Leaving behind the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, and its inhabitants, Life is Strange 2 marks a brand new tale from Paris-based developer Dontnot Entertainment. The first episode of this five-part sequel introduces a fresh cast of characters and a new setting to explore while building upon the strengths of its predecessor in clever ways. It’s an emotional, hard-hitting introductory chapter filled with heart-breaking and often uncomfortable moments that set the stage for what looks to be the studio’s most ambitious adventure to date.
This time around, time-altering heroine Max Caulfield and Chloe Price are replaced with 16-year-old Sean and nine-year-old Daniel Diaz. These two Mexican American brothers live with their father Esteban, a good-natured mechanic in Suburban Seattle, Washington.
Players control Sean, an average high school student whose biggest worries are girls, his grades, and the usual teenage drama. However, all of this changes after a dispute with a racist neighbor takes a violent and unexpected turn. With the young men now on the run and forced to fend for themselves, the older brother, Sean, quickly becomes ten-year-old Daniel’s protector and mentor as the pair attempt to make their way to Mexico to start a new life.
Stand By Me
Life is Strange 2 is a coming-of-age story with a strong emphasis on fraternity. And, being a Life is Strange game, it’s a story you’re given a great deal of license to shape. Daniel sees Sean as a role model and will make note of his decisions. And the seemingly inconsequential actions you take early on can manifest themselves in unexpected ways. For example, you may decide to let a hungry Daniel snack on wild berries. While this may fill his stomach for a bit, he could also end up getting sick and, as a result, trust you less. Likewise, going out of your way to scare him in a game of hide and seek may seem like innocent fun. But it could result in the rattled kid not sleeping at night. And we don’t want that to happen, do we?
These themes of brotherhood and mentorship take center stage over the course of this three-hour episode. Sean is tasked with not only keeping Daniel safe but also setting a good example for his impressionable younger sibling amid an increasingly desperate situation. With little money and only a backpack full of whatever you chose to take from your house in the game’s opening moments, life on the road quickly becomes a challenge for the pair. Will you steal to survive? Or will you do your damndest to make every red cent count? Will you solve potential conflicts with diplomacy or violence? The choice is yours – and it’s seldom easy.
Of course, these are just a few minor, spoiler-free examples. As you’d expect, the choices you make become much more consequential throughout the chapter. This balancing act of keeping Daniel happy while trying to maintain his trust is like walking a tightrope. There were several occasions where I found myself agonizing over my decisions, mindful that one wrong move could lead to any number of complications down the road.
While the series has never shied away when it comes to dealing with potentially controversial topics like sexuality, euthanasia, and suicide, Life is Strange 2 continues to push the envelope even further – occasionally with mixed results.
Modern American politics in the age of Donald Trump are front and center over the course of this episode. “You’re the reason we need to build that wall,” a racist store clerk bellows as he chases after the boys. Moments later, he threatens to call ICE on Daniel. And just minutes into the game, we’re treated to a heart-wrenching example of a police shooting of an unarmed minority.
Scenes like this, while certainly topical and a real concern for a great many people in this day and age, occur at a jarring pace. And while it usually works, even this bleeding heart liberal found himself thinking it all was a bit gratuitous. You can count rural Washington’s non-racist residents on one hand in Life is Strange 2. And the one kind soul Daniel and Sean do come across is a courageous liberal blogger who imparts with Sean the knowledge that “everything is political.”
Personally, I appreciate the message the game is trying to send. These are topics that are well worth discussing. I just wish that there were more interactions with the locals that didn’t paint everyone as either a ghastly caricature of a MAGA hat wearing maniac or a paragon of progressive values. This black and white portrayal of modern American politics borders on parody at times and makes the lesson it’s trying to teach feel less meaningful as a result. And honestly, that’s a bit of a shame.
Life is Beautiful
From the moment Sean and Daniel hit the road, it’s clear this sequel is a much more ambitious offering than its predecessors. The characters are much more detailed, indoor environments look even more believable and lived-in, and there’s even a pretty massive wilderness to explore over the course of the chapter.
The sense of scale is quite impressive at times. Trekking through the woods with Daniel at my side reminded me of the hikes I used to take with friends in my hometown when I was a kid. This is made all the more convincing thanks to some wonderfully delivered contextual conversations that occur naturally as you’re meandering about. All of these elements come together to create an experience that feels really natural.
This evolution in terms of visual fidelity and scale is striking. The added muscle of the Unreal 4 Engine and some superb art direction give Life is Strange 2 a quantum leap over the original game and prequel, Before the Storm.
Of course, this being a Life is the Strange game, the soundtrack is stellar as well. The game features original music by Syd Matters frontman Jonathan Morali, accompanied by an excellent selection of tracks from such artists like The Streets, Bloc Party, and Phoenix. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, each piece of music manages to fit each scene like a glove. I’m genuinely excited to find out which other artists will be featured over the course of the next four chapters. Personally, I’m pulling for Scottish post-rock legends Mogwai to make a return.
Life is Strange 2’s debut chapter does a great job of laying the groundwork for Dontnod’s latest episodic adventure. It’s an intense— if occasionally a bit sensationalistic— beginning to the Brothers Diaz’s journey that doesn’t waste any time with formalities. Instead, it throws the player out of the frying pan and into the fire as Sean and Daniel constantly find themselves in harrowing situations. Though it remains to be seen if the rest of the game will keep this breakneck pace, this early taste has me chomping at the bit to see what happens next.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC ; Publisher: Square-Enix ; Developer: Dontnod Entertainment ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 26, 2018
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Life is Strange 2 given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.