2015’s Life Is Strange was a life changing experience for me. At the time, I was feeling burned out by episodic adventure games because - and I’m sorry for kicking them while they are down - the Telltale Games had grown stagnant and stale. Rather than exploit a licensed property, developer DONTNOD offered an original tale about a normal young woman suddenly gifted with the ability to manipulate time. How she got the Power was ultimately irrelevant. What mattered most was how she used it and handled the consequences born from it. Poignant and emotionally riveting, Life Is Strange left a significant enough impression on me that giving it anything less than Game of the Year was unconscionable. I was concerned when DONTNOD announced a sequel because Max’s story didn’t need to be expanded. But when they committed to a new story and characters (leaving a Chloe Price side story at the hands of another studio), I was back on board. And here we are now with Life Is Strange 2 poised to deliver another story of ordinary people suddenly faced with the circumstances after being imbued with a new, unexplained extraordinary Power. I’m going to do my very best to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, only because Life Is Strange is more affecting the less you know about it. If that is the case with you, please skip to the final paragraph.
Where the entirety of Life Is Strange’s first season had a dream-like quality to it, Roads, the first episode of the second season, feels grounded and distinctly American. Sean Diaz is a normal, everyday Mexican American teenager living with his father and brother in Seattle. With his attention turned to cellphones and girls, Sean prefers to leave all the childish wonder to his nine year old brother, Daniel. The boys live a comfortable life with their father, Esteban (who’s wife is conspicuously absent), who works hard to keep them all happy and cared for. Life Is Strange 2 is set in the tail end of October 2016, a period of time where much of the country’s racial tensions were stoked by a certain presidential candidate. Although life seems pretty even for the Diaz family, it’s suggested that they are antagonized by their all-white neighbor for no other reason than their ethnic descent. After an all too familiar tragedy strikes, Sean and Daniel are forced to leave home and start a journey south to reach Puerto Lobos in Mexico, a town their father always used to tell them about. As if being homeless and penniless weren’t enough, their lives are further upended by the emergence of the Power made manifest inside an unlikely person.
Much like the first season, Life Is Strange 2 is an episodic adventure game that involves talking with people, interacting with the environment, and making difficult decisions. As a sequel (or new season, however you want to call it), Sean and Daniel inhabit the same universe as Max Caulfield, whose time bending adventures threatened the existence of her home town of Arcadia Bay, but DONTNOD has been emphatic in their desire to tell a new story with new characters (there is, however, a tasteful and rather delightful nod to the first game halfway through the episode). Roads does a fantastic job with establishing the relationship between two siblings forced to grow up and fend for themselves. Sean carries the weight of an ugly world on his shoulders and tries so hard to act as Daniel’s shield, protecting him from the world at large and the circumstances that led to their journey south. The gameplay mechanic of making choices that can influence the direction of the story returns and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if there was anything DONTNOD could do to iterate on it. Like Before The Storm, there’s a heavy gravitas on decision making because you can’t rewind time and pick another option if you didn’t like the outcome. In spite of that, Life Is Strange 2 finds a really interesting way to raise the stakes in player choice: your decisions affect the sort of person Daniel becomes over the course of the story.
Sean takes the lead during the journey, making himself responsible for finding food, shelter, and trying to keep Daniel blissfully unaware of the danger surrounding their predicament. Daniel, on the other hand, is an impressionable, often needy child that looks up to his brother for support and comfort, basing his own behavior on how Sean reacts to different situations. Not only do you have to concern yourself with Sean’s actions and their ramifications but you do so knowing that Daniel’s behavior will be molded by the experience. For example, the opportunity to steal a candy bar may lead Daniel to think it is OK to do so, giving you the gameplay ability to use him as a distraction in a later scene. I love that Daniel exists as a dynamic character that is shaped and formed by your gameplay. It’s a great way to show what effect your actions have in the moment instead of waiting for the end of the game for some sort of payoff. And Daniel was someone I developed feelings of attachment over, wanting to shield him from my possibly negative decisions as much as possible. Both characters are incredibly sympathetic, their voice performances make it so easy to care for them, and I felt bad whenever I had to do something that made Daniel sad or upset. I can’t way to see what the implications are of molding Daniel into the sort of person he may revealed to be by the season finale.
It’s readily apparent that DONTNOD learned a few things after the first season ended. To make their world feel like ours, the characters constantly drop references to real pop culture references, from The Last of Us to Lord of the Rings. These references can be a little jarring to hear at first (I mean, they can name drop Minecraft but they can’t reference a PlayStation or an Xbox?) but it’s a nice attempt at giving this version of Seattle more of a connection to our own. On a similar note, the social climate of the game is a reflection the anti-immigrant rhetoric so carelessly used by the current presidential administration. While there are no “Make America Great Again” hats and bumper stickers to be found, the racism committed by an empowered minority rears its ugly head during the episode’s most dangerous encounter. Life Is Strange 2 dabbles in politics but it is not a political video game. The hateful attitudes expressed by a character is treated in a way that doesn’t feel forced or preachy but at the end of the day, it’s a sad reminder that these attitudes are wholly real.
On a lighter note, DONTNOD has made significant improvements to the visuals for the new season of Life Is Strange. I enjoyed the painted, What Dreams May Come-esque visual style of the first season because it seemed so fitting for the sleepy Arcadia Bay. Roads introduces better and cleaner textures and combines them with excellent lighting effects to paint a really beautiful game. Character animations have also been improved and don’t seem nearly as stiff. Sean, Daniel, and the people they meet look better, their body movements are smoother and feel considerably more natural. Jonathan Morali (of Syd Matters) returns with an even more affecting collection of indie rock and a gentle score that already has me pining for the release of an official soundtrack. Unfortunately, I did encounter some UI issues that caused certain elements, like a tutorial prompt and a tally tracking how much money I had left, to stay on screen until the start of the next scene. The game also crashed once but since it happened right after a checkpoint, I wasn’t concerned about losing progress. I hope we’ll see these mood-killers patched out in a future update.
Roads is another ticket aboard the emotional roIlercoaster that is Life Is Strange, so keep those tissues handy (especially if there is an older or younger brother in your life). I think the following phrase gets thrown around a lot but I really believe in its use here: if you enjoyed Life Is Strange the first time around, then I really believe you will love what the new season wants to do. The visual improvements are fantastic but it’s the believable dynamic between Sean and Daniel and your control over their lives that makes the sequel just as good, if not potentially better, than before. Directors Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch have gone the extra mile to create better realized characters, a more believable setting, and continue to tackle sensitive topics - elements that once again separate Life Is Strange from other games in this genre. Roads delivers a strong first impression and bringing the DONTNOD band back together for another run has gone a long way to make this episode feel as special as the first season. Life Is Strange is back and it’s off to a great start.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.