Life is Strange 2 Review – PC

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Originally Reviewed October 19, 2018

Square Enix and DONTNOD Entertainment have finally kicked off the second season of Life is Strange with Roads; the first installment in the 5-part adventure series that loosely ties into the mysterious narratives taking place in the Pacific Northwest experienced from the first season.  I have to admit, I was super-excited to see how or if this new season was going to spin-off the original; even more so when I started the game and was immediately asked if I had played the first game and to confirm a major plot choice from that game regarding the fate of Arcadia Bay.

Life is Strange wastes little time kicking off what appears to be a thrilling tale of brotherly bonding, exceptional loss, and emotional discovery.  As the opening music kicks in we are immediately introduced to Sean Diaz and his close friend Lyla as they exit the school bus and discuss their party plans for the weekend.  Eventually Sean makes it home and we are introduced to his dad and brother, Daniel and get a revealing look at their family dynamic.  Dad is a mechanic and Daniel is the classic example of an annoying little brother.  There is plenty to discover as you wander the house interacting with anything that lets you, often revealing useful backstory and essential party quest items needed to progress the narrative.

Slight spoilers ahead; an altercation between Daniel and the racist bully next door forces Sean to defend his brother, and during the fight a cop (who is either racist, a nervous rookie, or both) rolls up and breaks things up.  The cop is clearly nervous and unsettled, and when dad comes running out of the house to see what’s up, the cop shoots him.  We hear Daniel scream off camera as some sort of supernatural force sends everyone flying, destroying part of the house and sending the cop car rolling across the pavement.  As more cops are arriving Sean picks up his brother and the backpack he had been filling for the party and they take off.

Admittedly, I had a hard time involving myself in the story at this point, as we have an entire upcoming game based on an impulsive and clearly wrong decision.  Even worse, it was a decision, not unlike many others in the game that are made for you to clearly advance the designers main plot.  I was more interested in seeing what would have happened if they had stuck around and accused the cop of shooting their unarmed dad in cold blood on their front yard, then again, I can turn on the news and see that unfold on an almost daily basis.  Interestingly enough, there is a lot of current politics and social commentary being worked into this episode of Life is Strange 2 including random moments of racism and distrust and even a casual reference to Trump’s border wall.

With Sean and Daniel on the run the game gets decisively more linear and somewhat predictable.  The first objective is to find a place to camp for the night, which includes all the tropes you would expect from gathering firewood to teaching your brother how to skip stones.  When it comes time to eat you might regret packing beer and chips for the party unless for some reason you chose soda and cookies.  Of course the big unspoken topic is that Sean is not telling Daniel their dad is dead and deflecting Daniel’s inquiries about their dad.

After breaking camp the brothers continue their journey south stopping off at a gas station in search of food.  Again, we meet more racist tourists as well as a suspicious lady inside the convenience store.  The anti-Mexican theme is prevalent as you get to decide on if you want to break or enforce the stereotype by shoplifting food for your hungry brother.  You even have the option to use him as a distraction.  But in a disappointing twist further proving your choices don’t matter, when the gas station owner arrives and accuses you of shoplifting (whether you did or not) he smacks your little brother and locks you up in his office for the cops.  After some tense gameplay you manage to escape, but not before another supernatural outburst from Daniel.  Rushing out into the stormy night you stumble upon a travelling blogger, Brody, who invites you into his station wagon and offers to drive you south.  Brody is probably the coolest character in the episode and I hope we see him return in future installments.  He sets the boys up with a hotel and bus fare and parts ways after offering some advice and small gifts.

As the episode winds up we finally get to see some results of all our actions that led up to this point, and I was actually startled at just how much my little brother had been watching me during the past couple of hours.  I was clearly leading by example, but it still shocked me when I discovered that Daniel had stolen something from Brody’s station wagon – something he learned by watching me and my choices earlier in the game.  And of course the game’s ultimate bad decision comes home to roost when Daniel learns that his dad is dead from the TV rather than his big brother.

While it may seem there were a lot of spoilers in this review, none of what I described is surprising and you can see it all coming.  This inaugural episode is predictable, political, and even a bit boring.  There are long meandering moments of reflection built into the natural flow of the game as well as those key locations where you can sit and contemplate the scenery while the soundtrack plays out.  There are also moments where you can sit and draw your surroundings.  These are slightly more interactive in that you get to analyze background and foreground components and then wildly swirl the analog stick or move your mouse to fill out the sketchbook drawing.  It’s a sad replacement for Max and her camera in the first game.

The game is gorgeous with plenty of new enhancements to the engine creating an scenic effect that looks like real-life overlaid with an animation filter.  The colors and lighting are excellent and the camera work is exceptional creating a constant back and forth between dramatic and action-oriented angles.  The voice acting is exceptionally well done, and the soundtrack offers an emotional mix of licensed and original music that really helps to enhance the storytelling.

Life is Strange 2 is off to an emotional yet rocky start, leaving me with more questions which is exactly what a premier episode should do.  I clearly want to see what is going to happen to these brothers; will they make it to Mexico; why is there snow in the teaser for the next episode when they are traveling south into California, will Sean ever reunite with Lyla, and will Brody show up again…  I’ll look forward to finding out all these things and more as I settle in for the rest of Life is Strange 2 coming over the next several months.  You can either jump in now or wait to binge the entire game next year when it’s all out there, but definitely check it out.

