Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 – Roads
Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment; Published by Square Enix; Rated Mature; Released September 26, 2018; Available on PS4, XB1, Windows PC; Reviewed on Xbox One X
Three long years and one prequel later, developer DONTNOD is back with the long-awaited sequel season to 2015’s award-winning Life is Strange. Back is the teenaged angst, the hand-painted textures, the American Pacific Northwest, and the feels – dear god, the feels.
The first season of Life is Strange pushed boundaries, strengthened the case for queer narratives in games, and chose to highlight issues unique to the teenaged experience – all while operating within the framework of a supernatural sci-fi murder-mystery. It had a lot going for it based on its premise alone. As that season progressed, however, the narrative shifted from the murder-mystery in order to better develop the central relationship between heroines Max Caulfield and Chloe Price. Develop it did, and I promise I’ll be reviewing that very, very special first season in due time.
For now, however, let’s see if DONTNOD have managed to follow-up on one of this generation’s most surprising hits.
Life is Strange 2 starts without much fanfare, or music in general. A soft Syd Matters melody plays-in our protagonist, Sean Diaz, and the differences between seasons one and two of this series begin immediately. It’s no secret that DONTNOD sought to leave Arcadia Bay, the setting of season one, behind in favor of a radically different approach.
Sean Diaz is no Max Caulfield. For starters, Sean is the son of a mexican immigrant, lives in Seattle, runs for the track team, has a job, plenty of friends, and a nine-year-old brother, Daniel.
We don’t get to see his school, any of his teachers, and only get a vague idea of his classmates – aside from his best friend Lyla. And, like the first Life is Strange, the majority of the subtext within the game is found with selectable notes strewn about the many environments. Aside from those brief interactions, our narrative revolves almost entirely around Sean for the first half-hour to an hour (depending on how thoroughly you explore.)
No premonitions of deadly storms, or anything quite as iconic as Max walking through Blackwell Academy with “To All of You” by Syd Matters in her ears. All Sean has to do is prepare for a party at his friend’s cabin. Simple enough. Talk to your father, Estaban, talk to Daniel, cram some party-favors in your backback from around your house, and you’re good to go.
We are then thrust into our supernatural road-trip narrative. In an emotional scene, especially if you took the time to interact with your family before progressing, sixteen-year-old Sean and nine-year-old Daniel are thrust from their home and must flee south toward Mexico (from Seattle, Washington, no less.) Here, the politics of Life is Strange 2 rear their head, and do so occasionally to mixed results. At the onset, thankfully, the result is strikingly effective.
One can commend DONTNOD for their willingness to approach issues such as immigration, racism, and police-violence so earnestly, but one hang-up I had – a carryover from the first season – is that the dialogue can at times suggest the reading of an informational pamphlet on the dangers of racism, and an adult-slanted understanding of how teenagers discuss the use of marijuana or alcohol. This isn’t much of a complaint, because where DONTNOD excels is in the writing of their characters.
And that’s an important strength to have considering the plot of episode 1, aptly titled “Roads.” This is Sean and Daniel’s story. They aren’t trying to save the world or find missing friends, or really even explain how Daniel has the ability to move objects with his mind – they’re in full self-preservation mode.
It’s a timely story, yes, one that I enjoyed immensely, but I need you, dear reader, to understand that the following statement may seem paradoxical. The narrative here in episode one is hours long if you decide to explore its every nook and cranny, find every hidden collectible or truly ponder the decisions you’re presented with. It’s an incredibly slow start, devoid of much lisenced music, an ecosystem of recurring characters, or the unwinding layers of complicated interpersonal relationships set against supernatural intrigue. No, this feels very long, frustratingly slow to develop, and damn it – it’s better because of it.
This is clearly the start of something much larger, a road trip of epic proportions down to Mexico. If anything, episode one needed to present a state of normalcy before thrusting us into chaos and uncertainty. As well as adequately foreshadow the creator’s intended brand of politics. Oh yes, those politics. And, more importantly, to develop the bond between Sean and Daniel. And oh, buddy did they succeed there.
Sean is prideful, but sensitive to the needs of his younger brother – beyond Daniel’s nine-year-old impulsiveness. Sean can comprehend the racism he encounters, the otherness latched onto him by others – portrayed wonderfully in a scene where he is asked to justify his presence in a store, to prove his innocence in the face of assumed guilt.
And Daniel is, well, awesome possum. He’s everything he needs to be: an adorable foil to our playable character, but sympathetic and uniquely complex enough to sustain a compelling narrative. He has superpowers, an affinity for wolves and other animals, and loves chocolate bars. Love him already.
