Life is Strange is at its best when it's letting you talk to people. Some of the best moments are between Max, the hero of this story, and Chloe, her new/old best friend. Others involve Max delicately navigating a verbal encounter with little to wield other than words...and if need be, her time-bending superpower. Life is Strange's first episode was a great setup for the world of Blackwell, where young adults struggle to find meaning and purpose in their lives, but was ultimately a little too bogged down by its time-rewinding mechanic. The mechanic still gets in the way of some poignant moments in Episode Two, Out of Time, but it is here that the game slowly begins introducing the limitations to Max's power. This not only makes for some interesting encounters but drives the episode to an emotional high point that left me feeling raw, empty, and very impatient for the next installment.
Max's story is getting darker. Chloe has warmed up to Max, and the episode opens with our young heroine on her way to meet her old friend for breakfast. She's still dealing with the fallout of her run-in with Nathan Prescott in the previous episode, and--depending on choices you made in the previous episode and a few ones you'll make early in this one--has becoming a looming, omnipresent threat to Max's existence. She's doing her best to balance this danger with being a good friend; not just to Chloe, but to Kate Marsh, another troubled girl. On top of all that, Max is getting wrapped up in Chloe's problems, which turn out to be more sinister than having a militant stepfather. And as before, the adults in Life is Strange act like frightened children, completely inept at being helpful to these angsty teens and behaving in ways that no sensible real-world adult would.
In Episode One, I was bothered by the throwaway mentions of Rachel Amber, the girl who took Max's place as Chloe's bestie after she moved away, and who has since gone missing. Episode Two drops large hints that maybe we're looking at the wrong people; this might not be Max's story after all, but the story of an even greater mystery. There may only be just enough room for Max in Chloe's and her friends' world to solve these horrible problems. A missing girl. An approaching tornado. The one person with the power to stop it all may be the least important in the equation.
Adding to the uptick in narrative intrigue is the gradual introduction of the limitations of Max's power. Red splotches crowd the sides of the screen every time you rewind, indicating that Max is physically harming herself with her abilities. Out of Time slaps Max, and you, with the realization that these powers come with a price. This fragility, the knowledge that these powers don't make Max some infallible entity that can perpetually change her choices, gives the choices you do make more weight. Max is no longer balancing teenage problems with unlimited power; she's balancing teenage problems with a dangerous tool that can harm as well as help.
The tone of Episode Two is confusing to place, largely because of lengthy sequences that come across as too "gamey" and thus detract from the story. There are two instances in this episode where Life is Strange aggressively reminds you that it is a video game; the heartfelt narrative of a young girl's struggle to be a force of good takes a backseat to fetch quests and memory puzzles. These moments weaken the tension of Life is Strange and I felt frustrated, as these sequences seem to take up time for the sake of adding some kind of game element. However, I learned to tamp down my impatience, as these moments give limitless breathing room to explore. I learned more about Chloe's relationship with Rachel by scouring a junkyard and more about Kate Marsh's home life by lingering in her dorm room. It doesn't become apparent until the end of the episode that these tedious stretches have huge story impact. This is why I say the tone is confusing; Life is Strange wants you to stay tense and pay attention, yet simultaneously encourages you to stop and smell the roses, without much warning of when you're supposed to do either. The solution is to keep on your toes, look at everything, and talk to everyone, because you genuinely never know when something will be important later.
This is never more evident than at the episode's end, when "make or break" becomes too light a description for what Max has to do. Every choice you've made in the first two episodes, every decision you made connected to someone around Max, comes to a head here. This is where it ends, and where Life is Strange becomes more than an episodic video game. It becomes a window into the world of the young, where it's either your oyster or it's ending, when you're too naive to think of the future. Bullying, drugs, wanting to be liked, feeling misunderstood, channeling emptiness into lashing out at others--this is why life is strange as a young adult. It's a rare person that doesn't wish she they could go back and get just one more chance with someone, with something.
Out of Time gives real meaning to the choices you've made. And by its conclusion, you'll know whether or not Max, your version of Max, is a bad confidante. The episode's turning point depends on how well you've paid attention to your classmates, how flakey or how helpful you've been for a certain friend. It requires you to have scoured every nook and cranny, poked into every room and fed your curiosity by examining everything. Because if you haven't, the outcome can't be undone under any circumstances. Life is Strange is actively testing how much you, the player, care. It's a subtle way to imbue a lot of power into the choice mechanic, and it sneaks up on you without warning.
Despite the great way Out of Time handles emotional payoff, it suffers from problematic dialogue. Characters will display conflicting emotions over the course of a conversation that ping pong between extremely positive and extremely negative, without cause. In one instance, a character warms up to you and comments how you've been missed, and when you respond positively she suddenly, nastily, ask if you're making up for something you did wrong in Episode One. Another instance has someone admit she knows you care about her, and when you say that yes, you do care, she suddenly shouts that nobody cares about her. It makes no sense and makes many of these conversations feel like uphill battles in the dark. It's harder to placate someone or do what you think is right when there's a good chance that no matter what you say his or her response is completely out of your control.
Life is Strange still has problems with its dialogue and pacing, but Episode Two reaches emotional heights that are worth the journey. Your choices as Max are finally beginning to take on meaning, and the trajectory of her role in this messy story is more unclear than ever. But that's a good thing; stories about people with infallible power are boring. Max is no superhero; she's just a girl trying to be just and do right by everybody. But like in the real world, trying to please everyone has consequences, and Life is Strange lets you know that with a shot right to the heart.