Life is Strange – Episode Two Review: Chiaroscuro
Chiaroscuro is an art term for the use of strong contrasts between light and dark in a composition. It’s the concept that forms the basis of most strong black-and-white photographs. No, Life is Strange – Episode Two: Out of Time isn’t presented in black and white in a literal sense. It contrasts light and dark themes to pull off emotionally impactful moments in just two episodes what it takes Telltale five episodes or BioWare dozens of hours to achieve.
Spoiler Warning: As with all my episodic reviews, this is written assuming you played the previous episode(s) in the series. In this instance, I have to discuss the themes of this episode to do it any justice. As such, if you read this review and then play the episode, you should be able to quickly deduce what is going to happen in the episode. So if you haven’t played Episode Two: Out of Time, I recommend playing that first and coming back to the review. Trust me, it’s a great episode. Don’t spoil it for yourself.
I’m guessing that this is the episode where everyone suddenly realized that Dontnod was onto something special with the Life is Strange series. What does the likes of The Walking Dead really explore? The meaning of family. How far you would go to survive, maybe. Family is relatable to everyone but survival really isn’t to most gamers.
Themes like rape, drugs, depression, slut shaming and suicide don’t just work because they’re real things that people really deal with. It works because Dontnod took the integration of these themes seriously. It wasn’t turned into a game. It reminds me of an old after-school special but the nature of the interactive narrative makes it hit home. Rather than sitting back and watching the story, you’re a part of it and will affect it. The climax of the episode can play out in a couple of different ways given what choices you make during the episode. Presumably, this will also affect the story going forward in different ways. I don’t see how it can’t.
It’s funny how I likened Episode One to a teen drama similar to Mean Girls. This episode plays off that slightly and then goes very dark very fast. The Mean Girls and their associates, as expected, are the cause of the major drama that comes to a head at the end of the episode.
For the most part, Max is just a bit player to that climax as she spends better than half of the episode with Chloe. For the most part, the mood is kept light. Max proves her ability to turn back time to Chloe with various feats of predicting the future by living it and rewinding to the past. They do that a few too many times for my taste but I get what they were trying to accomplish with it.
What they were trying to accomplish was two-fold. First, they were using this as a circumstance for Chloe and Max to mend their friendship. While Max didn’t seem warm to using her power as a toy, the two bonded over the fun of exploiting Max’s ability to rewind time for their amusement.
The second new plot point Dontnod tried to establish that Max’s power has limits. We find early on that Max isn’t only limited by how far back she can rewind time but how often she can do it. After a morning of goofing off with Chloe, Max suffers some nose bleeds, crippling headaches and fainting spells. While Max can use her powers for good, doing so is harmful to her health.
Dontnod hasn’t put a limit on the number of times Max can rewind in a scene or a day yet. What Dontnod did do is use the side effects to ramp up the tension in the final big scene. The last scene has some heavy themes as mentioned above and in order to bring home the seriousness, Max can barely keep it together long enough to get into position to intervene. Because of the headaches and nose bleeds, she can’t rewind time during the scene and has one shot to get it right.
While you can argue that Dontnod is changing the rules for some cheap dramatic effect, I think it was absolutely necessary. Suicide isn’t a game. You’re literally talking a character off the ledge. The whole scene loses any impact that it could have if you say the wrong thing and the character jumps but it’s okay because holding the right mouse button down makes it all better.
In this second episode we’re already seeing is how decisions in the first episode are impacting dialogue and actions as the story progresses. It’s not particularly serious right now. Conversations with Chloe’s mother, stepfather and Mr. Jefferson are all impacted by decisions made in the first episode. You’ll recognize what those decisions were based on the dialogue tailored to your earlier decision and a little butterfly flapping in the top-left corner. Dontnod and their love of the butterfly effect strikes early and often in this episode.
Quite clearly, the final couple of acts in Out of Time will force a couple of rather significant branches in the story. Depending on how you played out the suicide scene and the decisions before and after that in the episode, I can see a few different directions that the story can go. For me, that’s really exciting because it’s not like that kid Ben from TWD Season One. If you didn’t drop him in the bell tower in Episode 4, he died quickly and unceremoniously in Episode Five. I don’t think we’re going to get a story helix here. At least, I hope that’s not what Dontnod pulls in the next three episodes.
One thing I noticed was that somewhere between playing Episode One and Episode Two, all my graphics settings got reset and I didn’t pick up on it until I checked my playtime in Raptr. Most of the graphics quality had been set to low or medium. I was going to write here that the textures didn’t seem to be as sharp as I remembered them but that could very well be down to the change in settings. It’s not something I do often but when a game gets patched, it will sometimes reset your settings to a factory default or auto-detect level. I’m not a fan of that practice but you should be aware that you should check your settings before clicking play.
In other nitpicking, the lip syncing is still fairly poor. I don’t know if this is a localization issue or if Dontnod just didn’t put in the effort to lip sync on the characters. Like the last game, there are some lines that are either lost in translation or just written by old men. Those issues are mostly failed attempts at writing something that’s supposed to sound like teenage slang. They also wrote a web address on a mirror in the women’s washroom complete with http:// in front. No one does that in real life. It’s the little details like that. I would send this site to people as etgeekera.com or etg.gs, not http://www.etgeekera.com, for example.
By the way, the length of the episode is about two hours. It should take you that plus a half-hour or minus fifteen minutes depending on how much exploring, talking and time rewinding you want to do. I think I was heavy on the time rewinding but lighter than I would usually play in terms of exploring. I was trying to stay in character which meant not chatting with the Mean Girls but having the occasional talk with friends or other familiar faces. It also kept things moving fairly swiftly. It felt right from an in-character perspective but if I play through Life is Strange again, I’ll probably want to take my time.
After this episode, I can see why Life is Strange is so highly regarded by critics and shortlisted by many for a Game of the Year award. It’s so easy to take a serious theme and erode it by undermining it with various gameplay mechanics. Life is Strange could have very well done that in this episode but Dontnod didn’t just take away the rewind mechanic but did so in a fashion that felt real and was teased throughout the last two episodes. They didn’t just “game” it out. They did it properly and with reverence to the subject matter.
Normally, I wouldn’t mind binging game episodes but this was definitely one I needed a break after playing. I didn’t even particularly care for the character in question in this episode but Dontnod still managed to make enough of an impact that I haven’t played Episode Three yet. We’ll see if that one emotionally smacks me upside the head next week.
Life is Strange – Episode Two: Out of Time was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and how much you can relate to the characters of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, time-bending notwithstanding.