to believe that Chloe's step-father may know more than he's letting on.

There have been some noticeable improvements since the first episode. For starters, the characters don't all talk like they just stepped off tumblr: While the writers have clearly tried to keep the same basic tone and style of dialogue, they've toned it down significantly. The same is true of Max's pretentiousness: She's still pretentious, sure, it'd be a little odd if she wasn't, but we no longer have every other line be guff about how she's an old soul and not like everyone else. It makes her a shade less colourful, but also a lot less grating. Our cast is expanded as well, introducing a community-minded Chemistry teacher, an eerie fisherman, Chloe's mother, and a lovely homeless lady who has dirt on everybody, and they all seem like excellent, fascinating additions to the cast.

That looks uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, this game feels a lot less striking and dramatic than the first episode. The first episode felt like it had a consistent momentum, whereas this second episode often feels aimless, as if it's dedicated to giving you a slice of life rather than driving the plot. There are certainly some plot relevant events: An encounter with a drug dealer in a junkyard, Kate's turmoil and eventual suicide (or attempted suicide), and the strain of Max's powers starting to get to her, but they seem few and far between compared to the first episode, and some sequences - like the diner sequence - feel functionally pointless, more like padding than actual plot development.

That's a problem for a couple of reasons. The first is that with five episodes, there's a very limited amount of space with which to tell a story. Five episodes isn't a lot, and you either need to pack in a lot of plotting if you want to make the most of it, or you need to have a story that focuses less on plot and more on atmosphere, as is the case with Telltale Games' The Walking Dead.. The second is that Life is Strange is clearly trying to emulate a certain type of television series, and one of the features is that is high density of plot: The plot isn't just there, it dominates everything, and its presence is relentless and constant. That was true of the first episode, but episode two seems to let up a bit on that.

Also uncomfortable looking.

I will definitely say this, though: More than probably any other episodic game, the ending of this episode hammers in the idea of your actions have consequences. The game developers clearly had a specific ending in mind when they wrote it, as one of the options seems rather ramshackle in how it was written, but in spite of that the ending is striking, and the fact that there are multiple ways that it can turn out is a crucial part of it being so dramatic. An event that you absolutely can't stop is less effective than an event which you can, or which you have some form of influence over, and video games are pretty much the only entertainment medium that can take advantage of that. For it to have the full impact in this case, the developers would have had to do a little bit more to make the good ending seem like an intended, viable conclusion, but it's still nice to see.

Are these Victoria's hanger-ons? I'm not certain.

The eclipse at the ending also seemed a little off. The snow was a dramatic moment, tying into the idea of strange weather coming to the town, something already hammered in by the visions of a tornado. The eclipse seems like the odd omen out here.

Next episode seems to be going full survival horror on us, with Max and Chloe trapped in the school with a mysterious person (David? Nathan?) chasing them down. I'm really interested to see that, and I think it'll be a great switch-up after this rather slow-paced episode.

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