I’ve always had respect for the hardworking people at Dontnod Entertainment. After their forgettable first project, Remember Me, the studio has been continuously improving themselves with a more alternative take on game design. Either by stripping out the romanticized elements of vampirism to deliver a more grounded human perspective in the gothic horror RPG Vampyr, or looking to represent a less explored genre in gaming. The latter lead to their most successful game: the interactive twee young adult drama, Life is Strange. An episodic story that followed the exploits of a college student trying to balance figuring out what she wants to do with her life, her various relationships, puzzle together a missing person mystery, and try not to break reality with her mysteriously obtained time travel powers.
This first season was pretty messy in spots. Time travel in any narrative makes things confusing. On a technical level there were little things – dialogue lip sync, janky character animations, hit and miss voice-acting, etc. – that kept bothering me. And while there were attempts to make realistic sounding young people dialogue, most of the writers at Dontnod are older French men and not young American women from the American Northeast, which lead to some cringe-inducing lines. Not to mention a highly contentious hot mess of a season finale.
But, as a drama, it had a lot of heart. Characters were fleshed out, both the main cast and the supporting roles. The technical limitations were glossed over with a visually appealing pastel art style. There was some appropriate use of moody indie licensed music, giving the whole experience a distinct identity; My So Called Life if it was rolled around in an episode of The Twilight Zone. And the central relationships involved some very tastefully handled LGBT Representation.
Life is Strange 2 by comparison, is a slightly more conventional affair. While still set in the same world, the game features a brand new cast of characters, their own specific challenges and hurdles, and their own scrapes with the unexplained.
This is all made very clear with the game’s prologue. You are Sean Diaz, a teenage boy living in Seattle dealing with the normal issues of a teenager. Worrying about the future, trying to talk to cute girls he likes, figuring out how to get drugs and booze to a Halloween party in the middle of nowhere, and tolerate the antics of his little brother, Daniel.
So it is only natural that after ten minutes of you getting to know Sean’s normal routine that life proceeds to, well, get strange. When a fight between Daniel and the local neighbor, involving a bottle of fake blood nonetheless, escalates to a major misunderstanding with a police officer, Daniel unleashes a blast of telekinetic power. This leaves the neighborhood wrecked, their father and the officer dead, and Daniel out cold with no memory of what happened.
Frightened for their lives, Sean takes Daniel on an impromptu road trip. Running away from the police, from child protective services, and trying to find a way to deal with Daniel. Not just with how to tell him their father is gone, but how to handle his incredible gift.
This is where the bulk of Episode 1: Roads lies. You playing as Sean, traveling on foot through the forests and highways of Washington state, trying to figure out how you and your brother are going to eat, drink, and sleep for the night. Do you try living off the land, begging for money, or maybe try to just steal stuff from other people? What people do you decide to trust? If any?
It’s a great departure from the school melodrama that dominated the first game, and it immediately gives the game a greater sense of emotional and narrative focus. Sean and Daniel are both impeccably written characters with believable chemistry. They fight, they get on eachother’s nerves, and there is plenty of touching quiet moments spent with the two. Not since the bond between Atreus and Kratos in the father-son adventure that was this year’s God of War have I seen a more fully realized child character in gaming.
The relationship even plays a central role in the core gameplay. While Life is Strange 2 treads familiar ground with its adventure game formula of walk around, find items, and occasionally make difficult decisions that will impact the story, a lot of your actions will be continuously judged – or even adopted – by Daniel. It’s a small, but nonethless vital wrinkle that makes each choice that much more impactful, even if it is something small.
There’s a sequence like this early on. After trudging through the woods and making it to a gas station, I found a family sitting at a bench eating lunch. I could have easily ignored them or told Daniel to try to beg them for food, but instead I begged for the both of us. The family ultimately said no, the dad even making a comment about getting a job, but all it cost was a bit of my dignity while little Daniel could hold his head high.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that things are all doom and gloom. There’s an extended sequence in a park early on where you can play games with Daniel, tell ghost stories around a fire, or even just watch the clouds go by. These are minor things that don’t really forward the plot, but Dontnod lets these moments breathe, setting the pace for a melancholic and slow, but thoughtful experience; something I wish more interactive experiences had the confidence to pull off.
In fact, it’s the little extra details and flourishes that really make Life is Strange 2 shine. Not only is the dialogue a lot more natural and believable, Sean and Daniel in particular are exemplary portrayals of Hispanic Americans without ever sliding into stereotype, but the emotional beats of the episode are handled beautifully with expert timing and gravity. The closest thing to an action climax in this entire episode is an escape sequence that I barely remember – despite it revolving around a cleverly designed environmental puzzle – because of the shear beautiful crescendo that proceeds it. Culminating in an ending that had me completely invested in what would happen to these two brothers next.
All of it comes together to make an adventure experience that is right up there with the golden age of the (now sadly shuttered) Telltale Games’ best work.
Life is Strange 2 has a truly amazing start with a fantastic first episode. I’m invested in Sean and Daniel’s journey, I had some difficult decisions to make, and made interesting friends along the way. If you enjoyed the energy and atmosphere of the original game and had some concerns about this new direction, I say go for it.