The first season of Life is Strange was a bit of a sleeper hit for me, and many others, back in 2015. At the time, the concept of the episodic narrative game was still something of a new idea for the monoliths that dominate mainstream gaming, with Telltale (RIP) pretty much cornering the market on their own. Enter DONTNOD, developers of the ironically forgettable Remember Me and publishing giant Square Enix with their own take on the genre, and a comparatively banal one compared to the competition. Matching the tragic and stressful decision-making simulators such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us with a supernatural teen drama set in a sleepy coastal town almost seemed like a mistake at the time, but Life is Strange quickly garnered a cult following for its unique style and refreshing themes. Now three years later, after Colorado-based studio Deck Nine took over development duties for the prequel spin-off Before the Storm, DONTNOD has returned with Life is Strange 2, a new series set in the same universe with a new cast of characters and a new story to tell.
Life is Strange 2 begins in suburban Seattle, where we’re introduced to Sean Diaz, a very typical high schooler, and his nine-year-old brother, Daniel. Sean and Daniel live with their dad, Esteban, who’s raised them alone for most of their childhood but is a Very Cool Dad™. The player controls Sean, who has an important house party to attend and goes searching around the house for supplies (see: cash, alcohol, weed and snacks). After scoring some money from his dad and Skyping his best friend Layla for some dating advice, Sean is about to head off when a series of events involving extreme prejudice along with a touch of the supernatural leads to a sudden tragedy that forces Sean and Daniel to flee their neighbourhood completely. With nowhere to go and no explanation for what has happened, the pair decides their best bet is to head for the border and cross over to Mexico, where they believe their family owns land that could provide a safe haven.
No joke, the most challenging part of this game was finding a specific wrench for Sean’s dad
Without going into too much detail and spoiling things, Life is Strange 2 is a road trip tale, a story of two kids travelling alone across the landscape of a country that wants nothing more than to keep their people behind a wall. Oh, and the youngest one now has mysterious powers. The boys make their way from Seattle and across part of Washington in Episode 1 and have to deal with some pretty heavy shit early into their journey. Sean and Daniel’s story takes place roughly in the present day and DONTNOD have taken smart advantage of this in both developing their characters and penning the plot. Daniel is a typical nine-year-old and loves video games, especially Minecraft and anything with zombies, and Sean frequently uses those as parallels to their journey to motivate him.
The current climate of racism and xenophobia is a strong theme throughout as well, with the boys current status as runaway ‘fugitives’ made far worse by their ethnicity. It’s often quite alarming seeing the kinds of crap that the Diaz family has to deal with in their daily lives, even from seemingly normal people and situations, and the game manages to convey some seriously important messages without beating the player over the head with them.
It’s everyone’s favourite forest activity: Is That a Log or My Younger Brother?
Just like the original, Life is Strange 2 is a narrative adventure game driven by player choice. Sean and Daniel’s story is told in a linear fashion, but in acting through Sean, the decisions made by the player directly affect how events play out and can even have a significant impact on the overall plot. The crucial difference in this new season when compared to previous entries is in the themes of brotherhood and the trust between Sean and Daniel. I came into the game expecting to make the same kinds of tough, morally grey decisions that make these games so gut-wrenching and yet compelling to play, but I hadn’t anticipated the pressure of not only seeing myself and my younger brother through a series of increasingly unfortunate events but also being a role model to Daniel and seeing how my actions influence his own. It’s one thing to decide to steal a measly chocolate bar from a grumpy service station owner to feed a hungry sibling, knowing I probably won’t be caught, it’s another entirely to have to explain to Daniel that sometimes breaking the law is a necessary evil and knowing that lesson will probably come back to bite me later on. DONTNOD has somehow found a way to make this genre of gaming even more anxiety-inducing and I both admire and despise them for it. Either way though, the result is a far more nuanced and gripping narrative that does a great job of making the player feel like they have a profound impact on not just the unfolding of events but the development of its characters.
I wish we still had our picnic basket, who even was that bear in the top hat?
Backing up the more ambitious storytelling is a series of meaningful mechanical updates to the Life is Strange formula. Most noticeably, dialogue and exchanges between characters tend to happen much more naturally this time around. Rather than take control of Sean away from the player in every single character interaction, it’s often possible to continue to move around and interact with the environment during dialogue, and even influence the course of conversation by doing or saying things out of turn. It’s a seemingly small change that has a major positive impact on pacing and believability and really enhances the narrative. The only small issue is that very occasionally a line of dialogue can end up being repeated after being interrupted, which happened only twice in my couple hours of play but was slightly jarring both times.
Timing is crucial in other areas too, such as the hands-off moments of relaxation that return from the first season where Sean sits and monologues, talks to Daniel or just watches the world go by. These are some of my favourite moments in this franchise, but now it’s important not to get caught up in the world, or events going on around Sean could be missed. There’s even a sketching mechanic, where Sean can observe his surroundings and draw them into his notebook, though the controls for this are a tad annoying. Again, even while taking a drawing break it’s important to decide how much time you’ll spend on it because the world will continue on around you.
Yeah this guy’s not getting five stars
The first series of Life is Strange had a unique look that leaned heavily on a drawn/painted motif that effectively hid some of its technical shortcomings while giving it some personality. Life is Strange 2 keeps that aesthetic going in most of its presentation, but also comes off as far more cohesive and self-assured. Top-notch animations and some fantastic lighting and texture work combine to great effect, and playing on my PS4 Pro I was wowed by how fluid and sharp it was. Not only is this a surprisingly great technical achievement for the genre but the art direction and cinematography is among the best in the industry. Episode 1 has its fair share of tense and tragic moments but it balances them out with some truly wonderful scenery, especially in the forests of Washington. The warm colour palette during the day and the moody and thoughtful lighting of night sequences really sells the atmosphere of each scene. The voice work is really strong throughout too, especially from the kids playing Sean and Daniel. On top of all that is a beautiful soundtrack that peppers in some superbly-placed licensed music from bands like Phoenix and Bloc Party. This is one gorgeous game to look at, and just as good to listen to, and is a lofty benchmark for its peers to aspire to.
Roads is a great way to start off this new series of Life is Strange. A gripping story with great characters, a multitude of improvements to the gameplay formula and a huge visual leap makes for one of the franchise’s best episodes yet.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher