After a huge event that ended Episode 2 of Life Is Strange, the start of the third episode is smaller, more intimate. The middle chapter in the saga of 18-year-old Max Caulfield focuses on its main three characters: Max, her old friend Chloe, and the still-missing Rachel Amber. The main quest is still to find out what happened her, and the usual suspects—adults with questionable motives, an entitled rich jerk, and a drug dealer—all get screen time. What’s most surprising, however, (without giving anything away) is a cliffhanger that takes the game to new heights of drama.
[Spoiler Alert of the first two installments.] By the end of Episode 2: Out of Time, fellow student Kate Marsh had killed herself by jumping off the roof of a building. No matter how hard Max tried, her gift to control time and to save Kate fails. (Or at least in my playthrough, as I’ve read that you can save Kate, but it’s through dialogue choices, not her abilities.) Chaos Theory begins a few hours after that incident, with Max and her fellow classmates struggling to move on in the light of Blackwell Academy’s tragedy.
The first section of Episode 3 mostly consists of Max talking to other students and trying to track down local mean girl Victoria for answers regarding Kate. Things get rolling once Max gets a text from Chloe asking her to meet off campus. While the texts for the most part feel the way a modern teen might speak, not being able to reply is annoying. There are some moments where Max will give a reply but this particular moment uses the lack of being able to just text back as a drama-building exercise which feels forced.
Essentially, Max needs to sneak out of her dorm area, but she needs to get past her Dean who’s near the campus gate. With each failed attempt Chloe keeps texting Max. In reality, Max would reply to let her know what’s up. Max not replying rings false. It’s a small moment, but there it is.
But it’s a testament to the writing that these nitpicks are getting fewer as the game goes deeper into its story. There’s another moment where a birthday card is signed “Love, Stepdad” which is eye-rolling, but mostly the vernacular is hitting its stride.
The bulk of the chapter is mostly just Max and Chloe hanging out. They break into the Dean’s office, they go for a swim, and they even relax back at Chloe’s house. Most of these areas have been seen before: the school hallway, Chloe’s home, the Two Whales Diner, but overall, it's not a dealbreaker since the circumstances have changed. A great pall hangs over the festivities. Max and Chloe are in over their head trying to still figure out what happened to missing student Rachel Amber and are now trying to get info on why Kate killed herself.
Developer Dontnod wisely keeps the fetch-questing to a minimum, with just the moment in the aforementioned Dean’s office and another B&E into a drug dealer’s trailer. What clicks this time is the way we sympathize with Max’s situation. She’s trying to cope with Kate’s death while her friend Chloe is starting to spiral out of control.
Chloe really comes into her own as fully-formed character. She’s still as angsty as ever, but the layers of her strange life are being peeled back. Also, since finding out about Max’s power at the end of Episode One, Chloe’s wit has been elevated. The way she encourages Max to use her rewind ability can is quite funny; “Max that gave me chills! And you better not rewind this one!” is a good example of how pushy Chloe can be, but still make Max smile.
Chloe’s remarks on time travel make those moments feel more energetic. An in-game commentator on deck is great to have even in a game that is already filled with a lot of chatter since Max narrates like everything. That said, I sometimes prefer Max’s narration to the voice-acting on screen since the lip-syncing is still wonky. Chloe's voice-acting is terrific; just don’t look too close at her lips when she’s talking.
In my review of Episode 2, I expressed my hope for a more flesh-out story in future episodes. It's hard to say if Episode 3 delivered a fuller story, per se, but streamlining the narrative to the primary characters does deepen the experience. Beyond the strides made in making Chloe a compelling teen with big abandonment issues, Max continues to grow up before the player’s eyes. Even Rachel Amber who still remains MIA is starting to be revealed through discovered letters and photographs.
This is isn’t to say the plot doesn’t move forward at all. While the strength of Chaos Theory is the character beats, there’s plenty of weird oddities peppered throughout. Strange occurrences are still happening in the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay. This time there’s an unhealthy amount of dead birds on the ground. Will that end up linking to Max’s premonition about the lighthouse near the ocean? One would assume so.
Max’s time-travel ability also gets an enhancement of sorts. Now when she moves back in time, items she’s gathered stay with her. This makes stealing someone’s keys right in front of them extremely easy. The new ability also can keep Max in one place if she needs to be. Like breaking into a room, going back in time so the alarm doesn’t go off and still being in the room. Fun tweaks like these make hitting the left trigger a bit more engaging, although this is interactive fiction after all, so one shouldn’t mistake this as more gameplay options in the traditional sense.
The chapter ends with a huge revelation linked to Max’s powers that is insanely cool. Without spoiling anything I would say the episode title is apt. It also makes waiting two months for the next installment unbearable. Life Is Strange has always had a nice down-to-earth quality for a video game. Sure, the time travel gimmick is just that, but Max and the rest of the occupants of Arcadia Bay still keep me invested. And only two episodes remain.