Spoilers for “Roads”, the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 incoming.
I wasn’t expecting much when I began to play the first Life Is Strange. I came to it late, only playing it once the whole season was available for free via PlayStation Plus. It just seemed similar to those Telltale games I was already burnt out on but as soon as I began playing I realised it was something special. A teen drama mixed with slight sci-fi and Twin Peaks references every other minute, I was hooked from the first episode and happily I could play through the whole game at my own speedy pace. I’m still surprised at how successfully the game was able to mix genres and weave everything into an emotionally-affective narrative that still put the characters and their relationships first. It’s now one of my very favourite games – and I enjoyed the three-part prequel a lot too – but a sequel had me worried. Sure, it’s a wholly new story with new characters but can Life Is Strange live on as a franchise past its incredible debut? After playing the first episode of the new game I think yes, it can. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few hiccups in the opening episode.
Overall, I really enjoyed the first episode of the new ‘season’ (they feel like seasons of a TV show to me so that’s how i’ll refer to them from now on) and I have to praise it for maintaining its identity as a Life Is Strange game while also going in a very different direction than the first game. I’m almost certain no sequel will ever beat the first game for me and I’ve accepted that, and it almost seems like the developers – Dontnod – have accepted that too. That’s why they’ve gone out of their way to make this next instalment such a radically different game. It still has that great characterisation, fast dialogue and inclusion of some sort of ‘superpower’ for lack of a better term but the genre of game is completely different. I loved the first game, not only because of Max and Chloe but because of the location of Arcadia Bay and its large net of supporting characters. Life Is Strange 2 doesn’t have that. Instead it’s a road movie with our protagonists constantly being on the move and encountering quirky individuals one or two at a time. That makes the game much more difficult to get invested in after just one episode but overall, once all 5 episodes are playable, the game may turn out to be a more rewarding experience. Season 1 had it all from episode 1 and it was fantastic but the second season is about the journey and I’m expecting to like the game more and more with each subsequent episode.
So, the locations and world-building may have been a little slighter than I had hoped but the characters instantly clicked for me. On paper Sean and Daniel are the types of characters I would find very annoying in a video-game, film or TV show. Sean’s a 16-year-old just looking to party, get drunk, high and have sex while Daniel is the talkative and annoying younger brother who needs attention. But that’s just the surface and, once they find themselves on the run after their father is wrongly shot by police and the officer is killed under ‘strange’ circumstances, it’s clear these characters are much deeper. Sean now has to take on the responsibility of caring not only for himself but Daniel too and the brotherly love between them comes clearer and stronger as the episode goes on. In a worse written version of the game, Sean would have seemed like a different character completely when he becomes Daniel’s guardian than he was in the prologue, but here it’s clear than Sean is still that same guy who’s now burdened with this responsibility which he clearly finds difficult but he’s willing to fight through it for his brother. It’s great to play a game where your role is a character who is struggling with his role and you feel that struggle imprinted onto yourself. Daniel is far from the annoying character I thought he could be and instead he’s funny and you feel genuinely protective of him. The first episode is an emotional way to spend a few hours and the emotional connection to Sean and Daniel’s struggle was the one thing the game needed to nail in the debut episode and it does that with ease.
One big thing that I really enjoyed is that we’re not playing as the character with the superpowers this time round. Initially we’re not sure which of the brothers has the telekinetic powers until the latter part of the episode when it’s confirmed to be Daniel. On the surface, TK powers don’t impact choice like the time-reversing of the first game but I think that’s an incorrect assumption. Player choice is now more important than ever because Sean (us) has to set a good example for the younger brother. We have to be responsible because we’re no longer playing for the interest of just our character. Whether or not to steal is the toughest choice of the first episode and the most impactful. If Sean steals then Daniel thinks that’s an okay thing to do and steals something from the lovable Brody at the episode’s conclusion. Adding superpowers to the mix turns everything up to the Nth degree. Once Daniel has honed his powers – which he looks set to do next episode – he could use them for good or bad depending on the example we/Sean sets for him. Essentially our choices could lead to the creation of a superhero or a supervillain.
I do have an issue with the lack of discussion about the powers however. Sure, that looks likely to change next episode but the catalyst of Sean and Daniel’s odyssey is the accidental use of these powers and then Daniel uses them against the racist gas station owner but again it’s not discussed. Even when both characters are fully aware of the powers at the episode’s conclusion they barely discuss it. I know Max had powers last season but is this the Marvel Universe? Do so many people have superpowers in the world that it’s not much of surprise for someone when they discover they have some of their own? Daniel asks Sean if he’s a monster but that’s the only time they mention it. It’s an odd decision but I guess Daniel’s response to learning his father’s death had to take priority.
I do like that powers in this universe seem to emerge as a response to extreme trauma, kind of like how Magneto’s manifests in the first X-Men movie. With Max it is was seeing Chloe get shot and with Daniel it was seeing his father Esteban die in front of him. I can see thematic connections between each of the character’s situations and the powers they receive. Max, returning to her childhood home of Arcadia Bay and the people she once knew, felt like she was travelling back in time and so her powers granted her to literally be able to travel back in time. Daniel wishes he could push back against the widespread racism he sees, both at home that ultimately leads to his father’s death and against Sean when they are on the road, and so he is gifted the power to literally push back.
One of my favourite things about the game so far is that it is politically charged and completely unashamed of the fact. It fully embraces its political message and backdrop, occasionally unsubtly, as an anti-Trump and anti-racism narrative. That’s a bold move these days with many developers being far too fearful of possible backlash against including anything that could be seen as political. I remember when Far Cry 5 came out and Ubisoft vehemently said the game had nothing to do with politics and then you play it and realise it’s all about American gun owners and at one point you get sent on a mission by the CIA to retrieve a ‘pee tape’ that’s being used to blackmail the President. Yeah Ubisoft, nothing political there.
On one occasion the politics did get in the way of the game however. Whether you steal from the gas station or not, the racist owner will always confront you and ultimately knock you out and zip tie you in the back room. This reinforces the games political message with the guy accusing Sean, a Mexican American, of stealing and knocking him out whichever way you play the scene (stealing or not stealing, trying to defuse the situation or being openly confrontational) but makes player choice irrelevant at the same time. Gameplay-wise everything else is great with plenty of subtle improvements over the first game and Daniel’s AI acted perfectly, never straying too far or bumping into me once. Visually the game is amazing and, like the first game, very atmospheric which is aided by the fantastic soundtrack.
I’m already heavily invested and emotionally attached to the characters after just this opening episode but story-wise I’m not there just yet. A road trip is only as good as the places and people along the way and Life Is Strange 2 is off to a decent start in that regard. But if done right – and I have complete faith in the creatives behind the game – my enjoyment should increase with every stop along the way and I’m eagerly anticipating the release of the next episode, especially if Chris is involved because I adored Captain Spirit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to play.
Have you played the opening episode of Life Is Strange 2? How do you think it compares to the first game so far? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.