Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Graphic Adventure/Slice of Life
Release date: 03/24/15
Price: 4.99 (Single Episode) or 19.99 (Whole Season — 5 Episodes)
Dontnod Entertainment brings us the second installment of their new episodic property, Life is Strange. While the aesthetics of the game continue in tow with the previous episode, the story and content have evolved to a new level. If I said I entered the episode with high hopes, I’d be putting it mildly. Fortunately, it plugs forward with all the ambition of a champion, providing yet another solid gaming experience. However, there are some new and old content concerns that might upset many players, especially Christian and otherwise religious audiences.
The narrative of Episode 2 picks up the day after Episode 1 ended, with Max awaking to a new day in the turbulence that is the girl’s dormitories. With the new day, however, comes new problems. Kate Marsh, one of Max’s classmates, recently had a video go viral on the internet. The content of the video shows Kate, an otherwise timid and pious young lady, making out with several guys at a party hosted by Blackwell’s notorious Vortex Club. The video was posted by another student, one of the club heads and the same student Max witnessed murder another person over his drug trade in the first episode. Kate then becomes the subject of everybody’s insult and ridicule. On other fronts, Max is trying to figure out the agendas of the Vortex Club members and the resolve of their increasing hatred towards her, as well as learn more about her Rewind power, the latter of which Chloe is exceedingly interested in developing… if for the wrong reasons.
As things progress, character motives change, friends are prioritized, secrets about the town start surfacing, and the lives of multiple people start to hang in the balance–not all of whom may be saved by Max’s supposedly all-powerful Rewind ability. Lurking in the background of it all is the tornado from Max’s visions, continually recurring, continually reminding her that, despite all her efforts, time is quickly slipping away.
The pacing is a bit faster than in Episode 1, but don’t take that to mean it’s by any means breakneck. Life is Strange has officially established itself as a leisure game. Environmental interaction is encouraged at length, so as to uncover various tidbits of information to fill in the cracks of the story, as well as find prime shots to fill Max’s photo book. Dialogue is probably the fastest-paced element of the entire game, as it’s where the most progress occurs. Even in learning to master the Rewind ability, Max is met with several obstacles that stunt her progress and slow the pace of the narrative.
Life is Strange‘s setting remains largely the same, though a few new locations are injected into the story. Blackwell encapsulates at least half of the Episode, but Max and Chloe’s expedition into hero-sidekick status takes them to a pub for practice. The pub carries a wonderfully nostalgic feeling for the player, as it is fashioned in a decades-old architecture reminiscent of the 80’s (at least, I’m pretty sure it’s the 80’s. What do I know? I’m a 90’s child. I don’t know anything about your antiquity). In addition to the friendly, local pub, Chloe navigates their adventure to one of her “secret lairs,” a junkyard running parallel to the city train tracks. The junkyard is a muse of both childish wonder and fleeting teenage dreams, with mountains of vehicles and beer bottles littered in equal quantities–all of this given the same autumnal glow that Dontnod’s creative designers are priding themselves over, and all the better for it.
Character development makes several leaps in Episode 2. One character goes from being a fragile wallflower to viciously self-loathing and depressed in the span of a couple hours of gameplay. The behaviors of another character previously considered vile make the player reconsider his true nature. Chloe and Max’s relationship begin to resurrect some of the lost magic of their childhood, and it acts as a light to break through all of the things that now make them different. Several story “villains” are reinforced in their conceited, cruel intentions towards Max and her fellow students. These are just a handful of the most noteworthy changes, in a narrative that is predominantly catered to character modification and fine-tuning.
The dialogue is especially crafted for character ingenuity and progression. It is witty, playful, and appropriately rude in all the ways good dialogue can be. Cool snippets of dialogue are not forced, but rather supported naturally through the narrative and innate characters. Emotion is captured with a quality that is failed only by the hideous lip-syncing.
Life is Strange makes no attempt to steer away from its roots as a curse-spewing fiesta. It’s not just a matter of common terms, either. Chloe is particularly guilty of coming up with some very creative, snide names for others, especially her father. Victoria and Nathan are instigators of this problem as well. Within the game, many profanities are uttered: several uses of “s**t”, “f**k”, “a**”, and “d**n” were noted, though I’m sure I missed some stuff. It’s seriously everywhere, and if it isn’t outright profane, it’s slanderous in other ways. Putting a spin on the “Will Bang for Jesus” remark from the last episode, it seems the message I erased on the marker board has been replaced with a similar “Will Bang for God.” “Jesus Christ” is also used inappropriately at least once, but surprisingly Kate Marsh’s faith brings up a lot of positive talk about God, which will be covered further in a little bit.
