‘Did you choose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay?’ These are some of the very first words you see when firing up Life Is Strange 2 for the first time. A palpable sense of dread sets in your bones, as if someone has just asked you a very personal, judgmental question. Well, did you? The answer to that question (at least in this first episode of five) will only grant you a minor change of scenery and dialogue in a much later scene. From the off though, what it does is let you know that this sequel, despite very publicly moving onto new characters and a brand-new story, is set in the same universe as Season 1. But just in case you thought that meant you’d be getting more of the same, you’re in for a shock.
Life Is Strange 2 is a very different game to the original, and indeed Before the Storm, the prequel by Deck Nine Games. It’s in the art direction, it’s in the choice of characters, the choice of music, and in the overall darker tone.
Before we’re even introduced to our main characters, we see a flashforward that will be familiar to anyone who watched the teaser trailer for Life Is Strange 2, although in a slightly-extended form. Not a moment after this sequence recalling found-footage movies like Chronicle plays out, we hear the opening riff of the toe-tapping ‘Lisztomania’ by Phoenix as we’re treated to an overhead shot of smalltown Seattle. A bus pulls up and our new protagonist, Sean Diaz, jumps off, skipping one step with an endearing confidence. He’s then teased on the walk home by his friend Lyla about his chances of hooking up with a girl called Jenn, shattering that confidence momentarily and drawing out a shyness that recalls previous protagonist, Max. This constant contrasting of Sean’s personality is relevant because it shows how adaptable he is; how he changes based on either preference, circumstance or expectations of others. As players in control of him, we will decide how he adapts in any given situation, whether it’s deciding who gets the last chocolate bar, or whether to fight or flee from a dangerous situation.
Things escalate quickly once Sean gets home – although not as quickly as the 20-minute gameplay preview would have you expect. That preview was condensed somewhat and being able to play it for yourself and explore every room and interact with every item ensures that there’s enough breathing room before shit hits the fan that it doesn’t feel too rushed. After getting to know your younger brother Daniel, who you’ll be spending a lot of time with for the next few hours, a series of chance moments collide to culminate in a tragic event – the shooting of Sean’s father by a twitchy white cop. A person of color killed by a white cop in 2016 America? Is it subtle? Of course not. But with a limited amount of time and a big story to tell about brotherhood and survival on the road, it can be forgiven for painting in broad strokes in what would amount to the opening chapter of a novel. Any first chapter should introduce the characters, set the scene and set events in motion for the remaining story to come and Life Is Strange 2 does this very well. The tragic killing of Sean and Daniel’s father is a catalyst for the journey, but it’s the journey itself that matters. From both a story and gameplay perspective.
Tragedy is at the heart of Life Is Strange but what would any game in the series be without a touch of the supernatural too? This comes in the form of a sudden and violent outburst from Daniel (not seen but heavily implied) moments after his father is shot, that seems to suggest he has some sort of telekinesis power which is brought on by shock or anger.
Like Sean and Daniel, we’re suddenly thrust into this new situation with only the clothes on our back and a backpack full of whatever items happened to be in there at the time things went south. Some of those items will have been selected by you too, and even this choice has consequences. For example, pack beer for the party you’re never going to attend and it’s all you and Daniel will have to drink on the road. Hindsight (or second playthroughs) will surely have you reaching for the soda instead. And speaking of going south, that’s exactly where Sean and Daniel are headed, specifically to Mexico, and their dad’s hometown of Puerto Lobos.
This road trip element is now a key part of the gameplay and mostly what sets it apart from the other games in the franchise. It allows for a greater variety of locations and a wider cast of characters, the latter of which will enter and exit the story, shaping Sean and Daniel’s journey and either helping or hindering them along the way.
Being on the open road, it was important for Dontnod to give us a greater sense of freedom than the first game. That’s one of the first things that will strike you about Life Is Strange 2; the woodland environment that makes up the first post-prologue section of the game offers more than one path and there’s a density of detail to the forest that really highlights the shift to Unreal Engine 4. The lighting is also improved, not to mention character animations, including a much more accurate lip-synching method.
Back to that environment though. There’s a wealth of things to interact with around you, but some interactions carry a noticeable difference. Denoted with a blue triangle, they represent interactions specific to Daniel. For example, highlight a trail blaze marked on a tree and you’ll get to option to teach Daniel about them. This sub-interaction becomes almost like an education mechanic. After all, as a younger brother, Daniel looks up to you and – even if he doesn’t know it yet – you’re all he has, and the closest thing now to a father figure and role model in one. He’ll be watching everything you do and say. He’ll potentially notice if you lie and this works as an underlying, albeit invisible, trust mechanic. There’s no ‘Trust’ meter so it won’t always be obvious how Daniel is developing, but thanks to some great facial animation and voice acting work, you can usually tell how something has gone down based solely on the way he looks at you or the way he says something.
Interestingly, I found the way to be most successful with Daniel is to treat him like a real person, or more specifically, a real 9-year-old. When teaching him to skim stones on a river near where they stop to camp for the night, it’s important to be patient with him. Encouraging him and allowing him to keep trying eventually results in him successfully skimming a stone. Give up on him too early and his mood will become deflated, not to mention his confidence in you as a teacher shaken.
There are less drastic variations based on specific choices in dialogue too. For example, mentioning either Minecraft or Lord of the Rings will determine which pop culture references you drop occasionally to connect with Daniel. Other choices, however, you will surely agonize over, making you yearn for Max’s rewind power.
