“I always feel like the forest is whispering to me, like Arcadia Bay is trying to tell me something. I just have to figure out the message,” says Max Caulfield, sitting against a twisted tree stump in a junkyard, like she just fell out of a teen fiction novel written by a teen fiction writer on a teen amateur fiction writing Tumblr for teens.
Max is probably one of gaming’s finest representations of a self-appointed, quirky outsider, a human-sigh that we’ve all either known or been at school. When we last left her, we were adjusting to her life as a photography student having moved back to Arcadia Bay in Oregon as she attempted to circumnavigate a world of cruel teenagers, school hierarchies and politics, intricate relationships with classmates and tutors, as well as her own teenage pretensions. Oh, yeah, and her new-found ability to reverse time.
Life is Strange is strange! Its main mechanic, Max’s ability to reverse time for a short period, is almost kind of peripheral. Episode One used it to position Max as a conversational smart-arse or tied it up in circumstantial teen dramas, like ensuring a pal didn’t get hit in the nugget by a stray football. Akin to Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series, there were decisions to be made throughout that promised to affect the story meaning you could abuse the time-flitting mechanic to alter the outcome, stripping choices of any real weight and substance. It also introduced us to the characters in Max’s life. Aside from archetypal campus squabbles involving geeks, jocks and rich kids, there were some touching moments that saw the rekindling of a friendship with childhood pal Chloe, whose life has taken a slightly edgier path in Max’s absence from the town.
Episode Two opens in Max’s room, strewn with books and research on time travel, implying she’s finally contemplating the importance of this power, but then nurtures the notion that it’s kind of just an extra thorn in her side as she considers reversing time to get more sleep, like a typical, tax-avoiding, student layabout bastard!
There’s a heavier importance given to the the moral implications of time travel in this episode though, as well as exploring the physical toll it takes on Max. The mechanic’s ability to let you re-think decisions throughout the episode rather than commit takes a back seat with less clear-cut consequences and all-round weightier dilemmas, the courses of which aren’t readily evident. At one point, the time manipulation ability is stripped completely, and it finally becomes clear just how these decisions can change the path.
While there’s plenty of time spent with Chloe as Max opens up about her time-scooting hobby, Episode Two sheds more light on the increasingly troubled life of fellow student Kate, whose out-of-character antics at a party hosted by the cruel and manipulative campus rich kids - the Vortex Club - have resulted in a cyber-bullying smear campaign against her. Kate’s agonising struggles are, for the most part, handled quite sensitively, and there’s a real feeling of helplessness as Max juggles dialogue decisions with her. It’s a bleak avenue to head down, and Life is Strange finally comes into its own as a compelling and moving story.
That said, it’s easy to be put off by its overarching ill-usage of dialogue. It bounces between perfect and cringe-worthy – Max walks the fine line between pretentious pomposity and endearing sincerity, whereas Chloe continues to drop confusingly outdated verbal tics like ‘hella amazeballs’. Thankfully, further development of Arcadia Bay’s seedy underbelly really bring to the forefront the darker elements of it all, punctuated by reminders of the town’s missing girl, Rachel Amber (a poster of whom is plastered notably adjacent to some graffiti which reads ‘Fire Walk With Me’).
Life is Strange has an uncanny ability to really envelop you in its universe, simply by bolstering it with these sort of 90s pop-culture references and details. Every location is a treasure trove of interactive objects, from posters that breathe life into the student affairs at the school, to interesting and telling scribbles on walls. Getting a real sense of Max and her life, as well as the lives of everyone else in Arcadia Bay, is best explored by poking around at crumpled notes in dorm room bins and speaking to seemingly gratuitous characters. Sadly, the perception of magnitude and depth is skewered after taking a bus to town and being fenced in by invisible walls and met with inevitable ‘No, I don’t want to go that way’ messages. At one point, Max indicates she has spare time before class to go wandering and there’s very little you can do to hide your glee at the thought of more stuff to look at.
Episode Two starts seeing the buds of your decisions bloom and there’s genuine fallout from those, perhaps, ad hoc decisions you made last time. As the stat-summary of decisions is displayed post-credits, you’ll get to see just how different things could’ve been had you not reversed time and changed your mind or, conversely, if you had. While it heralds fewer huge plot moments than Episode One, you can sense foundations firmly laid for the episodes ahead, particularly in establishing the whole, you know, big fucking deal of time travel as more than just an plot-manipulation device.
As hoped, Out of Time is less juvenile in its themes than its predecessor, further setting scenes for an intriguing, wistful and atmospheric mystery. The series is venturing down darker holes with consequences that, at least for now, seem long-lasting and poignant. It’s to its merit that the entire concept of time travel often seems secondary to its character development. The whole thing is still accented by hipster folk rock and that melancholic, 90s-tinged autumnal ambience too, and can’t escape being littered with the hallmarks of teenage pretension like mentions of Kerouac and the rhetorical musing: ‘Would Man Ray call them selfies?’ Regardless, by its final scenes, Episode Two has assuredly established itself as a brave, unique and interesting game; one that will be a painful wait between episodes.