2015’s commercial and critical surprise, Life Is Strange, captivated an audience and built a fanbase on its story-driven mix of the supernatural and relatable down to earth relationships. Original developer, Don’t Nod is out to tell a brand new story using fresh characters that expand upon the world in Life Is Strange 2.
LIFE IS STRANGE 2 – Episode One
Developer: Don’t Nod
Publisher: Square Enix
Available for: (September 27,2018) PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC
If you’ve never played Life Is Strange, don’t worry. The fence here is nearly non-existent for newbies but diehard fans will have one critical choice to callback to. Did you sacrifice your best friend to save an entire Oregon town of people as Max Caulfield in the first Life Is Strange game? That’s it. If you’re a fan of this series, Titan Comics will explore one of the possible outcomes from Max’s decision in their Life Is Strange comic book series this Winter. For now, let’s get into this brave new world.
Life Is Strange 2 – Episode One, “Roads” doesn’t even begin in Oregon. You play as Sean Diaz, a Seattle teen living out his final year of high school. On the afternoon of what’s supposed to be a rad drug and alcohol-fueled party, Sean’s world instead gets turned inside out. A freak accident power discovery accident in your quiet suburb turns you and your little brother Daniel into fugitives from the law. Now you both need to figure out a way to get from the Pacific northwest to Puerto Lobos, Mexico.
At its core, Life Is Strange is a series is about how relationships get you through the worst of times. In the first game, Max’s homecoming wasn’t just about her new found time shifting powers. The literal heart of her tale was mending a relationship with an estranged best friend, Chloe, someone she’d left behind on the day her father was killed in a car wreck. Max’s powers didn’t just let her see how Chloe’s life spiraled out of control but every possible outcome. Life is Strange 2 explores a different relationship, family.
Not only are you embarking on a road trip that (over five episodes) will span the course of an in-game year, but your responsible for who young impressionable Daniel will become in that time. Your influences and decisions as older brother Sean aren’t always black and white. As the pair go on the lamb into the wilderness, you’ll need to decide if raising a good kid is more important than doing what it takes to survive. While the first episode will run you around 3 hours, it centers around a straight up racist experience at a remote gas station in the middle of the episode that illustrates the tone Don’t Nod set out to create in this sequel. You can pay for food and supplies which will leave the boys without any money for their journey or you can steal. Little brother Daniel will remember what you decide here and like any good story driven adventure where choice is at the center, these moments feel like they have weight.
The gas station sequence illustrates one of my big issues with the game. While these choices are said to affect characters and events which will play out in later episodes, you can’t help but feel as though certain moments are not well thought out. In a scene where the honky store owner accuses Sean and Daniel of stealing food they’re eating right outside the store window willy-nilly, as criminal masterminds do, as Sean I don’t have an option to prove my innocence even though one of the three choices I’m presented with is “discuss”. It simply sends my character into one of the most hate-filled scenes in gaming I’ve ever seen when Sean becomes the prisoner of the store owner who’s called the cops on me. The dialogue between Sean and his honky captor is some straight up uncomfortable feeling stuff. That’s the commitment and one of the differences for Don’tNod this time around…they have something to say and are using their platform to do it.
The game takes place in 2016, starting out at the height of the most recent real world presidential election’s mudslinging and xenophobic debates. From the opening moments of the game in your Seattle suburb that depict extremely excessive use of force by police, to nearly every white person in the game figuratively and in one case literally spitting “build the wall” bile at you, this game unapologetically brings the debates of our society to gamers faces. It wants to have a conversation about injustice whether you want to or not. None of its social commentaries are subtle or nuanced. Depending on how political of a person you are, the game’s super-liminal messaging can jar you away from Life Is Strange 2‘s majesty.
As far as the gameplay goes, Don’t Nod haven’t strayed too far off the path but the experience this time around does have a different feel overall. Choice is there in key moments, but (at least in the first episode) it almost buries any of its supernatural elements. When we played as Max Caulfield in the first game, her time bending powers were vital to the plot from the start. Here, young Daniel has some sort of telekinetic ability but it never factors into any of your actions and outside of a key scene in the opening then one towards the end, the powers don’t seem vital at all. Hopefully, in the remaining episodes, we’ll find our choices shape Daniel’s powers and maybe stop him from becoming Dark Phoenix.
Another gradual difference between the games is how the studio is approaching music. The crafted indie rock vibe filled in the color of Blackwell Academy and Arcadia Bay during the first LiS, you believed it was the music Max was into. Life Is Strange 2 leans more on licensed music but they’re definitely welcomed choices using tracks from the bands Bloc Party and Phoenix. After one episode I still don’t have a full sense of who Sean is to me, so I couldn’t tell you if the music makes sense, only that it’s enjoyable.
The thing Life Is Strange 2 eclipses the first game in is sheer beauty. While this narrative brings down the weight of the world around your character, the quite serene moments like sitting on a bench in the forests of Washington or drawing the tranquility of a river in your sketchbook capture moments of zen and communion with your brother Daniel like nothing else before in gaming.
Life Is Strange 2‘s opening episode has the makings of a complex tale that explores the question of how far would you go to keep your family together? Despite some of the plot holes in player agency, there’s enough good narrative to interest you and it’s buttressed by the captivating performance of Sean and Daniel. There’s extremely blunt social commentary interwoven in the DNA of this story, so if you’re someone who doesn’t want video games to mirror the real world this sequel may not be for you. So far Don’t Nod have my attention for episode two, if they can work back in the supernatural almost X-Men like philosophy elements into this world then I’ll be on board for the rest.
A bumpy start with all-new characters takes you a bit out of the familiar yet manages to make a convincing argument to invest in the full Life Is Strange 2 season.