3:10 to Blackwell: Life continues to be strange; certain design choices, stranger still.
If you were given superpowers, what would you do with them? It’s a noble thing to say that you would instantly use them for good, but let’s be honest; you would want to have some fun with them first. Who, given super speed, wouldn’t use it to take a shot at winning a race or two? Anyone given psychic powers would at least consider taking them for a spin at the nearest casino. If I were able to talk to fish, of COURSE I would head to the nearest beach in an attempt to mobilize the local aquatic life into an army at my beck and call. By this same spirit, Life is Strange Episode 2: Out of Time is largely about having fun with the mechanics of time travel.
Life is Strange’s first episode left us with a freak snowstorm falling at the end of the story’s first 24-hour span. Max told all to her newly-reconnected old friend Chloe, who is now aware of Max’s time-hopping powers. Now it’s a brand new day, with a whole new set of challenges for Max to face.
Episode 2 begins with Max waking up at her school, but doesn’t mill around too long at Blackwell Academy. After a few important interactions, Max heads out to meet Chloe, with whom the bulk of the episode will be spent. It was nice to see that the game doesn’t restrict players to Blackwell. Sure, Max will find her way back there, but not before seeing some sights with her blue-haired bestie in tow. Chloe is very excited about Max’s abilities, but also skeptical. Showing Max’s friend what she is capable of leads to some of the episodes best and worst moments.
Life is Strange‘s key game play mechanic, a limited time-rewind ability, continues to make the game stand out in its second episode. All of the baseline potential in episode 1 is built upon further in this second installment, as Max uses her powers to do things like predict a chain of events in order to prove her powers to Chloe. If playing with superpowers is a running theme of this episode, it’s also quite clear that the developers used this episode to play with what they could do. All is not fun and games, though, as the latter half of the episode ramps up the tension and tests the players reliance on the time travel ability in some very effective ways.
Unfortunately, as solid as some design choices are in Out of Time, others are a bit perplexing. What makes Life is Strange special, outside of an engaging story, rockin’ soundtrack, and vibrant visual palette, is what the time travel mechanic does for the game. This recent wave of cinematic point-and-click fare sometimes fights against the inclination to be more like a TV show or movie than a game, or else try to hard to game-ify the experience by forcing mechanics that don’t really work. Life is Strange circumvents this by connecting narrative and gameplay through a single mechanic. While this choice is great, it makes any aforementioned efforts to “game-ify” the experience that much more glaring. While being prompted to collect five items in an area gives players a chance to explore an interesting environment, it grinds the story to a halt, and feels like needless, utterly shallow padding. It’s a surprising blemish on an otherwise beautifully immersive game.
Life is Strange may be conscious of it’s own status as a game, but it still shows that its story and presentation are still the subject of a lot of effort. Episode 2 continues to look stunning, from the ironically sunny Blackwell campus to the woods at the edge of town. The soundtrack is great, with an assembly of tracks from artists like Alt-J and Syd Matters, good enough to look up in full playlist form on Spotify or the like (which I may, in fact, be listening to as I write this review). The cinematography at play in this episode stands out in especially sharp focus, making the episode feel more like part of a movie than an episode of a TV show. There are times when Life is Strange is simply fun to watch, with visuals full of little secrets and details. There are a couple points in the episode where the player can just sit and watch as Max observes her surroundings, maybe having a bit of an internal monologue as she does. Leaning against a stump and watching the clouds drift by above a vast junkyard in the woods, listening to Max think about her friends and the town around her, turned out to be a valuable respite mid-episode.
Episode 2’s pace picks up, but not all at once. Players hoping for something that immediately takes what the first episode started and amps it up to eleven may be playing the wrong game altogether. Everything in episode 2’s pacing is deliberate and measured, starting off slow but leading to a mesmerizing conclusion. Again, the episode feels like a complete story on its own, while also never losing sight of the larger plot around it. Kate Marsh’s escalating troubles, Chloe’s turbulent family situation, and more personal stories and character paths all get their place and time in this episode, in various sizes and forms. This episode serves in many ways as Max and Chloe’s chance to really get to know each other again, and reforge what was lost. Watching them do so is, frankly, delightful.
This episode’s story has a running theme of karma to it, which is especially interesting given the mysteries it sets up surrounding certain characters. Karma may indeed have been dished out in this episode in ways we won’t truly understand until the full game has been released. Karma will certainly be on the players mind when facing the episodes more difficult choices. Some new characters are brought into the mix, while others bring complications from the first episode. Your choices in Out of Time will be affected not only by your priorities in the moment, but by who you managed to piss off in episode 1.
The one shortcoming of Life is Strange‘s presentation is something that showed up in negligible doses in episode 1, but which becomes magnified as we move on with the game. Writing dialogue can be tricky, especially when that dialogue is between teenagers. While Max and some of her classmates sound consistently fine, some dialogue gets more hammy than a frat party barbeque, especially when it comes to conversations with some of the more minor characters. Odd, awkward conversations and chunks of dialogue break an otherwise consistent, engrossing narrative.
Players hoping for exploration will not be disappointed, as Out of Time continues episode 1’s philosophy of allowing for exploration. Each area has optional ground to cover and conversations to be had, many of which will have the potential to become useful later on in the story. Even when they don’t have any practical use, people in Life is Strange are plain fun to listen to. A crazy guy told me about his winning lotto ticket, and how rich he was going to get, and I was glad to have spent that moment with him. Godspeed, crazy lotto winner. There are also optional photos to take scattered across the episode, some of which are easy to spot but several of which take some careful searching to find. It takes an artists eye, after all.
Life is Strange Episode 2: Out of Time plays with a junkyard full of clocks; many still work, but some should be left to rust. The elaboration upon the games’ central mechanic is going beautifully, leading to some really fun puzzles that balance tension and cleverness. A padded section around the middle of the episode breaks the immersion and fluidity for as long as it lasts, but can’t damage the episode as a whole too badly. Major choices continue to challenge the player, based not so much on morality or ethics as on the target of the players sympathy, proving that it doesn’t take a zombie apocalypse to make a player prioritize their favorite people in a group. Presentation is still one of the game’s greatest strengths, to the point where I found myself feeling like I was watching a short film; one that I could control, no less.
Out of Time builds up momentum at a pace as steady as the ticking second hand on a clock. It pulls us deeper into the lives of the characters who inhabit its world. More importantly than anything else, though, it puts some damn good tunes on the stereo and invites us over to have a good time. Even with its moments of gameification and questionable dialogue, Life is Strange continues to make me really happy whenever I sit down to play it. I can’t wait to see what’s in store next for this adventure in time, mystery, and friendship.
Final verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One; Publisher: Square Enix; Developer: DONTNOD; Players: 1; Released: March 25th, 2015; ESRB: N/A ; MSRP: $4.99 (single episode), $19.99 (full season pass)
This review was based on a full retail download of the game on Steam.