So, when we last left teenage photography student Max Caulfield she was negotiating the tense landscape of college life – oh - and struggling with the inconvenient revelation that she could rewind time. The alarming climax of Episode Two (however YOURS ended) and the resultant fallout take precedence here in Chaos Theory as it embraces a darker, more sombre tone reflected by torch-lit prowls around the school campus and some low-key snooping around some sinister parts of town.
The hypocritical mess of sadness and guilt that has descended upon Blackwell as a result of perfectly awful cyber-bullying campaigns, institutional corruption and the further allusion to secret allegiances is an exquisite backdrop for an episode that finally sees Life is Strange reach peak brilliance.
Max’s ability to mess with time had mostly been used as a scenario-manipulation tool in previous episodes, but Chaos Theory positions it as a major game-changer for the future of the series. Rightly so - until the finale of Episode Two, most choices we’d made had seemed incidental. But, these TellTale-esque dilemmas and decisions now appear seamlessly integrated into the plot and dialogue, particularly those that had seemed conversational and innocuous at the time. Chaos Theory, conversely, seems personalised, with previous options informing the script, from the mundane, like the state of the plant in Max’s bedroom to the fate of some of its characters (and the luck of the campus’ most unfortunate student, Alyssa).
Episode Three sees the re-blossoming of Max and Chloe’s friendship reach new nostalgia-tinted highs and, while Max is essentially a dorky, insecure but loveable protagonist, it’s interesting to see several sides to Chloe develop that, if you can ignore the dumb ‘hellas’ she spits out at every possible cringe-worthy opportunity, give her an unexpected depth.
Previous episodes have struggled to juggle both Max’s school woes with the main mechanic of her ability to reverse time, the latter often taking a curious backseat to character development, but Episode Three finally sees successful marriage of both. Crucially, no matter which path its story chooses to take, it never forgets its main characters are teenagers and, hellas aside, there’s some genuinely good dialogue here as it evolves from pretentious teenage waffling to some desperate, complex and melancholic exchanges.
Its story is no less focused than before though. Even with a storyline that appears adapted to fit your choices, there are, of course, moments where you’re funnelled down a path to move the story forward. But it’s all administered in a way that suits your own style of gameplay.
The pace flits between tense, as Max and Chloe creep through the darkened halls of the school with a sense of justified intrigue, and punctuated moments of languid rest, where its gameplay progression is purposefully slow. These moments of Eeyorish but blissful respite see you lying in bed, listening to soothing folk music as shots drift gently from slow pans of the room to the breeze breathing through the curtains; you can stay there until YOU deem it the right time to progress. Life is Strange has a habit of letting you determine how it unfolds, and not just conversationally, allowing you to live in its game world and investigate the array of detailed trinkets, posters and interactive items strewn around. All the attention to detail in Blackwell give it the rich life it deserves and, as Max can control time, so can you. In charge of the pace, you simply have the time to drink it all in, and the inquisitive wandering tells as much, if not more, of the story as its dialogue.
Given that this story often lies atop unspoken subtexts, the unfolding snippets and general allusions give Life is Strange an exciting and unique atmosphere that refuses to tokenise its characters, as much as their clichéd dialogue tries. Laden with wistful nostalgia and echoing melancholy, as well as a sometimes painfully realistic take on student life, it’s a game that invites you to empathise with all of its characters rather than manipulate them. It’s almost good enough that you can forgive its occasional dialogue foibles that appear to be written by middle-aged men gathering ‘youthspeak’ from Tumblr.
Episode Three establishes the game as an utterly essential play. As it floats (or runs) towards its cliffhanger, the thrilling end finally underlines the dangerous importance of Max’s ability and the butterfly effect it can and will inevitably cause. Finally, both of the game’s strengths – the fascinatingly detailed and cringingly accurate portrayal of Max and her college contemporaries plus her ability to manipulate time – make Chaos Theory the most wholly realised episode so far. If you don’t screech a ‘woah’ at the end of Episode Three, you may never get Life is Strange. But, chances are, you’re already an evangelist for Dontnod’s masterpiece and the only way they can change that is by going back in time and completely undoing everything they’ve already done so well.
Life is Strange: Episode 3 – Chaos Theory is available now for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.