Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 Review — On the Road
With a focus on new characters and a road trip ahead, Life is Strange 2 finds new emotional ground that is potent and powerful in its first episode.
In a fall season that has given us involving open-world adventures and storylines that reach to epic proportions, there is something to be said for the quietness and sense of intimacy that Life is Strange provides. From an opening screen that highlights the Pacific Northwest wilderness with the soulful tune of acoustic guitar, the sense of personal connection and human relationships that have defined the series have never been stronger in Life is Strange 2.
With the series’ first episode debuting this week, Dontnod Entertainent has returned for the anticipated second season of Life is Strange, after last year gave us the prequel series Before the Storm by developer Deck Nine, and just a few months ago we had a sneak peek into the series’ latest installment with The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Though Life is Strange 2 is surely the follow-up that fans have been waiting for, it’s just as refreshing to see that Dontnod Entertainment was willing to take some narrative risks this time around, even if some of those risks pay off a bit more effectively than others.
After following the story of Max and Chloe in the first season, Life is Strange 2 shifts its focus to a pair of Mexican-American brothers living in the suburbs of Seattle, Sean and Daniel Diaz. Playing as the older of the two brothers, the relationship between Sean and Daniel largely takes the focus of the story and in the first episode alone, the brothers already make the case for being a relatable and sympathetic pair of characters worth following in the same way that the bond between Max and Chloe was so engaging in the first season.
As our own Logan Moore noted in his preview of the game at PAX West last month, Life is Strange 2 makes a great first impression with its story and characters through its engaging and emotional opening section. From the beginning of the episode, which establishes Sean as a typical teenager getting ready to party with friends, and his younger brother Daniel as a feisty, energetic kid with a nearly limitless imagination, there’s an immediate understanding and bond to these characters through their sibling connection. However, Dontnod also does a great job of letting the player discover more about these two brothers (and their father) in an intuitive way by exploring their home and learning more about the Diaz family’s life.
While Life is Strange 2‘s first episode opens by establishing the fairly ordinary life of Sean and Daniel, things soon take a turn for the worst when tragedy strikes and the two brothers end up having to flee their hometown. Now out on their own in the forests near Mt. Rainier, the brothers end up embarking on a greater journey to establish a new life, and the player will have to make their choices, as Sean, in guiding and setting an example for Daniel along the way.
As the first season explored the bond between two young women in the face of adversity (both supernatural and otherwise, Life is Strange 2‘s willingness to buck tradition and focus on a different set of characters and a completely different style of story surely was a risk for Dontnod and the series, but one that I think paid off tremendously. Though there’s certainly a large portion of series’ fans that grew attached to Max, Chloe, and the setting of Arcadia Bay, Life is Strange 2 establishes a story that feels very much rooted in the ways that the series has always been strongest–by telling personal, human stories set in the troubles of everyday life–but in a way that feels completely refreshing from the first season.
One of the strongest ways that Dontnod accomplishes this is by essentially making Life is Strange 2 a road trip story, in which Sean and Daniel work their way along the West Coast of the US to seek refuge in Mexico from the law enforcement on their trail. Though the first season was anchored in the location of Arcadia Bay, this new storytelling structure allows Dontnod to delve into a deeper variety of characters and situations by freeing itself from setting its story inside one set location.
One of the most notable elements of this new narrative direction is the fact that even more so than in the first season, Life is Strange 2 is unabashedly delving deeper into social and political commentary. Taking place in late 2016, Life is Strange 2 makes more than a few references (which are vague, but definitely relatable) to the current political landscape of the US after the 2016 presidential election. Beyond those slighter references, the first episode already brings with it an exploration of some key social issues–such as racism and police brutality–to the story in a way that heightens the tension surrounding Sean and Daniel’s situation and the characters that they encounter.
Though the topic of “politics in games” is one that tends to be a bit controversial, Life is Strange 2‘s exploration of these hard-hitting themes and social commentary is commendable in how it grounds the story and these characters in the issues of modern life. As a pair of adolescents of Mexican descent, the harrowing opening section of the game hits even harder when compared against some similar circumstances that have happened all too often in current news headlines, and make it that much more impactful and tragic. Compared to how games like Far Cry 5 courted more political themes in a somewhat superficial way, Life is Strange 2 actually takes steps toward using social commentary and the issues it delves into in a way that strengthens its narrative and storytelling.
That isn’t to say that Life is Strange 2 is necessarily nuanced in addressing some of these issues — one character in particular later on plays a bit too broadly as an antagonistic, racist stereotype, and another character flat-out states that “Everything is political.” So while Life is Strange 2 sometimes treads a little heavy-handed at points, I’m interested to see how Dontnod develops some of these themes–especially with how contemporary they feel–in the season’s later chapters.
Life is Strange 2 is aiming for a bigger, more complex story and setting than in the first season of the series, though the first episode highlights that the series still works at its best when it aims for its quieter, more poignant moments. As the first episode once again establishes a relatable story with a supernatural twist–in this case, Daniel’s seemingly telekinetic and destructive powers–its most memorable and powerful moments are often the ones without these big sorts of storytelling twists, such as watching the two brothers walk through a forest, as Sean points out various hiking trials and plantlife along the way.
By far one of my favorite examples of this comes at a point later in the episode, when Sean is faced with having to throw away his phone in order to avoid having his and Daniel’s location potentially being tracked by law enforcement. Right before doing so, he sits down and brings up a video of him and Daniel opening presents on Christmas Day, with Sean crying at getting a glimpse of just one more memory before throwing something so personal to be gone forever. During the whole segment, players have the option to throw the phone at any given point, and yet there’s a natural resistance to want to do so given how openly emotional that Sean is getting in the scene. Suffice it to say, this segment genuinely tugged at my emotions.
While this is just one small moment in the whole of the first episode, to me it demonstrated just how far that Dontnod has come in delivering a story that truly speaks to the emotional and human drama that Life is Strange explores at its best. Compared to some of the “growing pains” that the first season of Life is Strange went through in its early episodes–especially its infamous reliance on “hella” cliched-sounding teen lingo–Life is Strange 2‘s first episode is a confident and engaging piece of storytelling, and seeing how Sean and Daniel’s relationship develops over the course of the first episode already has me excited to see the rest of the long road ahead.