Review: Life Is Strange 2 Episode 3: Wastelands

Dontnod Entertainment has unshackled the story of Life Is Strange 2 in Episode 3: Wastelands, bringing forward a narrative that is as potent as the themes that are on full display (more on that reference later, folks). Ever since Sean and Daniel Diaz made their debut back in Episode 1: Roads, the brothers’ story has been laced with the French developer’s commentary on politically and socially charged issues in the U.S. From police misconduct to racism to echoing comments from Donald Trump (a reference to the U.S. President’s wall was made in the opener), it sometimes felt that different topics were heavy-handed in the narrative rather than effectively being worked into the backdrop first. When it came to Episode 2: Rules, however, it felt far better balanced. Of course, it was evident that Dontnod would place a major focus on drugs in Episode 3: Wastelands, but it also dabbled its hands in many other interesting themes that were executed exceptionally well. While players will walk away from the story yearning for more after an enthralling ending, the third episode will also leave a lasting impression thanks to its colorful cast of characters introduced, the added complexity behind the brothers’ erratic relationship and the branching choices that can be made.

One of the biggest issues with Life Is Strange 2, unlike its 2015 predecessor, has been its release window for each episode. Sure, Dontnod revealed back in March a release date schedule for Episode 3: Wastelands and the two remaining episodes in the five-part adventure series, but the wait between episodes has been unbearable at times. Either way, the French studio has tried to deal with that issue by offering a story recap at the beginning of the third episode, which is done effectively well through the wolves-themed story animation. Over the course of the first playthrough, which can range from two to three hours, the story unfolds seamlessly and offers plenty of time to explore Sean and Daniel’s relationship. In fact, Dontnod has done fantastic work in keeping the brothers’ father, Esteban Diaz, an important focus of the story, especially for how his words continue to reiterate to Sean the need for him to step up and fulfill his duties of looking after his younger sibling. There’s also an enjoyable flashback to highlight the early friction between Sean and Daniel when they lived in Seattle, which will be fleshed out more as the cracks start to widen in their relationship.

Unsurprisingly, players will find that the story pulls no punches on the impact of Sean and Daniel’s journey to Puerto Lobos, Mexico. The Diaz brothers find themselves stopping in the redwood forests of California and becoming reacquainted with some familiar faces from Episode 2: Rules. Yes, players will find themselves learning more about — and connecting with — Cassidy and Finn, who both have an impact on the two brothers in their own separate ways. When we had the chance to speak with Sarah Bartholomew, who voices Cassidy, ahead of the episode’s release, she said her first impressions of the character was that “she was a bad***.” True to her word, Cassidy lives up to that reputation as she plays a major part in the story and her natural charm, free-spirited nature and sassiness is a delight to watch. The chemistry between Cassidy and Sean is sublime, built up over a number of key moments in the story and a constant tease about where their friendship will head next. Cassidy is no mere love interest that is susceptible to female tropes, even suggesting that she doesn’t need Sean to be her ‘white knight.’ She’s far from being a one-dimensional character and her own story arc is equally as interesting as the one she shares with Sean. In fact, Bartholomew’s performance will make Cassidy an instant fan-favorite character in the series.

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Cassidy might have been the standout character of Episode 3: Wastelands, but there has to be credit handed to Dontnod for their fantastic work in writing Finn and voice actor Matthew Gallenstein bringing him to life. It’s easy to make the character a pothead with little substance behind his personality, but it’s the exact opposite here. Finn, to be fair, is the male equivalent of Cassidy in many areas, adopting a similar kind of charm and wittiness. Players will watch Finn become a big brother-esque figure for Daniel, helping to increase the friction between the youngest Diaz brother and Sean. In fact, the drifter even sees Sean like his brother and their relationship, which has developed in such a short space of on-screen time, feels very much believable. While the signs of jealousy evidently creep into Sean’s mind, Finn also has moments where he shares his two cents about not treating Daniel like a child. Just like the two previous episodes, there are emotionally-charged scenes throughout Episode 3: Wastelands and Sean and Finn share in one of them. Finn reveals his backstory and, like Cassidy, feels like a character that players will instantly connect with and will care about as more than a misfit.

Outside of Cassidy and Finn, Life Is Strange 2 shows shades of the first title through the other supporting characters featured in Episode 3: Wastelands. While Sean and Daniel’s adventure in the first two episodes had taken them across multiple locations, the camping site is the primary location in the third episode and it allows players more time to interact with different characters over the course of the story. From the likes of Jacob and Hannah to Penny and couple Ingrid and Anders, players will want the same experience as they had in Life Is Strange in terms of learning more about their backstories. Sure, Cassidy and Finn are two of the more predominant characters to reoccur in the episode, but Dontnod doesn’t neglect it from adding the same attribute to all of the campsite-based characters: purpose. Players will feel engaged with their backstories and understand how they ended up being where they are now, giving every incentive to interact with them before completing a certain objective. Players will also find themselves crossing paths with Merrill, who is the episode’s antagonist and the owner of the marijuana plantation. The drug dealer has the support of henchman Big Joe and also works well as the ‘big bad’ figure for the story, yet the developer also humanizes him for his motive of supporting his family, which Sean can very much empathize with.

