Life Is Strange 2 - Episode 3: Wastelands Review
This review contains potential SPOILERS for the previous two episodes. The reviews for other episodes can be found here:
Following the excellent opening episode of Life Is Strange 2, I had fully expected a politically charged discourse on Trump’s America to thread through the narrative of later episodes. This was unfortunately ignored — perhaps because of the partisan backlash from players who didn’t take kindly to uncomfortable topics being addressed. The second episode turned into a meandering staycation in the sleepy suburbs of a small town, but with the only conflict coming from an altercation between a couple of hippie travellers and a local market stall customer. Suffice to say, the momentum was truly sapped and I was a little hesitant about how the story would progress towards the halfway point.
Fortunately, Wastelands changes tack yet again in the Diaz brothers’ attempt to reach Puerto Lobos and the new chapter starts in the middle of Sean and Daniel’s stint as weed farmers working in California. Finn and Cassidy, the two sibling hippies mentioned earlier, crossed paths with the brothers between episodes, resulting in a storyline which doesn’t feel like an unnecessary time jump. It also retains some links to their previous escapades. A look through Sean’s journal fills in the gaps since the end of Rules and it’s a tough read at times, chronicling the older boy’s constant fear of looking after Daniel while on the run: stealing food, sleeping rough, taking on cash jobs and making their way south. The highlights (including burgers at Christmas) feel well-earned, as does the introduction of their new weed-trimming buddies which offers a bit of community support to the pair.
The camp at Humboldt County where the majority of the game takes place is made up of an eclectic bunch of older teens and twenty-something travellers. There is always the risk of such an environment throwing up eye-rolling dialogue and unrealistic situations, especially in Stoner City, but this is mostly avoided. Cassidy and Finn feel like genuinely decent people and while the rest of the crew aren’t fleshed out in quite as much detail, they provide enough interest to make their inclusion worthwhile.
Whether you’re partaking in nighttime chats around the fire about depressing memories or helping out with chores to ensure the camp feels like everyone is pulling equal weight, Sean has plenty to keep him occupied. The weed farm owners are suitably shady people, while the work you have to perform for them amounts to repetitive trigger-timed sequences which drive home the boredom that Sean himself feels. This time around, Sean also has a couple of romantic options should you decide to take him down that route, and it’s pleasing to note that the game offers a same-sex choice; it’s something that feels fully in keeping with Life Is Strange in general, while still feeling like a natural evolution of Sean’s personality.
If it feels like I’ve focused more on Sean rather than Daniel here, it’s because the younger Diaz gets significantly short-changed in this episode. The necessity of keeping his powers secret mean that the “strange” part of the series is barely touched on here; a training lesson at the lake aside, the moments where Daniel’s powers do come to the forefront feel like the writers suddenly remembering why the boys are on the run. Consequently, the events leading up to each of these sequences — namely, Daniel having a Hulk-like fit of rage — feel awfully forced. I spent the majority of the game trying to treat Daniel with kid gloves, but it still felt like my efforts were in vain because the story needed some form of conflict to progress his story. Choosing Sean as that catalyst seemed lazy; it reduced the impact of the decisions I made purely for expedience. I can see why it was done: while camp life throws up ample opportunities to get to know the inhabitants, the overall story lies stagnant while waiting for the boys to get enough money to leave. And since entitling Episode 3 “Do Monotonous Work and Move On” wouldn’t prove much of a draw, something had to give. It’s just a shame that it meant turning Daniel into an unreasonable brat for a lot of the game.
There are a few binary “major” decisions throughout, but it doesn’t really feel like the story is influenced by any of them apart from the final choice. Things do pick up in the last act though, where puzzle-solving elements and more than a hint of danger refocus the episode and provide the kind of tension I felt during the gas station scene in Roads. Indeed, the final thirty minutes or so reminded me of what I love most about the series — the point-and-click elements might not be taxing, but the voice acting and atmosphere are superb. The ending can go several ways, though I was again torn between the choice that I wanted Sean to make and the one I knew the game wanted me to make on his behalf. My decision therefore punished me brutally, although not without leaving me wanting to find out what happens next.
That’s the biggest issue Life Is Strange 2 has suffered from in these last two episodes: the endings have come out of left field and prompt you to make uncomfortable choices, but those choices are often at odds with the way the rest of the game wants you to handle Sean. He’s the father figure in absence of a father, as the game’s prologue makes painfully clear. But as Daniel’s powers continue to grow, your agency over him is decreasing. Sean is becoming more and more like a spectator in the Diaz story which makes me wonder what Dontnod is planning to do with the final two episodes. With Max Caulfield’s time manipulation in Life Is Strange there was at least an element of control, but here you’re only observing the supernatural rather than actively participating in it. Based on Wastelands’ finale, the folksy nature of these first three chapters will surely be obliterated going forward, but whether that results in a positive step for the series remains to be seen. Grumbles aside, this is still a superior entry to Rules with all of the LIS hallmarks you might expect: gentle acoustic indie music, philosophical musings, quirky and interesting characters. But with a three to four month gap between episodes, I’d hoped that at this point Sean’s life might contain a bit more strangeness.
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