Tornadoes in Texas
I’m worried about Life is Strange. But, it’s not the same concern usually expressed when a game’s teetering dangerously close to mediocrity or worse. It’s the type of uneasiness reserved for a title that’s taken three installments to fully engage me, yet threatens to undo it all with one late-episode plot twist.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, because Chaos Theory is where Life is Strange gets so, so good.
Life is Strange: Chaos Theory (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One[reviewed])
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release date: May 19, 2015
MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode)
As Life is Strange plays out chapter by chapter, it’s increasingly difficult to talk about with any degree with specificity. Doing so not only runs the risk of spoiling the many significant plot points that continually punctuate this game, but it also feels like a disservice to discuss Life is Strange‘s events in black and white when much of its brilliance lies somewhere else. It’s not a linear story progression that makes this title worthwhile, rather it’s the character building and continually changing relationships that constantly shine.
While episode two felt like it meandered too much, it laid the framework for an effective third part. Just spending that extra time inside the head of Max, getting to know Chloe, and seeing the incessant vitriol at Blackwell made for characters who are easier to empathize with. It all pays off in a big way in Chaos Theory as the cast is finally at a place where the audience feels like it knows them and cares for them.
At the forefront of this trend is Max’s relationship with Chloe, as the duo is ditching the re-introduction stage and have hit a groove of sorts with their interactions. There are plenty of moments when Chloe’s rebellious carpe diem spirit rubs off on Max in a charming way; likewise, Max’s level-headed and rational demeanor affects Chloe, probably for the better.
These conflicting personalities may have been most at equilibrium during a serene midnight dip in the academy’s swimming pool. It’s here that the two are at their most introspective and humble. It’s here that they express that they lean on one another. There’s an understated emotionality about it all that makes it one of Life is Strange‘s best scenes yet.
Really, the swimming pool scene best exemplifies the quality that Dontnod’s employed masterfully throughout the three-fifths of Life is Strange that we’ve seen: restraint. It would’ve been easy to highlight the moment with some sort of memorable event. But, the developer didn’t. Instead, it let the two simply talk, which wonderfully lends humanity to them both individually and as a team.
However, it’s not just Chloe and Max that are further humanized. Almost all characters have some sort of sympathetic progression, as Life is Strange continues to prove that it excels at dealing in shades of grey. We get a glimpse at how scumbag drug dealer Frank has loved and lost. We see how “step-prick” David password protects his computer not with a nod to his army service or himself, but with a receipt that holds the date he met his wife.
The latter of those revelations is discovered through a fetch quest-style puzzle. As painful as it is to admit, this element of gameplay is still where Life is Strange is at its very worst. The reason that’s sort of tough to swallow is because it always encourages exploration and will often reward the curious. However, when it forces that wandering upon the player, the pacing drops from a self-imposed standstill to a mandatory one. It’s enough to deaden the mood rather quickly.
It’s a rare instance of Dontnod eschewing that aforesaid restraint to somewhat negative results. Thus far, the developer has done a great job keeping everything in check so as to not go off the rails. The time-rewinding mechanic still doesn’t feel as if it’s taken over the game nor does it serve as a permanent crutch. Instead, it’s mostly sparingly used, usually to glean more information from a tight-lipped witness.
Similarly, Life is Strange hasn’t yet gone full-out on the paranormal aspect that clearly hangs over the entire story. This reserved approach is appreciated, as it lends weight to the characters and their personal circumstances rather than spotlighting the supernatural. There may be an imminent deviation from that pattern in the very near future, though. In the waning minutes of Chaos Theory, Max discovers a new ability that could easily shift the narrative focus.
Chaos Theory is effective in that it’s the first time Life is Strange asks the player to evaluate the net benefit of Max’s ability to alter time. Until now, it’s mostly dealt in small affairs where the results are immediately noticeable. Episode three finds a way to work on a longer timeline and with more at stake. In all honesty, it’s the first time I’ve felt that exact heart-wrenching emotion that I experienced eleven years ago when watching The Butterfly Effect.
The cliffhanger that Chaos Theory ends on is so perfect for this portrayal of the fictional Arcadia Bay, Oregon where nothing’s ever perfect. However, it’s also scarily dangerous in that it very well might render most of the world-building a moot point. It’d be such an absolute shame if that were to happen. We have to wait to see if that’s the case. But, Life is Strange now has me in its grips, and if I’m worried, it’s only because I care. I finally really, truly care.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]