This review contains some spoilers for Life is Strange 2 Episodes 1 and 2, as well as minor spoilers for Episode 3
You know an episodic series is great when the worst thing about it is the wait between episodes. Where television serials typically keep people waiting a week or so for their fix though, episodic games tend to suffer much longer lead times. Case in point – Life is Strange 2, a fantastic series that is now on its third stellar episode, which is only let down by the three-month gaps either side of it.
If you haven’t been playing along with Life is Strange 2 so far, probably a good time to stop reading right about here. If you have though, you’ll know that when we last left the Diaz Brothers, their fugitive journey to the Mexican border had taken them to their estranged grandparents’ doorstop. Before long though, the authorities come knocking and the pair are forced to hop a train headed South.
That’s where Episode 2 ended, and ‘Wastelands’ picks up some two months later with Sean and Daniel living in a commune with some teenage vagrants they first met in the episode prior. Rather than show what happened in the time between though (where the boys travelled to California, found work, got kicked out and hitchhiked across to Arcata where they meet the others), it relegates all of that to optional diary entries. Instead, we get a flashback sequence showing a slice of their family life before ‘the incident’, a sequence that does help to contextualise Sean and Daniel’s relationship quite nicely but also really only exists to serve one minor plot device. We’re halfway through the season now and time is obviously of the essence, but it’s a little jarring to be missing that chunk of time, especially when it would’ve helped provide some more context to the events that follow.
When you used to beat your little brother at video games
But then he starts doing this shit
Wastelands takes place largely in a secluded forest camp with the aforementioned vagrants, plus a couple of Swedish backpackers and of course the Diaz brothers. All things considered this middle episode feels like something of a lull compared to the others with the only real conflict happening in the last twenty-odd minutes. Before then, it focuses mostly on Sean’s relationships with the people in the camp as they live and work (somewhat illegally), and the effect that it has on both his own personal journey as well as his responsibilities as a brother. Think of it as a coming-of-age story where the comer-of-age also happens to have a super-powered sibling.
Despite the relative quietude, there’s actually a lot packed into these moments, and the spotlight shone on Sean highlights some pretty great character development and some keen storytelling. Special kudos has to go to Dontnod for delivering what are so far the best approaches to sex, sexuality, sexual identity and even female nudity that I’m yet to see in a game. There’s a refreshingly sex-positive set of messages throughout and some very interesting branching paths in the story that I won’t spoil here. Again though, these instances are kinda let down by the lack of build-up from the month or so of camping that we don’t get to see beforehand. This leads some of these important turns to feel dangerously close to forced, or pandering, when they’re really not.
Those shortcomings aside, this really is a fantastic episode, and it’s now that it feels like some of those important choices from earlier episodes are starting to come back to haunt us. Sean’s handling of Daniel and his newfound powers, especially, can be felt in the slow buildup to Wastelands’ climactic cliffhanger. The stakes are higher than ever and there were points where I definitely felt like I’d probably fucked up in my past choices. Yikes. Even though this might be the least ‘involved’ episode so far, with some entire scenes going by where no real player choice is made, it still all feels entirely necessary. The choices that do pop up feel more critical than ever, too. Part of me wishes these episodes were maybe shorter, but in greater number and more frequent. If not because it might’ve helped to fill in some of those story gaps, then at least because I’m really salty I have to wait another three months to see what happens next.
Time to cut the haters out of my life…
Lastly, and I feel like I’m going to keep repeating myself for as long as this series goes on, but damn if Dontnod haven’t really nailed this game’s aesthetic. Again, every scene is composed, lit and scored beautifully. Though I did noticed more oddly low-res textures here than in prior eps, the overall look is still stunning. It’s little details especially that make the world feel real, like the fact that I could see the boys’ dad leave for work in the opening flashback sequence purely because I happened to be looking out of the right window (and admiring how lively the world outside was to begin with). More importantly though, the soundtrack this time around is even better than usual. Justice, The Gorillaz, Ben Lee and Milk & Bone all feature tracks in Wastelands and each one punctuates its respective scene so perfectly. I can’t wait to be able to purchase the full series soundtrack once it’s all wrapped up.
Though not without the formatting baggage that it was always doomed to carry, Wastelands is a great middle episode that serves as a quiet but important turning point for its main characters and their journey. Dontnod have made a wise choice in slowing things down in a series that otherwise has to move at a pace by the very nature of its tale. I do think I regret every choice I’ve made so far, but that’s on me.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher