After the slow second entry of Life Is Strange 2, Dontnod Entertainment had a lot of ground to cover in its next episode, Wastelands.
Shifting the setting away from the claustrophobic interiors of the Diaz Brothers’ grandparents’ house, this next chapter catches up with our young protagonists a short while after their daring escape from the law during the previous episode’s finale. The duo is now settled at a secluded campsite with a host of fellow teenage runaways, their journey to Mexico temporarily put on the backburner as they lay low and evaluate their options. It’s here that the vast majority of Wastelands takes place, the small hub area creating some of the sequel’s best moments while simultaneously highlighting its most pressing issues.
This is largely due to Wastelands favouring of story over agency. Unlike most of the other episodes in the series, this third entry takes a more hands-off approach to the adventure, putting the player into extensive conversations interplayed with the occasional puzzle or exploratory sequence. In turn, Wastelands is probably the most narrative-heavy episode thus far. This makes sense, as much has changed since our young protagonists’ last adventure.
Much like in the previous episode, Wastelands’ prologue features a disorientating time jump, putting us back into Sean’s shoes a few weeks after we last saw him. He’s got scragglier hair, a homely tent rife with various knickknacks and, crucially, a whole host of new friends.
These aren’t the only changes to come from Sean’s new woodland home. His new-found relationships are finally starting to make him feel like a teenager again – to the extreme frustration of his jealous younger brother – while both boys have begun working at a discrete Marijuana plantation under the watchful eye of a violent drug lord. Both plot strands become catalysts for powerful developments in the brothers’ story, however, while this plot-heavy episode does push forward some of the series’ crucial narrative threads, it starts to flag up its prevailing issues as well.
Sean’s new friendships, for example, lead to some touching coming of age moments that channel what made the franchise’s first season so exceptional. His relationships with Cassidy and Finn – both characters introduced last episode – allow the player to learn more about his fears, desires and the inner-turmoil he faces as he struggles to protect Daniel. These firmer friendships welcome a host of insightful and much-needed character moments for Sean. The exploration into his deeper feelings re-establishes the brave progressiveness that Life Is Strange 2 beautifully interwove into its first episode.
Whether giving the option to pry deeper into Sean’s responsibilities as a brother or to explore his sexuality through an opposite or same-sex romance, Dontnod shows off their best storytelling chops this episode when using side-characters to further explore their leads.
Sean’s time working around criminals likewise takes the series to grittier depths, leading to more serious repercussions for the player’s actions. Being a good brother to the impressionable Daniel becomes harder when you’re neck-deep in a world of drug trafficking and crime lords, and while the episode doesn’t always nail the severity of certain situations, the finale sells just how dark their adventure has become.
Life Is Strange has always been at its best when it’s driving the narrative forward and putting the player in morally challenging positions, and when Wastelands does so, it’s thoroughly engaging.
The relationship between both brothers, however, is less captivating. As in both the previous episodes, Sean and Daniel’s bond is reaching breaking point, the younger sibling lashing out for being treated like a child. While there are moments where their fragile relationship becomes an intriguing burden on their journey, more often than not it repetitively loops around the same conflict. Each episode comes back to this same petty struggle and Wastelands is yet another entry where deepening complexities in the brothers’ relationship are forgone to harp on the same simplistic issues.
This is especially frustrating when the vast majority of the siblings’ interactions this episode surround them arguing. While Sean has moments away from these trivial squabbles, Daniel doesn’t. The debates only make his character seem irrational and annoying. While it’s evident the game wants to present him as a young, grieving boy who’s channelling his blind anger into his new-found supernatural powers, he instead comes off as a spoilt brat, throwing his toys out the pram because his big brother won’t play with him.
Granted, the episode’s incredible cliff-hanger ending finally launches Daniel’s self-destructive tendencies to the forefront, but it can’t help but feel rushed due to the episode’s reluctance to develop the nuances of their relationship in its quieter moments.
On top of that, there’s simply too much going on around the main narrative and, in turn, it makes the episode lack focus. As has been the sequel’s Achilles heel throughout, Wastelands feels like it’s trying to find its footing, throwing potential plot arcs around wildly with the hope they’ll land. From a sluggish subplot about the brothers’ disagreeing on visiting their mysterious mother to clumsy social commentary about the exploitation of drug trafficking – complete with a bizarrely long marijuana farming minigame – there’s often too much focus on arbitrary story and never enough on deepening its small cast of characters.
Overall, Wastelands is another episode of Life Is Strange 2 that’s bravely progressive in places and completely lacking in others. While Sean’s development as a character pushes into much darker, deeper and surprising places, Daniel’s arc regresses into tedium; his inner anger used to establish him as a whiny brat instead of a fearful and confused child.
With only two episodes until the series wraps, here’s hoping that Life Is Strange 2’s fourth episode can brush off the excessive subplots, pick up the reins, and use Wastelands brilliant finale to deliver on the promise this sequel holds.
Game: Life is Strange 2: Episode 3
Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out Now