Nowhere is this more evident than a scene set at a gas station/rest stop. A family sat at a picnic table outside the store might have food they could share with you, but you have to decide the best way to approach them. Firstly, cleaning yourselves up in a nearby restroom is one way to attract less attention, but actually asking them for free food is something you’ll have to either do yourself, force Daniel to do or completely abandon out of shame. Inside the store is where thing gets really interesting. New to Life Is Strange 2 is an inventory system of sorts and this includes your wallet with actual money you can spend. As you walk around the shop, useful and necessary items are labelled with either the price or an option to Steal. Considering your limited funds, the Steal option is incredibly tempting, but the consequences are obvious. You’ll have no choice but to decide between necessity (food) and practicality (a sleeping bag), or, if you can, a streamlined combination of both.
Huddled over a laptop at the back of the store is Brody, one of the new side characters in Life Is Strange 2, and one of many new characters you’ll meet (and part ways with all too soon) on your journey. Brody is a big, lovable, bearded eccentric with an even bigger heart. Imagine Seth Rogan gave up acting and hit the road, blogging about nudists and other assorted oddities of 21st-Century Americana along the way. Brody is wise about the ways of living on the road and eager to share his knowledge. He’s optimistic but realistic, following up sage warnings with a good-natured chuckle. His outlook and resourcefulness are infectious and make him instantly likeable. When he rescues you in a tough spot later on, he rightfully earns his place in Sean’s sketchbook – no doubt the first of many colorful characters to find their way onto those pages. Oh, and Daniel gets to adopt a cute puppy, which he bizarrely, but adorably, names ‘Mushroom’.
I won’t go into exactly what situation Brody has to rescue you from but, suffice to say, it’s the first dark fork in Sean and Daniel’s long road ahead. If you thought a game set in 2016 America was going to shy away from Trump-era xenophobia, you’re sorely mistaken. ‘ICE’ and ‘the wall’ are namedropped like firecrackers in a glass room, and I can only applaud Dontnod for daring to go there. This real-world parallel is the most obvious indication that Life Is Strange 2 is striving for realism over idealism this time. The lighting is less romantic and, together with the cinematography, more evocative of realist cinema and American realism art. While natural sunlight casting a golden hour hue was a major factor in the cinematography and atmosphere of the first game, artificial light, especially in night scenes, is used for atmosphere more often here, and makes for some of the most iconic scenes. Streetlights, neon signs and car lights all add to this no doubt deliberate art direction choice. Realist cinema is also paid homage to in the many long, lingering shots of nature and moments of silence, save for environmental ambience. If Gus Van Sant made a videogame, it would probably look something like this. The realism is extended to other details as well. For example, clock any license plate on the many vehicles in the game and you won’t have to look too long to realise you won’t find any pop culture references there, as they’re now more in line with actual real-world plates.
If Life Is Strange was something of a love letter to Catcher in the Rye, then Life Is Strange 2 is a love letter to Kerouac’s On the Road. Because Brody is in possession of more than just anecdotes and a carefree attitude; he also owns a car, the ultimate ingredient for any story about a road trip of any kind. Besides the obvious comfort, it provides the boys with a means to travel greater distances over a short time. The late-night driving offers a quiet, calm respite from the endless daytime chitter of birdsong. A stop-off to stretch their legs at a certain familiar location is sure to instill nostalgia and tug at the heartstrings. Then it’s back on the road, before transitioning to a road near a beachside motel. Sean sits and watches Daniel play with Mushroom, painfully innocent and still entirely unaware of their father’s fate. The scene is framed by the glow of a streetlight that casts a harsh light over Sean, and Brody’s parked car, the only other light coming from a near-full moon. The lighting and cinematography here is some of my favourite in the series. It really is like an American realism painting come to life, perfectly capturing the smalltown ‘unseen America’ the team clearly heavily researched.
The motel is one of the defining establishments of forgotten America, and the perfect place for two boys on the run to relax and wind down. The joy of comfy beds, a warm bubble bath for Daniel and the chance to watch cartoons on TV (an animated Hawt Dawg Man series, of course) is all too wonderful to possibly be true – like the ‘American dream’ Life Is Strange 2 seems to mourn, it is nothing but an illusion; a relic of a forgotten time, like the motel they currently inhabit.
Inevitably, Daniel learns of his dad’s death via the TV, once the colorful, fictional cartoon gives way to an all-too-real news report. You don’t see the moment he finds out. You hear it and feel it first, as you’re outside grabbing Daniel a soda from a nearby vending machine on the upper walkway. Rushing in, Sean finds Daniel in full telekinesis mode, surely confirming the theory that trauma or emotional stress is what provokes Daniel’s powers.
A touching scene follows, as Sean comforts an angry, confused Daniel, calming him down and essentially turning off the power. Daniel is understandably upset you kept your father’s death from him and in the final major choice, asks you promise you’ll never lie to him again. But saying that you’ll never lie to him again is probably as good as lying itself, because deep down you know the road ahead will be tough and you have a little brother to protect at all costs. It’s an interesting dilemma, and the consequences of either choice are not entirely clear yet.
The final scene has our brothers leaving by coach (courtesy of Brody again) and Sean telling Daniel an allegorical tale about wolf brothers, forced to survive alone in the wild, until Daniel falls asleep. The camera pulls back from the coach, panning to a hopeful sunrise. As Jonathan Morali’s incredible music soars, your heart surely will too.
Episode 1: Roads is a stunning introduction to the next chapter in the Life Is Strange franchise. There are improvements abound in graphics, UI and animation certainly, but there’s also a maturity in the writing too and in its tackling of thematic material. It should be recongised and applauded for grabbing the current political climate in America by the horns and putting two Latino brothers at the center of it all. Representation is important for the minorities who should be allowed to feel the joy of seeing themselves in more characters, but it is also important for everyone else to see them, to accept them and to want to be like them.