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When I finished the second episode of developer Dontnod Entertainment’s episodic game Life Is Strange, I felt horrible.
I’d spent the whole time making tough choices, reconsidered, gone back, and made different decisions until the game took main character Max’s time-resetting power away just in time for the toughest scene yet. It was effective, powerful, and it left me staring at my TV through eyes that patently refused to stay dry and wondering how they could follow it up.
Dontnod’s answer to that question is Episode 3, Chaos Theory, which is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. It takes all of the second installment’s momentum and emotional impact and leverages it into … stealth. And swimming. And spending a lot of time with arguably the worst best friend imaginable.
It recovers admirably at the end, but it’s a long way getting there.
What you’ll like
The character relationships are interesting and realistic
Maybe you don’t remember what it was like being 18, but I’ll nutshell it for you: Everyone was horrible. And Life Is Strange captures that grueling period in everyone’s life so accurately that you get high school frustrated all over again. The personalities fit, the motivations make sense, and you like (and hate) people for all of the right reasons.
The high point continues to be Max’s inner monologue, in which she makes the sort of awkward jokes and comments that we all think but hope we don’t say aloud because anyone who heard us would immediately cringe and walk away.
Not that I know anything about that.
The most interesting relationship continues to be between Max and her troubled, delinquent best friend, Chloe, and it’s a highlight specifically because it’s such a terrible friendship. Chloe is never at fault, refuses to take responsibility for her mistakes, and lashes out whenever anyone tries to call her on her selfishness and one-sidedness. It’s hard to understand why Max keeps hanging out with her — unless you’ve had a friend like that, and then you get it completely.
Chloe’s failings as a friend and human reflect the constant tension Max feels over how responsible she is for the young women, and it’s provided her with motivation and direction throughout the series. It’s as fascinating and accurate as it is confusing and frustrating, just like real people, and Dontnod’s doing a fantastic job of balancing everything.
The time-rewind puzzles are as good as ever (when they happen)
Life Is Strange is at its best when you’re using Max’s Prince of Persia-style time-rewinding powers to solve puzzles and make differences in people’s lives. And when Chaos Theory finally gets around to letting you do that sort of thing, it’s great. This episode includes a couple clever uses of the talent to help Max get into locked rooms and get information from multiple sources in the same room.
She ultimately has an opportunity to make a major change using her temporal chicanery, and it’s one of the high points of the series so far. You understand how important it is for her to succeed, and you share Max’s frustration and fear that she won’t be able to pull it off. It’s a smart and emotionally driven scene, and it’s clearly what the developers had in mind when they came up with this story.
The ending makes you want to play Episode 4, like, right the hell now
I’m obviously not going to spoil anything here, but while Chaos Theory’s ending didn’t hit me nearly as hard as the previous episode’s, it was still good enough to annoy me about having to wait another two months for the next entry to come out.
It won’t come as much of a surprise to fans of time-travel stories like the Back to the Future series, Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “A Sound of Thunder,” or the problematic but still completely decent Ashton Kutcher film The Butterfly Effect (hey, remember The Butterfly Effect?), but it doesn’t make it any less effective at pulling players in and making them want to keep playing. And that’s what all good episodic works do, as frustrating as that is.
What you won’t like
Chloe is just the worst, you guys
Despite what I said about Chloe’s and Max’s relationship being super-realistic and important, it doesn’t change that Chloe is just one of those characters you wish you could reach into your TV and shake. Most of the dramatic tension this time around comes not from the weird conspiracy surrounding the entire school but from Chloe’s firm and often vocalized belief that everyone in her life has let her down, and she’s therefore not responsible for anything she does.
While crucial to the story, it’s hard to watch, and it’s even harder to side with her as Max’s emotional anchor. Chloe is so irresponsible and flighty that upon breaking into the RV of a dangerous drug dealer who she knows to be armed (with a gun, in my game) and who is also eating breakfast 20 feet away, she immediately sits down and pretends to drive the camper.
Earlier, after she and Max commit a series of petty crimes, she decides that she really “deserves” to hang around for a bit longer and commit even more trespassing and press her luck in not getting caught so far. Because she is just that selfish and short-sighted. I just wanted to leave; three crimes in one night is my limit, but Chloe drives this one-sided friendship, so both Max and I had to go along.
It was frustrating. She frustrates me.
Not a lot happens
Other than the high points I’ve already mentioned, Chaos Theory feels like it’s treading water for most of its three hours. And I’m not just saying that because it actually has a scene where the main characters tread water in a pool. You don’t learn a whole lot of new information about what’s going on, and the ending changes the whole plot so much that it’s hard to know if the stuff you did uncover still matters.
The first half is just walking around in the dark with some minor, minor stealth thrown in, and then some drama happens, and then it finishes well. But you don’t move the plot forward, and a lot of it is just hanging out with dumb old Chloe. Who is dumb.
The time-travel powers and decision-making are mostly underused
The final playable scene aside, you mostly use Max’s powers to erase your mistakes and redo sections you fail. And even the latter scenes don’t carry much weight; whereas in the past you’ve used temporal wizardry to save lives, this time around you’re using it to reset the lockout on a computer and make a character slip on beans.
It feels a lot more like a Mulligan power than a universe-changing gift of omniscience, and that’s unfortunate because Dontnod has already proven that it knows how to use this mechanic in cool ways. And in a few brilliant segments in this chapter, it still does, but other than that, it’s pretty flat.
The decision points also feel diluted here. It doesn’t present you with nearly as many split-second choices, but rather continues the episode’s “moseying right along” theme by asking you whether or not you’d like to erase names from a party’s guest list or enter a pool through the boys’ locker room.
Neither of these decisions really made me stop and think, and it didn’t feel like any of them mattered very much, especially considering how everything ends up.
Chaos Theory can’t escape the shadow of its superior predecessor, but that’s not to say it’s a bad experience. Once you power through the dull fetch quests and irritating Chloe Time, it manages to provide some powerful moments and the best ending of any episode so far.
Life Is Strange, Episode 3: Chaos Theory is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. The developer provided GamesBeat with a free PlayStation 4 download code for this review.
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