Violent material isn’t as prominent as in the last installment, but it’s not absent either. A new “antagonist” pulls a knife on Chloe later in the episode, who Max then threatens to shoot with a gun she’d been using for Rewind practice. The player is given an option to shoot this man, if they wish. The aftermath of possible choices in the first episode, which led to a friend getting battered at the end of my playthrough, leave marks of beating across his face even into this new episode. While not strictly violent, Chloe also gets herself in a situation where she stands the chance of getting run over by a train. I doubt anything grotesque is shown if you fail at helping her, but I don’t know for certain.
The video posted about Kate Marsh is the only major source of anything sexual in nature. Though the video is never seen by the player, it is suggested to have her making out (or worse) with several different men. This leads to her being called such things as a “whore” and “slut” by her contemporaries. Chloe also suggests to Max that they could use her Rewind power to sleep with as many people as they want without consequence–a suggestion Max does not take with much enthusiasm.
Regarding drugs and alcohol, Chloe drinks a beer while Max gathers some empty bottles for target practice. Chloe is also seen smoking a cigarette in the ending sequence. Without revealing too much plot detail, another character suspects they consumed a spiked drink, destroying their inhibitions.
Spiritual content is particularly thick in Episode 2, and not always for the better. Almost all of the spiritual material revolves around Kate Marsh in some way. In the midst of her struggles, she seems to be clinging to her faith, slowly crumbling apart. The Bible may be found and interacted with in her room, through which Max reveals that her own parents never took her to church. Kate wears a cross necklace. Max is given an opportunity to quote multiple passages directly from the Bible to Kate later in the story (which I actually looked up, as I was checking out the choices to make sure I didn’t say something incredibly counterproductive; context is an important thing). Kate’s family, upon finding her viral misadventures, send her several letters of various temperaments. Her father seems compassionate and mostly looking out for his daughters well-being, while her grandmother is a little more brutal, aggressively pleading for Kate to repent so as not to burn in Everlasting Hellfire (yes, that was capitalized).
Positive material abounds, however. Max is more emotive and empathetic than ever, both of which come in handy during several encounters. While the player is given many opportunities to make Max take an unkind route through problems, I only ever took what I believed to be guided by kindness or wisdom. As such, Max’s friends all love her, and she loves them. She stands up to school bullies, keeps an open mind toward others, and maintains healthy relationships with authority figures. She looks out for the common good of her fellow classmates, provides laughs whenever prompted, and even when her Rewind power fails her, she falls back on the strength of trust and good character.
The gameplay in Life is Strange is blow-for-blow exactly the same as the first episode. Most of the gameplay comes from operating the various decision/dialogue trees and interacting with the environment through point-and-click level design. Max’s Rewind ability adds some extra spice by allowing you to turn back the clock a very limited amount, thus providing you the opportunity to make different decisions and see different outcomes, but otherwise that’s all there is to it. No running, no jumping, no fighting, no flying. Just little ol’ Max being her little ol’ self.
Keeping in pace with the indie stitching of the initial installment, Episode 2 carries on with that same motive and vibe. Graphically, the art carries watery, playful hues and lighting. These provide further emphasis on the seasonal effect which permeates throughout every setting in Arcadia Bay. The characters are motion-captured, so each movement is fine, precise, and telling in a way that their faces (which must not have been motion-captured, because again, the lip-syncing is profoundly inaccurate) could never proclaim. It is as they say: a large part of our communication is through nonverbal cues.
Jonathan Morali, lead singer and frontman of band Syd Matters, continues to spearhead the music in Life is Strange. Playing with the indie themes works highly in the favor of Morali’s taste and skill, allowing him to organize more music for Episode 2, though many songs are still recycled from Episode 1.
As I stated in the beginning, this is a very successful second installment to Life is Strange. All of the things I loved about the first episode are carried into this sequential one, and just enough newness is added to the narrative and plot structure to keep things fresh and warm. Keep it up, Dontnod. You’ve got a solid game so far and a fan-base to reinforce the notion. Take your time between each installment. Life is Strange is as much a product of art as video game media. Please don’t forsake the passion that you’ve pulsed through the veins of this tale. You’re helping to start an episodic-game revolution.
God bless, write a letter to yourself, and don’t forget to smile.
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The Bottom Line
A successful bridge from the first episode into the rest of the narrative, Episode 2 undertakes many new challenges for the player to navigate--some for fun, some quite serious. Dontnod's ambition continues to shine in this impressive installment.