Though the first episode of Dontnod Studios’ five-part adventure series didn’t blow me away, I was still optimistic for the future of the series. I had hope that the interesting choice-based storytelling and gameplay mechanics would pay off in meaningful ways, and that Dontnod would be able to steer the tone and writing in a more palatable direction than the high school soap opera presented in the first episode. In some very meaningful ways my hopes were rewarded. Unfortunately, in many more ways they were utterly crushed.
The story picks up where the first episode (Chrysalis) left off, with Max continuing to reignite her friendship with her childhood friend Chloe, while also learning more about the mysteries and dramas of Arcadia Bay, including the disappearance of Rachel Amber. Though the story has many points of interest, Out of Time has a heavy focus on Max struggling to understand her new-found time travelling abilities, prove their existence to Chloe, and test their limits.
Looking back on the episode, I can recognise that many important events occurred, but playing through I was encumbered by the feeling that nothing was happening – or at least nothing interesting. These pacing issues come from the game’s tendency to drag everything down with insignificant minutiae rather than have you focused on the interesting or even pertinent aspects of the narrative.
An example: a horrible 30-minute segment has you tasked with collecting bottles from a junkyard. The banality of this task would make you roll your eyes in an MMORPG, but in an adventure game it is outright inexcusable. The episodes are beginning to feel like they consist of nothing but long periods of this kind of filler, with cutscenes interspersed.
Out of Time clearly demonstrates that these filler sections are the root of this entire series’ problem, not just in the way they hinder the pacing, but also the way they drag the tone of the game way down. My biggest gripe with the first episode was how shallow the tone of the game was – often feeling like a terrible teen soap opera – yet I felt conflicted because it still had moments of interesting character and plot development.
The line between these two areas is very distinct in here. All of the interesting development is confined to the narrative sections which contain choice-based storytelling, and everything inbetween these moments is filler. The filler is where all of the terrible writing is found, and where all of the cheesy stereotypes and sloppy cultural generalisations are chucked in. Dontnod clearly sees these sections as a way to flesh out the world, but what it is really doing is undermining it.
That’s a real shame, because Out of Time also reveals the breadth, depth, and power of the studio’s decision-based storytelling mechanics. I was truly impressed by how my decisions from Chrysalis affected my experience here. Every decision I have made in this game so far – big or small – has had significant and persistent repercussions. More impressive is how the decisions coalesce, all seeming to crash together, creating unique narrative paths.
I can’t imagine the complexity of the systems and narrative forethought that has surely gone into making such a complex web of narrative threads. It’s impressive not just on a technical standing, but in how it creates gripping and evocative moments. In particular, the climax of Chrysalis leads to a engrossing moment that is inexorably affected by both big and small decisions you have made.
All in all, Out of Time is a slight step forward for the series purely on the strength of its decision-based narrative. This great step forward is hindered by how horrible the filler in-between is. Dontnod would benefit greatly from cutting this content from the experience completely.
It’s too late for that though, so all we can really hope for is that the studio can find a way to adjust the balance. Despite myself, I remain hopeful for future episodes. After all, if Dontnod can keep taking a small step or two forward with each episode, by the end of the season we may just arrive somewhere amazing.