Roads, the first episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange 2, starts off slow and probably won’t grab you as strongly as you’d hope. Though the opening scene means to show ‘the norm’, you won’t find yourself very invested, and even after its story really kicks off, Life is Strange 2 is still a slow burn. But it doesn’t take much longer for Roads to prove itself as a powerful introduction with the potential to grow into something even better than the original.
Beginning in Seattle, Washington, Life is Strange 2 follows 17-year-old Sean Diaz and his younger brother Daniel in the wake of a mysterious, destructive explosion on their doorstep, leaving their father and a police officer dead and themselves alone. On the run as fugitives, the only suspects and witnesses of whatever happened, Sean and Daniel start a journey to their ancestral home in Mexico, homeless and severely unprepared.
In a way, Life is Strange 2 reverses the original game’s setup. Where Life is Strange gave you a godlike power over the game itself, the sequel burdens you with power you have no control over or awareness of. Where Max Caulfield dealt with isolation and a lack of direction at that game’s opening, Life is Strange 2 makes you the guardian of a young child, your younger brother, in the wake of a major accident. Where the story of Arcadia Bay progressed with a relative ease and flow, Life is Strange 2 haunts you with an ongoing manhunt, Sean’s grief over his father and his younger brother’s wellbeing – a stark and heavy contrast to the easy-going original.
As dark an opening as that is, Life is Strange 2’s first episode focuses squarely on Sean’s relationship and journey with Daniel. The game is built around the bond and dependence between these two characters and your newfound guardianship takes first priority; it’s not just about finding food or money to keep Daniel healthy but keeping track of the second-hand impact of your actions, like begging or stealing. Your choices are significant not just in how you survive but in how Daniel grows and changes over the course of the five episodes.
Like the original, Life is Strange 2 is an adventure game with an over-the-shoulder perspective where you explore compact, detailed open-spaces. An evolution of the classic click-and-point adventure games popularized by the recently-deceased Telltale Games, you chat with characters, you collect and use items from your inventory, and you make meaningful (or not) decisions. As an ‘experience’,Life is Strange 2 focuses on characters, interactions and environments to tell a comprehensive story.
Compared to Telltale’s games (which are frankly the only point of reference), Life is Strange 2 plays with a more languid and almost lazy pace. Though its stress-heavy story can sometimes undercut this, Life is Strange 2 eases the tension and fills its spaces with things to look over, pick up, use or talk with Daniel about. Even your inventory, as soon as you take control, is packed with items and history to explore – ID cards, photos, textbooks, a sketchbook, and even old text chains on your phone with characters who, given the story, you might never meet or see at all. Each place overflows with history and every-day detail and feels appropriately lived-in and authentic – real – in a way few games achieve or even set out to in the first place. It adds a rare level of tailored dimension and texture. It’s a unique feature of Life is Strange and its sequel that improves and elevates the overall experience.
As with Dontnod’s The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit mini-episode and Vampyr earlier this year, Life is Strange 2 also sees an upgrade to Unreal Engine 4. Without the cross-generation remnants of the last game, we see upgrades in texture quality, character models, animation and lighting that brings the best out of Dontnod’s otherwise-unchanged art direction. Life is Strange 2 keeps this dreamy, gentle, whimsical look with its pastel textures and soft, natural lighting. Like the original, this look both empowers its lighter moments and powerfully juxtaposes its darkest.
Ultimately, though, it’s the writing that’s most important to a game like Life is Strange 2 – and that happens to be its strongest quality. So far, it’s a brave and confident story to release in 2018, centred around minority siblings in an unglamourized depiction of Trump’s America.
Set in the United States in late 2016, Life is Strange 2 doesn’t shy away from its political climate. With a story centred around the actions and death of a police officer and the boys’ Latinx ethnicity, Life is Strange 2 firmly acknowledges the toxic horror show that the modern United States can seemingly be for people of colour.
In this case, Life is Strange 2 becomes unique in young-adult ‘on the run’ fiction. By delving into the prejudices and bigotry minorities can face, which has since become a public battle for basic empathy once again, the United States is transformed into enemy territory. It’s a world where many already condemn two Latinx minors for their very existence in the United States, let alone helping them in any way.
So far, Dontnod’s willingness to include the prideful racism, the silent and dismissive and the genuinely empathetic shows a desire to honestly depict the lives of people of colour today, especially of those stuck in such a difficult and dangerous situation. It’s a through-line in Life is Strange 2’s first episode that isn’t about twisting and generalising the USA into a nation of bigots but a sharply divided one, filled with as many genuinely caring individuals as there are resentful or hateful ones.
Though it’s a heavy, touchy subject, this has an impact on gameplay and adds an unexpected layer of social behaviour to play around. With Sean and Daniel’s situation as fugitives, Latinx and homeless, there’s the constant potential for even basic and simple interactions to have lasting impacts down the line. Even if little of this comes true (since the rest of the season hasn’t released yet), Life is Strange 2 puts its expected gameplay under a new lens. Through Sean and Daniel, every choice has a new layer to consider.
There are obvious shades of Telltale’s The Walking Dead in this constant awareness, this nagging distrust that warps how you interact with other characters as a fugitive, minority and guardian. Choices pile with tension. Every other action seems heavy in its potential impact. If you’re the sort of player to become paralysed by big virtual decisions, Life is Strange 2 may be one of the hardest yet.
The relationship between Sean and Daniel is worth praising, too; it hits especially close-to-home for myself, with a brother who’s six years younger and both raised by a single parent. It’s something many would miss but it’s a unique relationship that Life is Strange 2 captures extremely well.
While the game’s premise makes it more explicit, it’s a relationship that’s a blend of a ‘normal’ sibling relationship (with the occasional rivalry that surfaces) and, due to the age difference and single parent, a more paternal one. It leads to this shifting attitude in the older brother (especially as a teenager), going from openly frustrated and passive-aggressive one moment to caring and calm the next. This is obviously a personal view that won’t mirror every other but, in my experience, it’s a relationship that Dontnod already depicts perfectly with impressive nuance.
For many, by reviewing Life is Strange 2’s first episode, we’re really reviewing if it’s worth jumping in now at a higher price to play each episode on release, or later down the line when the season’s finished and it’s seen a price drop. This will always depend on the person, especially with Telltale’s collapse in mind, but after playing this initial episode, Life is Strange 2 has the potential to grow into something truly memorable that respects the player’s role in its ongoing narrative.
It tackles heavy, current subjects in a mature way. It begins an emotional story centred around endearing, compelling characters with no obvious or predictable path forward – a story primed for distinct episodes every few months or so. It’s involving and affecting without relying on cheap swerves. So far, Life is Strange 2 leaves no doubt to its quality.
Life is Strange 2’s first episode might not reach the highs of its predecessor just yet but it’s a promising, emotional start to a season that could grow into something incredible.
John reviewed Life is Strange 2 using a PlayStation 4 code purchased at retail.
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