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Cannabis might be central to the story, but remember the part about themes that are on full display? Well, Dontnod is not shy in exploring sexuality in Episode 3: Wastelands and giving players the choice of different routes of relationships that can happen over the story. That’s not to mention there is a fair bit of full-frontal nudity. At one point, the hippie lifestyle is shown in full effect when a female character walks past with her breasts out. For the Life Is Strange series, it’s a first for how forward the developer is with nudity, but it thankfully strays away from the same unnecessary levels as Game of Thrones. Considering the drifters and hippies that players will spend their time around as Sean, they’ll find themselves interacting with characters that are very much open about their sexuality. That is only one aspect where the studio should be commended on how it handles its commentary on different topics. With the episode featuring many, many meaningful backstories provided by the new characters, Cassidy’s story would very much resonate with some people and how racism had an impact on her personal life, something that she shares with Sean and who can relate to it on some levels.

Gameplay might be limited in Episode 3: Wastelands, but it does help to break the episodic gaming trope of unnecessarily relying on fetch quests. When players do have the chance to be a bit more hands-on with the title, they will be treated to different mini-games over the course of the episode. One of the enjoyable moments comes when Sean is cutting the weed at the plantation, especially for how much is going on during the scene. Depending on how players approach the segment, they’ll spend time concentrating on hitting the prompts at the exact time needed to trim the weed. That’s coupled with washing the scissors every so often, mainly for how it becomes increasingly difficult to cut the weed. During the segment, players will see Cassidy flourish in terms of speaking her mind about how the task is mind-numbingly boring, that she has dreams of doing more than just that in her life and also fighting with another member from the campsite over her talking — or moaning — instead of working. While there’s much to enjoy in watching the different exchanges, the episode does suffer from bugs. When Sean and Daniel are talking in the woods, for example, the animation messes up in the scene and it’s difficult to see Sean’s reaction.

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After Episode 2: Rules spent so much of its focus on Sean teaching Daniel to follow the rules, that all begins to unravel in Episode 3: Wastelands for different reasons. It’s not only players’ choices that will impact that, but also the fragile relationship between the two that becomes increasingly stretched. Both Cassidy and Finn play their parts in testing the two Diaz brothers in their most tenuous situations, even putting in doubt if they want to return to their father’s hometown. Daniel also hints at wanting to find their mother, Karen, and while this story angle is touched upon, it does feel like it fades out of existence on a number of occasions before quickly being brought back up to remind players about it. It did feel like there could have been a bit more focus on it, whether it was the two brothers talking about it in depth or even Daniel sharing what he learned about their mother in a separate scene with Finn.

Dontnod has come a long way in its writing for the series, but it still feels clunky in parts. Sean refers to Daniel as ‘emo Daniel’ and it’s cringeworthy to hear it repeated. Daniel, however, has his best moments where he wants Sean to treat him with more respect and not like a child, with Episode 3: Wastelands also highlighting the massive improvement in his powers since Episode 2: Rules. It does feel like Daniel’s powers are withdrawn for most parts of the story due to all of the other subplots in the narrative, but it doesn’t diminish players’ interest when the attention is placed back on it. All of this, above anything else, is backed up with a nail-biting conclusion that will leave players on the edge of their seats. It could arguably be one of the best cliffhanger endings in the Life Is Strange series to date, building up plenty of anticipation for players to find out what happened after Episode 3: Wastelands’ rollercoaster experience. The branching system of choices is far-reaching in the episode, which is highlighted at the very end with how many pages of decisions that players have made in the story.

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Closing Comments:

Episode 3: Wastelands might be a shorter experience compared to past episodes, but that doesn’t stop Dontnod from pulling off an excellent story at the halfway point of Life Is Strange 2. Just when Cassidy’s charm caught the attention of players in Episode 2: Rules, her story is fleshed out brilliantly in this episode and introduces another memorable character to the series’ ever-growing roster. Sean and Daniel’s relationship continues to hit the rocks and reiterates the devastating impact that Esteban’s death had on the duo. That’s not to mention that Sean is put in a more difficult position now in controlling Daniel and his powers. Life Is Strange 2 continues to retain the franchise’s core strength of superb voice acting, with the actors delivering all-round performances for their respective characters. While the developer still has the overarching plot of the brothers returning to their father’s hometown, there are plenty of storylines that are going on and which fans will be hoping are tied together in the penultimate episode. For all of its criticism with themes, Dontnod exemplifies its fantastic approach to different issues, such as sexuality, in a respectful manner and naturally injects them into the story. If Episode 3: Wastelands is a taste of what’s to come from Life Is Strange 2, then the episodic series will continue to move from strength to strength going forward.