I am a huge fan of Dontnod’s Life is Strange franchise. The original title was one of the best releases of 2015, and the Deck Nine-developed prequel Before The Storm was a favorite of mine in 2017. Despite the occasionally wonky dialogue, both were great at getting into the mindset of angsty, nosey teenagers, which is apparently right in my wheelhouse. So, even when the news broke that the sequel would be moving on from Max, Chloe and the rest of Arcadia Bay, I was still interested. Two episodes into Life is Strange 2, I can say my faith in the French developer was not misplaced.
As mentioned, Life is Strange 2 sets an entirely new course for the series. We ditch the sleepy suburbs of Arcadia Bay for the slightly more populated city of Seattle. There we meet high-schooler Sean Diaz, who is just trying to live the life of any regular teenager. This means palling around with his friend Lyla, helping out his father Esteban in order to earn some extra money, and trying not to get too annoyed by his younger brother Daniel. Since this is Life is Strange, though, everything soon goes to shit. A confrontation between Daniel and a racist neighbor soon leads to chaos. In the ensuing confusion, Esteban is shot and killed by a police officer, who himself is then killed by a mysterious explosion. Panicking, Sean and Daniel flee their home before more police can descend upon the house.
If you played the prequel episode The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, you pretty much already know that the power at the heart of this season is some kind of telekinesis. Outside of the explosion in Seattle and the conclusion, the power really doesn’t play a role in the first episode, Roads. Instead, we focus on how Sean, who you play as, and Daniel can survive with little to no supplies or experience. The brothers will need to bond and learn who they can trust, in a world that can be extremely cruel and nasty. And since neither of them has the power to turn back the clock like Max could, every decision they make is final.
The second episode, Rules, picks up a month after the first episode. Sean and Daniel have made their way to Beaver Creek, Oregon in order to seek shelter with their grandparents. Claire and Stephen Reynolds, parents to the boys’ mother — who left under mysterious circumstances — are a little apprehensive, but soon take the two in. The brothers are able to get their feet back underneath them, and even seem to be set for the long run in the quiet town. A meeting with neighbors Charles and Chris Eriksen, both from Captain Spirit, leads to some unintended consequences, though.
Although both the original game and Before the Storm dealt with serious issues, Life is Strange 2 feels more fraught than either of those two. Supernatural events aside, the shooting in Seattle is not that different from countless real-life events that have happened in this country. Living through such a scenario, and then attempting to deal with the aftermath, is not only exhausting for Sean, but for us as well. The story feels ripped from the headlines in a way that few games are willing (or able) to capture. It’s not all tragedy, though, as the bond building between Daniel and Sean is a major highlight as well. Knowing that your actions have a large effect on how Daniel acts make you really think twice before jumping into a situation. You want to do the right thing for him, even if may not be the easy or fun thing to do.
The road-trip plot trope does make it hard to develop a strong supporting cast, though. I know the story is directly about Sean and Daniel, but one of the best aspects of the original was the great supporting cast. The relationships Max forms, both good and bad, were huge to the success of that game. So far, despite some interesting faces, the sequel hasn’t really done that. Lyla and blogger Brody are stand-outs in Roads, but neither actually make an appearance in Rules. And despite the bonds you can build with the brother’s grandparents and the Eriksens, it’s hard to say if they’ll show up in the remaining episodes. I like the main duo, but the lack of an interesting and developed supporting cast is something I hope doesn’t continue in the next episode.
Since you control the non-superpowered brother, most of what you actually do in Life is Strange 2 is talk. There are a few fetch quests you have to do, and there are other things you can take on — such as household chores — but Sean is more of a talker than a doer at the moment. Again, since you can’t just rewind every poor decision you make, you do need to be careful about how you act around people, though. For someone like Sean, whose skin color and heritage already make him a target, it’s important to always think about the consequences of any action you take. With little physical action so far, it’s these hard decisions that make the game what it is.
For a series that prides itself on giving you control, I was disappointed in the major events of Rules, though. There are two big set pieces near the end of the episode that Dontnod forces you into, even if they don’t make sense for Sean to agree to. They essentially force you out into the open when you need to be hiding, and have you betray someone’s trust against your better judgement. You’re railroaded into one bad decision after another, with no option to soften the blow. I understand that the results of these events are important to advancing the story, but it feels like there could have been a better way to reach the same outcome than what you are given.
While Life is Strange 2 may not be the most beautiful game out there, it does have a great art direction. Dontnod is — once again — excellent at framing moments in the title. The shots used during otherwise moments — such as Sean viewing a video on his phone, or for him and Daniel traveling down the road — make them look appropriately cinematic. At the very least, it looks significantly better than the original. The licensed soundtrack is almost on par with the one from the first game, at least for the moment. Solid cuts from the likes of First Aid Kid, Sufjan Stevens, and Phoenix are used to great effect in-game. It will be tough to match the original soundtrack that Daughter created for Before the Storm, though.
Despite the built-in audience, Life is Strange 2 has its work cut out for it. It’s a tougher, less inviting adventure, but one that holds great promise. Even after some bad decisions in Rules, Dontnod is off to a solid start so far with the sequel. Its less-action heavy approach may still be a turn-off for some, but the series has never been about physical action to me. It’s always been about solid characterization and engaging storylines that address real issues — both of which, the sequel currently is exceeding in. With such an unconventional premise, I’m excited to see how Sean and Daniel’s story moves forward in the next episode.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Square Enix.