Each new episode of Life is Strange fools me into a false sense of complacency. Much like Episode 2, the first 75 percent of Episode 3 is good enough to almost allow me to forgive the discomfiting turn at the end of Episode 2. Except that Episode 3 also ends with a similarly melodramatic twist. I’m supposed to be surprised, or at least moved—I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to groan.
I don’t want to say Life is Strange has jumped the shark, though, because I’m not sure that’s even possible given the shark-packed standards set by previous episodes. Episode 2 already established that our game’s teenage super-villain, Nathan Prescott, is not only a serial rapist and a murderer but also a drug dealer, drug user, stalker, breaking-and-entering-and-damaging-property-er, and possibly a robot designed by his rich parents to see how many crimes they can cover up in one lifetime. Okay, I made up the robot part, but it would explain a lot. Seriously, Prescott family—wouldn’t it be cheaper to send this hellion to a private island? Or the moon?
Anyway, given how over-the-top the stakes have become for our time-traveling heroine, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that her friends (well, only her female friends … hmmm) keep finding themselves in near-death and/or near-assault scenarios. It’s no wonder the count of mysterious missing girls in this town was climbing the charts before Max showed up and discovered her time travel trick. Clearly, the local predator population was having a field day before Spider-Max took to cleaning up the streets. Or maybe just that one Prescott kid. He seems to get a lot of damage done on his own. The authority figures in this game—from the corrupt cops to the drink-your-morals-away school principal—are as complacent and jaded as Nathan Prescott is evil. This aspect is the one part of Life is Strange that rings true to life; the rest of this world is approaching maximum soap opera status.
Soapiness aside, Episode 3 actually feels like the protein-packed insides of a very hit-or-miss sandwich. Where Episode 1 felt like a dry but passable piece of toast and Episode 2 more like a tasteless slice of super-cheesy cheese, Episode 3 finally rounds out the meal. The teenage slang continues to be laughably bad, but by now Max and Chloe’s friendship has begun to feel genuine enough to make up for it—not to mention the unspoken romantic undertones between them, which finally begin to bubble to the surface in this story.
The few puzzles in this episode make a lot more sense than in the first two installments; in each case, Max has to work through the situation in a way that befits how her powers actually work, unlike, say, the bizarre shoot-the-bottle mini-game in Episode 2. This episode featured both a lengthy social engineering scene in which Max has to keep repeating three different conversations until she finally has all the information she needs to get a specific reaction—plus a literal chemistry game in which Max causes an explosion. These moments display the game’s best achievement: Max’s tightrope walk to ensure that her best-laid plans in an elaborate social chess game won’t come crumbling down.
I would love to give this episode a higher score, except its thrilling conclusion veers off in a direction that, once again, seems to be walking a narrow line between “exploitative shock value” and “no really, we just want to tackle yet another difficult topic with respect, we swear.” There are very few stories about time travel that do not end with a lesson about hubris, and I fear that Life is Strange will also follow this same cliché. Max has to worry about who to save and what hard decisions to make when it comes to her friends’ lives. But there’s very little discussion in-game as to how impossible that responsibility actually is, beyond occasional platitudes. Is this game going to delve deep? Or just present high-stakes scenarios for shock value and then quickly move on?
There is an unfortunate Ashton Kutcher film called The Butterfly Effect that I don’t recommend, but which I can’t help but reflect on every time I consider time travel. In one of Ashton’s many time-traveling attempts to right past wrongs, he ends up in a timeline in which all of his friends are happy and successful, but he has lost his hands and the use of his legs. The film makes it clear that this is a punishment; the woman who Ashton loves in the other timelines is dating a friend of his in this one, and Ashton must endure their condescension about his bravery. This depiction of disability fell flat for me at the time, although I wasn’t sure why. Although condescension and prejudice towards the disabled continues to be a serious problem in our culture, I didn’t like that Ashton’s character dismissed this timeline as unlivable. Couldn’t he find new friends who didn’t treat him like shit, at least for a start? This scene in the film felt like an acknowledgement that we as a society do not see disabled people as human, but rather than fighting against this falsehood, the film chooses instead to embrace the idea of disability as a punishment.
Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that there’s an aspect of Episode 3 that reminded me of this moment, and although I’m not sure how it will play out in Episodes 4 and 5, this game hasn’t done much to inspire my confidence in its ability to tell a story with nuance or subtlety so far. Life is Strange has all the subtlety of an anvil, and that’s what makes it feel like a teen soap packed with “very special episodes.” I think the game might have been hoping for a higher level of artistry and credibility than that—but it’s limited by its own penchant for cheap melodrama and its written-by-your-Dad stylings.
Unlike Max, I can’t see where this game is going. I think it’s too late now for me to hope for a “less is more” level of storytelling or a take on teen romance that’s grounded in characters and conversation rather than inexplicably overdramatic stakes. I don’t know if Life is Strange can handle topics like rape, murder, suicide, homosexuality or disability in a responsible way—but maybe responsibility just isn’t what Life is Strange is about.
Life is Strange Episode 3 was developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Playstation 3.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric at Relay FM.