For the second season of Life Is Strange, developer Dontnod Entertainment faced the simple and daunting challenge of sanding off the series’ rough edges while keeping its warm heart intact. After playing the first episode, it seems they’re well on their way to doing just that.
On the run
Dontnod’s development challenge is complicated by the series’ shift into an entirely new setting, with a whole new set of characters and a modified play style to go along with it.
Meet Sean, a high school senior in Seattle with simple desires: a girl to spend time with; a good party; a small, warm family he loves dearly in that detached teenage-boy way. But what begins as a lush, domestic story on par with the first game quickly goes off the rails when a chance encounter with a bully and a police officer leaves Sean and his young brother Daniel with a startling new status quo. Their dad is dead, as is a police officer, and Daniel seems to have wild and uncontrollable psychic powers.
The two Mexican-American boys are soon forced to go on the run, with cops, poverty, and the specter of their country’s racism on their tail. This new Life Is Strange isn’t afraid to draw explicitly from some current real-world political conversations. The early set piece of a nervous, irresponsible cop shooting Daniel’s father in his own front yard is uncomfortably familiar, and it’s supposed to be. Sean and Daniel have to cope with the quiet cruelties of being judged for the color of their skin and the assumptions the authorities automatically make about them.
Fortunately, Life Is Strange 2 handles itself with a naturalistic grace that was absent from the first title. The stilted dialogue is largely gone, replaced by a goofy but still familiar take on teen slang. Serious moments are written in ways that fit them, and the voice cast, particularly the performers behind the two Diaz brothers, effectively sells the drama. Life Is Strange 2 excels in quiet tragedy and slow mood-setting, highlighted in conversations between two people who love each other while awaiting something terrible chasing them just a few steps behind.
And just like the first Life Is Strange, there are small flourishes in presentation and production that have a huge effect. When control of the camera is removed from the player, the look of the game becomes impressionistic and wistful, and pastoral beauty is injected into the proceedings in a way one doesn’t often see in video games. The soundtrack is superb as well, accompanying a teenager’s story with the kind of indie gems and rich guitar licks a stereotypical teenager would instantly find compelling.
Brothers are doing it for themselves
Beneath the impressive presentation, Life Is Strange 2 plays like a standard adventure game with a few twists. The player navigates simple spaces, makes choices about dialogue and narrative progression, and completes a few simple (and generally bad) minigames thrown in for good measure. Unlike the original, the paranormal time travel element is gone. The titular “strange”-ness of Sean’s psychic powers have no significance to the gameplay systems (in this first chapter, at least), and largely those powers take a back seat to the more mundane challenges of surviving on the road.
In place of time travel, there is a loosely defined interplay between the choices you make for Sean and the indirect effects they have on Daniel’s behavior. Daniel sees his older brother as a role model, and most of the game’s choices allow you to influence the younger sibling’s actions in various big and small ways. It’s a gameplay device that sells the brothers’ relationship as the central conceit of the experience, though it doesn’t land as effectively as it could.
The problem is that, compared to the time travel antics of the first game, the subtle relationship system just isn’t as effective. Allowing players to redo their choices, to explore all possible outcomes, let the original Life Is Strange entirely pull apart the conventions of 3D adventure games. Life Is Strange 2, by comparison, thus far doesn’t have any way to dive nearly as deeply into its structure. While the series’ storytelling chops don’t require any particular mechanical conceit to make them work, those old ideas are still missed.
Further down the road
Life Is Strange 2 takes what is, at first glance, an unexpected direction for the series. The first game was a queer coming-of-age story, melodramatic and surreal. This new season is something very different, though it’s wedded to the original by a similar devotion to lush presentation and the stories of struggling young people. The writing is taut, emotive, and sharply political in a way that feels honest, while Dontnod’s sense of style is as good as it has ever been. Even those who didn’t find the original game appealing may find something to like here.
While only so much can really be gleaned from the opening chapter of an episodic series like this, almost every element in this first episode is incredibly promising. When the credits roll on this brief introduction, you might be tempted to cry a little or to wistfully breathe in as the soft music plays, the camera pans back, and you soak in the story of these brothers and the journey they have yet to come.
Verdict: Buy it.