Back in 2015, a small French company called DontNod released, though Square Enix, the first episode of what would become one of the most beloved games in recent memory. A game that soon garnered a very loyal fan base and wasn’t shy in challenging our moral compasses or taking on difficult subject matters. It was quite a revelation. Fans fell in love with the characters, particularly the main protagonists, Max and Chloe. One a somewhat insecure student would-be photographer who finds she can manipulate time, the other a blue haired, tattooed, punk high school dropout. DontNod themselves were done with the story, but Square Enix wasn’t, and so Deck Nine was brought on board to do a prequel; Life is Strange: Before the Storm, where a younger Chloe met the enigmatic Rachel and followed their budding friendship/romance as a family secret tearing their worlds apart. After that, DontNod themselves announced they were working on a new Life is Strange and as a teaser released the free “The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit” which would tie nicely into Life is Strange 2 of which the first of 5 episodes were released this week.
There’s always a certain expectation when you play a Life is Strange game. You expect to be invested into the characters, you also expect to find yourself swept away by great storytelling and you hope to delight in all those quiet introspective moments and bask in the accompanying soundtrack of original and licensed music that DontNod seems to pick so well. I’m pleased to say Life is Strange 2 has all this and more.
Minor spoilers ahead
Entitled “Roads” – Chapter One has more than its fair share of difficult bends. Using the term figuratively and literally, Life is Strange 2 is a buddy road movie of a game following the flight of two brothers after a tragic incident putting them on the run. The brothers being Sean and Daniel Diaz, where you control Sean.
There is also a supernatural element like the first game except in this case it’s barely seen, even if it does play a large part in some of the more intense moments. Life is Strange 2 is not afraid to roll with its punches in that this is a game definitely for the ages, that once again isn’t shy of tackling the tougher subjects of the world. Life is Strange tackled Drugs, Bullying, Suicide and Elitism; Before the Storm tackled Grief and Infidelity. This new entry tackles Racism and Paranoia head on. Particularly in one incredibly dark scene which hammers home the predicament, the boys find themselves in. Sometimes it’s subtle, like the text chain that Sean has with Lyla (If you don’t believe me, check the dates of a couple of despairing texts). Other times it’s in your face as in the Gas Station portion of the game. Sean and Daniel are definitely outsiders and while some of the people they meet will be friendly, others will not be, although there is an undercurrent of hostility towards the brothers, it’s obvious why. I hope it makes people think why.
I always say you get out of a Life is Strange game what you put into it. It’s very easy to bowl through the story in a few hours but you will miss so much. Read and interact with everything. It may seem superficial but it builds up layer on layer of the rich world and its inhabitants. For example, reading Sean’s texts will not only give you the background on his friends but also fill in parts of the story that you would otherwise miss. For example, Sean’s best friend, Lyla, has a slew of texts already sent that you can go back and read. It will actually take you about a minute to scroll back to the beginning and this effort will separate the hardcore Life is Strange fans from the casual gamer who is dipping their toe in the Life is Strange Universe for the first time.
Like on previous games, there is a diary that Sean will fill up as the story progresses. There are also collectables which come in the shape of sketches that Sean will draw from time to time. At first, this seems time consuming and indulgent but there is a knack to it and it is actually quite rewarding as you see the sketch come to life, line by line.
But what of the story? Well, you play Sean Diaz, a 16 year old impressionable teenager who, like all teenagers, is apprehensive of going on a date and being egged on by his incredibly likeable best friend Lyla. The date itself is to take place at a party and Lyla is determined to make it happen. Sean also has to negotiate his home life with his supportive father Esteban and his cheeky younger brother Daniel. This happy home is soon ripped apart by an incident that will put the brothers on the run.
After the incident, the game changes pace and Sean and Daniel find themselves on the road and alone. Sean becomes the real big brother figure to Daniel, comforting, cajoling, bonding and protective towards him. Gone is the nuisance of a younger brother as Daniel becomes somebody who Sean will protect at all costs.
As Sean Diaz, you will shape the story and relationship with his younger brother Daniel in one of the more cool mechanics of the game. Choices have consequences and as is typical in Life is Strange, these can often be tough and morally challenging. For example, if you steal the candy bar from the abandoned car, are you showing Daniel it’s ok to steal? The more choices you make with Daniel, the more you shape Sean’s relationship with him. It’s a new dynamic and it works to your credit or your cost as you find out later in the episode. I’m sure these choices will have even bigger consequences in later chapters. There is also a choice to interact alone or with Daniel with certain items. Do you scare Daniel by showing him the poster with the bear or do you hide it from him? Do you check the car out yourself or with Daniel? Which makes him see the chocolate bar and thus gives you the dilemma of leaving it or stealing it. The consequences of this action will, either way, impress on Daniel.
As previously mentioned, you can access Sean’s texts and journal. The texts updating through the game and giving a deeper insight into other characters, some of which you will meet and others you will not. Sean’s journal is far more visual than Max or Chloe’s in the previous games, mostly doodles and his sketches which you complete throughout your playthrough.
Controls have never been easier in Life is Strange. Whereas it was often difficult to get into position to interact with one of several items, there is now a clear indicator as to which item is being focussed on. You can move Sean around his environment with the left paddle and look around his surroundings with the right. There is one really nice touch where during a game of hide-n-seek with Daniel that if you spin the view around, Daniel will shout and call you a cheat as you can see that Sean is peeking through his fingers. It’s these little touches that really make it special. While you control Sean, Daniel will actually independently interact with the environment, wandering about and skipping over logs, eating berries and gathering wood.
A marked improvement in the first Life is Strange mainly due to the upgraded Unreal engine being used. Lip sync is much better this time around. Movement is smooth, the environments are gorgeous whether it’s the Diaz family home or the Washington Woodlands.
Once again the Sound guys are on fire. The little nuances, the voice acting and ambience come through loud and clear. There is no clutter. Everything is pronounced. I played it with the subtitles off and heard everything clear as a day. The music once again is wonderful. The returning Jonathan Morali’s affecting score really enhances the scenes. The licensed tracks are more jaunty this time around and the trademark “moments of calm” is melancholic. However, one such “moment” is actually quite joyous and quite interactive.
“Roads” is a strong start to a much loved series that has taken some big risks this time around. Not having the “power” yourself grounds the experience in much the same way Before the Storm did. The Diaz brothers are likeable protagonists. You might not always do the right thing but believe me, Daniel will be picking up on those choices. I found to my cost a simple early infraction would lead to a massive guilt trip towards the end of the chapter. Life is Strange 2 will leave you smiling, anxious, moralising and will tug on your heartstrings until they break and the tears will come. Roads might not be perfect, there are tiny issues such as choices not quite matching up with reactions but these really are little things. I also saw some clipping issues as during a hide-n-seek game Daniel ran right through me. Life is Strange 2 really does belong as part of the bigger Life is Strange story as even before you play it you are asked about your final choice in the first game and the payoff to this is poignant, to say the least. Sean and Daniel’s spirit animal is the Wolf and I can’t wait to see what these two Wolf Brothers get up to in future episodes. If the teaser right at the end is anything to go by, then it’s going to be very interesting.