Without taking time to truly display the bond between the brothers, and bond them to us, the audience, the beginning of this new season wouldn’t feel anywhere near as sturdy.
Considering that it ends in a motel, far away from where it starts, it’s obvious that DONTNOD has plenty more up their sleeve. We’re going to cover a lot of ground over these five episodes. Let’s get excited for it.
As for the gameplay, it hasn’t changed much from the original. Meander through environments to find the answers to easily accomplished puzzles. Check your cell-phone to read texts from your friends and family. Find hidden notes and flesh out the back-story.
Narrative comes first here, and with it, plenty of complicated decisions.
Whereas the original Life is Strange had characters’ lives hanging in the balance with every decision, here it has more to do with how your actions reflect on your impressionable young brother, Daniel. He absorbs your behavior and reacts accordingly. The balance between immediate survival and the long-term consequences of your actions weigh heavily as you progress down the open road. What do you say to hide the fact you are wanted for questioning by police? How do you conceal the death of your father to Daniel? How do you gather adequate supplies with only a meager sum of money? These are the things you must consider while progressing through the narrative.
It’s an interesting, more immediate motivation when compared to season one.
One element missing in Life is Strange 2 is the ability to manipulate time. Your decisions here are permanent, unless you feel like loading a previous save or beginning a new playthrough. We won’t know how our decisions play out until the end. The flip-side to that is how it removes a sense of agency from the player. It’s an easy sin to forgive, as Sean doesn’t have much agency within the context of the narrative.
There’s a bit too much walking, a bit too much sitting, a bit too much exposition, and a bit too little variation to the environments or the set-pieces – there’s one stand-out kidnapping sequence that’s worth not spoiling.
Honestly, seeing as the gameplay and narrative are so inherently linked, the greatest achievement of this first episode is placing the player in the shoes of an immigrant’s son. He doesn’t look like the predominantly white, rural northwesterners. It’s as overt as it comes, but I won’t be the white guy that argues to which degree racism is prevalent in the lives of minorities. It’s not my place, nor my inclination, but in Life is Strange 2 it’s difficult to look away from the systemic issues in the United States that would lead someone to accuse a young man of color of shoplifting, without proof; or for some of us to beg the necessity of a wall along the southern border.
Life is Strange 2 doesn’t touch lightly on these subjects, as I’ve stated, but demanding that it should is insulting to the type of injustices on display. This isn’t a carbon-print of reality, here. Only a response to it.
And it works as well as it can.
Perhaps the most noticeable change between Life is Strange and its sequel are the graphics. It isn’t as striking at first, while you’re walking around the Diaz household or stepping off the school bus, but once the environment opens up into the forest of the Pacific Northwest? Holy shit. The assets on display is fantastic. The environments are lush with foliage and moving parts. Lighting is equally impressive, with god-rays flitting through swaying branches and glistening off of slow-moving water. It’s wonderfully serene.
Also, and I can’t overstate this, the character models look like actual people. Remember, all the textures in-game are hand-painted before being scanned in to the game-engine, so the fact that Daniel has a slight coloration under his eyes, in-keeping with his age and complexion, represents an astonishing attention to detail. Light plays off the angles of our characters’ faces and, holy crap, the lips are synced to the dialogue. What a time to be alive.
If you have the opportunity to play this on a 4k screen, using either the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One X, you’ll enjoy a sharp presentation and near-consistent 60fps performance through and through. Truly the way it was meant to be played.
Sound is also phenomenal. Wind pushes through creaking trees, water babbles along a rocky shore, and voice-work is full of all the “uh’s” and “um’s” for increased verisimilitude. Everything here is convincingly realised. Whether it be papers strewn across a desk, trash spilling from a dumpster, or markings on trees and bathroom walls, it’s all in service of creating a world that feels lived in, real, and worth exploring.
Considering the lethargic, but cathartic pacing, sleeve-worn ideology, the bewildering attention to environmental detail, the beautiful presentation, and rock-solid character work, it’s hard not to consider this a flawed, but wonderful introduction to the next story in the Life is Strange universe.
I’m excited, optimistic, and totally invested. Just like the first time around. I will not, however, allow my enthusiasm to overlook what I perceive as flaws: some rough dialogue, pacing, and a lack of licensed music characteristic to the series.
Bonus points for the Arcadia Bay cameo, though.
3.75/5 – Well above average, but not without flaws. Fully recommend buying.
You can purchase Life is Strange 2 as a bundle on the Playstation Store, Microsoft Store, or from the Square Enix store for $39.99 USD.
Until next time.