Review: Life is Strange 2 is a beautiful yet heart-wrenching sequel
DISCLAIMER: A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Platform: Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
MSRP: $7.99 per episode, $39.99 for the entire season.
Release Date: Wednensday, Septemeber 26th, 2018.
Back in 2015, Dontnod Entertainment released Life is Strange, a narrative adventure game. The story followed a young teenage girl as she learned to grapple with new supernatural abilities, mend broken relationships, and solve several mysteries lurking in her cozy Oregon town.
Critics and fans alike praised it for its fantastic writing, bold themes, and charming style, making a name for Dontnot in the genre popularized by the soon-to-be-defunct Telltale Games.
Three years and one spin-off later, we finally have a full-fledged sequel. While Life is Strange 2 abandons Max and Chloe, this new tale takes place in the same universe and it’s not super far from the town of Arcadia Bay. While it’s unclear if or how they’ll connect at any point outside of just coexisting in this world, Life is Strange 2 doesn’t need to draw back to the original. This sequel stands on its own with a wholly original story that drastically separates itself from the first game with its themes, presentation, and even gameplay.
You play as Sean, a 16-year-old Hispanic boy who is just your ordinary high school kid. He has trouble talking to girls, he picks on his little brother, he’s pretty rebellious, and so on, you know the type. Just before Halloween, something unfortunate happens on Sean’s lawn and he’s forced to take his brother Daniel and go on the run from the law. Things escalate very quickly and within 30 minutes of the game starting, I was already getting emotional.
Dontnod doesn’t pull their punches in Life is Strange 2, from start to finish you’re constantly choking up, feeling tears streaming down your face, and more. It’s a brutally emotional story that’s rooted in post-Trump America with themes of racism, police brutality, and more. It’s not a super politically charged story, it definitely dabbles in it quite a bit but Dontnod knows when to ease off to not try and force it.
You deal with characters who tell you that you’re the reason we should “build the wall”, making racial comments insinuating that you’re just another criminal, and so on, it’s uncomfortable but real and raw. Just as Dontnod respectfully tackled things like sexual assault in the first game, they tackle some of the really heavy political stuff with delicacy here.
The core of Life is Strange 2 is two brothers trying to survive in a world that looks down on them. A 16-year-old boy is desperately trying to keep his 10-year-old brother fed, clean, entertained, and more but also struggles to try and influence him in a positive way. This is by far a more intimate game than the first, there are extended sequences where you roam the wilderness with no one else around.
You’re not talking to a ton of characters, you’re just learning about these two kids and building their bond to each other. It’s a sharp contrast to the first game where you were on a campus filled with students, teachers, and you could roam a town filled with citizens. That’s mostly gone here, there are people you meet along the way but they’re all purposeful.
You won’t have many side characters who aren’t there to really propel the story forward, you’re not trying to manage relationships with your friends so much, you’re just trying to survive. The choices in Life is Strange 2 feel like they have a lot more weight despite the fact that the apocalypse isn’t approaching, it’s the personal stakes that give this adventure game more oomph to the choices.
Sometimes it’s little stuff like stealing a chocolate bar out of a car for your brother to have, sometimes it’s bigger stuff like deciding whether or not you want to steal food from a gas station in order to be well-fed. All of these choices had me morally conflicted, I know if I do some of these things it’ll help with our survival but also if I make the wrong choice, Daniel will be negatively influenced.
In my playthrough, I had a very limited amount of money. You have to manage your money in Life is Strange 2 to be able to buy supplies and so on, depending on choices you make you could start with quite a bit or you could end up being like me and having only $10.30 when you need way more.
I chose to steal some soda and bread from a gas station amongst other things throughout the game, justifying it with our needs but towards the end of the episode, I learned that Daniel had picked up on this and stolen a toy from someone. Every little thing you do has a consequence, whether that’s a consequence that just weighs on you morally or has a direct impact on what happens to the traveling duo.
The characters themselves feel incredibly authentic. Sean tries to put on a facade for Daniel in order to not clue him in on the reality of their situation but deep down, he’s fragile, scared, flawed. He’s trying to come into his own in this world while simultaneously raising this kid and depending on the player, you could totally fail at being a worthy guardian to Daniel.
One little touch I loved about Sean was that his grammar isn’t perfect, it gives him more layers, makes him feel like a real kid. It’s not super forced either, it’s rather subtle but when you notice it, you’ll appreciate the details in the writing.
Daniel, on the other hand, is this energetic kid, always excited and wanting to have fun. He helps keep Sean grounded, giving much-needed levity to this heavy story. Sometimes little kids in games and movies can be really annoying and Daniel has his moments but it’s done with intention, not to a fault. The interactions between the brothers felt very natural, constantly making me chuckle, bringing a smile to my face. It’s both heartwarming and heart-wrenching given the circumstances, there’s a brotherly bond that Dontnod has nailed to a tee and it’s nothing short of beautiful.
Life is Strange 2’s gameplay is pretty different than the first game with new mechanics and no time travel shenanigans. As mentioned earlier, this is pretty much a survival game. No, you don’t have meters telling you to eat, sleep, or drink but if you don’t do these things when you have options to, you’ll likely face consequences.
You’re constantly making choices like if you should feed Daniel some berries in the woods, what the best food and drinks are to buy to take of the brothers, and how far you’re willing to go just to get a little food in your stomach. Furthermore, as brothers, you’re constantly teasing each other and sharing some tough brotherly love but you have to be careful. If you tease Daniel too much or scare him, he’ll become upset and even potentially have nightmares which effects his behavior towards you. It’s a really interesting way to present this game and it helps create that internal conflict connection between Sean and the player.
Life is Strange 2 also features a drawing mechanic that sort of replaces the photos from the first game. At key points in the story, you’ll come across places to sit down, pull out your sketchbook, and draw what you see. This could be really cool but it falls flat, sadly.
The mechanic requires you to look at your surroundings, hold a button to memorize it, then rotate your analog stick in a circle to draw it. You rinse and repeat this several times for each drawing and it’s pretty boring thanks to the lack of overall engagement. Of course, these moments are totally optional but it would’ve been nice to see a bit more interactivity with these sections to make them more meaningful.
Life is Strange 2 is easily a worthy successor to the original by both remaining true to the tone of the series and finding refreshing ways to separate itself from it. In the first game, I definitely felt a lot of emotions but in Life is Strange 2, not only do I feel, but I found myself involuntarily emotionally reacting to the events of the game.
Dontnod has created something truly special once again and the wait for these remaining episodes will be harder than it has been waiting in the past.
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