Review | Life is Strange 2 Episode 3: Wastelands
Illegal weed farms? Family of rejects? Life is still so strange…
The first two episodes of Super Diaz Bros. as I like to call it were opposites in what you want from Dontnod’s flagship series. It felt rather disheartening to open with a touching, thematically resonant episode only to come down with a middling affair in episode 2. The brilliance of Roads came down to its exceptional character work between Sean and Daniel Diaz, combining sympathetic writing and an expertly portrayed sibling relationship to create a beautiful opening. In contrast, Rules felt far too passive as an experience, with characters that weren’t that interesting to begin with and characters who we had already seen in The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. It felt like an outlier and by the end, something that didn’t feel that impactful. So, excuse my slight trepidation heading in to episode 3, Wastelands.
We pick up here two months after Daniel Diaz’s explosive telekinetic power manifested in killing a cop, with the boys finding themselves in a group of campers, including the previously met Cassidy and Finn, working on an illegal marijuana farm run by the domineering Merrill and gun-toting Big Joe. Earning money to be able to get to the established destination of Puerto Lobos gives them the reason to work here but for Daniel it’s a continuation of growing up far too fast.
It’s a terrifying thing to grow up ain’t it? The ever-changing loss of innocence, the increased cynicism and darkness that starts to creep into us from learning about the real world. This conceptual drive of change amongst the great backdrop of being cut off from society with similarly disenfranchised people in Episode 3: Wastelands gives us a return to form by providing the focus on the brotherly relationship that was desperately missing us last time. Sean and Daniel feel more fleshed out and provide greater depth on the nuances of a strained familial bond, with Daniel testing Sean numerous times. This does feel slightly frustrating given the use of time jumps, often removing some context that feels Daniel’s dangerous outbursts less earned. These moments work despite this flaw as the game relies on removing agency to, in a surprisingly astute way, showcase Sean’s attempts to reign in a rapidly growing Daniel working on a pot farm. Whilst players may feel frustrated at the story relying on a time skip to achieve this, justifiably so, the overall effect does work thematically to provide the relationship a tangible sense of tension and drama.
Not only does Wastelands continue with great characters, a new ensemble cast provides tremendous company. This group of funky hipsters are all travellers and provide a sense of belonging within each other, but their relevance is far more than just this episode. Cassidy and Finn who were briefly met in Episode 2 are further explored and fleshed out, with Finn being a dreamer despite his situation and Cassidy a frustrated woman looking for a new life. These characters do even provide great thematic maturity for Sean as a character. Add to this a host of other side characters, from the vociferous Hannah to the conspiracist Penny, and Wastelands gets to explore the current political state of America (less subtly than in episode 1 but more naturally in this case) through a disenfranchised ensemble , the tragedy of bad parentage and even love in extremely broad detail that give Wastelands a bite and vigour even beyond some of the truly shocking events that take place. The events do feel game-changing by the end, personally making me feel like I had failed, but not in a demoralising way. More that the characters I had grown to care about over a solidly paced 3-hour chapter were in entirely new situations by the end that felt bleaker and any game that has that personal involvement succeeds.
Combine the typically solid gameplay with an invigorating soundtrack and this episode is full of delightful positives, including its gorgeous environments, with sunlight beaming through the hush woodland areas the game love. We have the usual high-quality, characteristic look and sound amped up to eleven in this chapter that takes advantage of a beautiful outdoor setting, painting trees in reds and oranges making the central camp location feel lush and brimming with colour and life. For anyone who doesn’t enjoy the games’ art style, even they would feel hard-pressed to complain about the beauty of scenes in Wastelands.
That said, I must repeat something. I understand games are hard to make and there are bugs that can occur. It’s the nature of an industry constantly trying to frantically fight against deadlines, a particularly hot topic at the minute. Bugs still are problematic, particularly in a game that wants me to be immersed. So, when Daniel starts floating off the ground or lines of dialogue from the same character overlap, I feel ripped out of the game. I understand that fixes will be made but to hold the industry to a high standard, it must be said that Wastelands continues the disconcerting trend of just accepting day one bugs. It also must be said that the very opening of Wastelands feels comparatively dull compared to the strong work done by the rest of the episode, almost a token dalliance back into the past that feels very unnecessary by the end.
Those are blips though. When the dust settled, I felt Wastelands had recovered my enthusiasm after a dull second entry. The series is back on the rails, as far as it can be and heading for a climatic finish. Hopefully Dontnod delivers as they have done here.
Review Round up:
Fantastic character work across the episode
Typically, beautiful visual and sound design
Impactful choices that move the story in an interesting direction
The bugs that slip through the cracks
An uncharacteristically poor opening