Final Series Review – December 7, 2019

It’s been 14 months since my initial review of Life is Strange 2, and now that the fifth and final installment has released I just wanted to share my updated overall feelings about the sequel, having completed the story and uncovering one of the seven possible endings to this tragic tale. Unlike previous episodic games where I would anxiously await each new installment, this time I chose to sit this one out after the first episode and wait to consume the rest of the story all at once, and considering the extended time it took to wrap this up I’m glad I did. I’ll touch on some highlights and favorite moments from the series and try to keep things mostly spoiler-free.

When we last left Sean and Daniel they were on a bus headed south toward Mexico trying to outrun the law who suspected them in the death of a police officer during an altercation at their house that left their father dead. Now we find them hiding out in a cabin in the woods, playing with their newly rescued puppy and testing the limits of Daniel’s newly discovered telekinetic powers. The cold weather and poor living conditions have left Daniel sick and he’s getting worse, so the brothers are forced to leave their cabin and head for Beaver Creek, home of their mother’s parents who just so happen to live next door to Chris (from The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit). Those who have played that game will likely see where this is going.

While it appears that Sean and Daniel have found a new home with their grandparents along with making some new friends, both next door and at the local Christmas Tree market, the police are zeroing in on their location, forcing them to flee once again; this time train-hopping around the Southwest. When the third chapter starts up we find the brothers living in a surprisingly nice campsite with all new friends and a few old ones from the previous chapter, but not before we get to experience a flashback prologue that takes place prior to the shooting that kicked off this adventure. This flashback is actually quite nuanced in that it shows the eventual separation of Sean and Daniel as Sean matures, finds new interests and new friends leaving Daniel feeling lonely and abandoned. After months on the road their brotherly bond has strengthened, but now that Sean has new older friends Daniel’s previous feelings of resentment are resurfacing.

While the campers are enjoying the simple life they do have to work at the nearby pot farm to make money; a tedious job perfectly recreated with a mundane QTE where you are forced to trim nearly a dozen buds with timed squeezes of the triggers. Most of this chapter is setting up the foundation for Sean and Daniel’s future relationship, as you must balance your friends, a potential romance, and your brother’s attention that is now shared with Finn, the cool new kid Daniel seems to prefer over Sean. As with all the episodes in this series, the narrative is dished out at a leisurely pace with occasional input from you to direct the story and register key choices that will affect future events. Equally as popular are the rash of bad decisions made by nearly everyone; in this case Finn who wants to use Daniel’s power to help him rob their boss’s safe. As you might expect, things don’t go as expected with multiple outcomes, some potentially fatal, but in the end it all ends up with Daniel missing and Sean under police custody at the nearby hospital.

Episode 4 goes totally off the rails once Sean, who is now missing an eye, manages to escape and sets off to find Daniel who is now living in Nevada and has been adopted as the mascot for a religious cult as their new “miracle child”. Spoiler Warning – The boy’s mother, Karen shows up for the first time in years and offers to help Sean rescue Daniel. Obviously this triggers a lot of resentment and thoughtful dialogue between mom and son all leading to some serious choices and consequences in this and the final episode. A brainwashed Daniel is eventually rescued after a painful and emotional encounter between mother and sons, but not before attracting the attention of the police and FBI.

The final episode finds mother and sons living in an isolated communal trailer park in the middle of the Arizona desert. Whether you enjoy the story or not this is without a doubt one of the most stunningly beautiful episodes in the series. There were some fantastic visuals in the Redwood forest in Episode 3 but the desert vistas and colorful sunrises and sunsets are truly majestic. Sean and Daniel have made all-new friends; adults who are just trying to escape the trials of civilization. There is also a very special encounter with a certain character from the first Life is Strange game that truly ties the two series together and carries over story elements from that game if you have been using your saved games or at least answered that one question when starting Life is Strange 2.

As the cops and feds are closing in the boys are forced to part ways with their mom and new friends and make a dash for the border. At this point the game gets pretty heavy-handed with its political views on race and immigration; everything from the border wall to racist vigilantes patrolling the border shooting immigrants. It seemed a bit odd and perhaps even insightful, as this is coming from a French developer. The action and choices become quite intense as you near the final 15-30 minutes of the game, but what surprised me the most about the seven possible endings is how they are all calculated; not only on your decisions in that moment, but how Daniel responds based on numerous key choices you’ve made leading up to this point. You might not get the ending you like, but you will get the ending you deserve. I was very happy with my own ending even before going to YouTube to view the others and realizing that, in my opinion, I got the best possible ending.

Originally, I was disconnected from the game, as it was based on one bad choice after another – choices that weren’t up to me, and thankfully the other adults in the game shared my disappointment. It seemed that for the duration of the game I was constantly trying to redeem a bad situation that was only made worse by the script itself. Another minor issue is the sheer amount of backstory that is hidden in Sean’s backpack. Every time a new episode starts there are several new drawings and diary entries you simply must read to be fully aware of what’s going on around you. The cute little wolf narration by Sean is just the tip of the narrative iceberg.

At the end of the day I have to confess I really did warm up to the brothers, the supporting cast, and the overall story arc despite a few heavy-handed political and religious views being forced down my throat. I was impressed with how the game tracked and used my choices during the game and especially at the end – it was even tracking choices made from another game. The whole “decisions matter” concept has been around for a long time but never fully realized until now. I think I enjoyed the game a lot more being able to play it all over the course of a couple of days rather than waiting months between chapters. Netflix has created a new binge culture and I don’t see episodic content lasting much longer; at least in video games.

So, if you’ve been waiting for the final chapter to drop or just waiting to see what I thought of Life is Strange 2 as a complete series, I can totally recommend it to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a tragic tale of brotherly love set against wonderful locations and an interesting cast of sidekicks where your choices truly matter.