The following impressions begin our ongoing review of Life is Strange 2. Once the full season is complete, Shacknews will then have a final cumulative score for the game as a whole.
Life is Strange began its life as a high school drama that touched on elements of the supernatural without becoming a supernatural story. It set up the world of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, with developer Dontnod Entertainment looking to expand beyond that. While Max and Chloe's story is over, Life is Strange 2 represents a new beginning within that same universe. But while the first Life is Strange proved to be a pleasant surprise in the world of story-based games, the sequel looks to be off to a rough start.
Life is Strange 2 follows an older high school boy named Sean and his little brother Daniel. While the first game was more of a timeless high school drama, this second game has a "ripped from the headlines" air to it, focusing greatly on the two kids' ethnicity. While it does express the sibling relationship well, the overt focus on their nationality takes the narrative to uncomfortable places and ultimately feels like a detriment.
Sean and Daniel find themselves on a journey heading south, largely because of a conflict with a neighbor that went horribly awry. An overzealous police officer was called to the scene and quickly shot and murdered the kids' father. Because Life is Strange 2 wants desperately to hammer home that "This is America!" now, the kids find themselves on the run as fugitives. The idea is that, yes, the kids having their fathered murdered by a trigger-happy cop comes secondary to the fact that Sean shoved and injured a white person, because Sean is Mexican.
There are several elements of the narrative that personally bothered me. (Full disclosure: I'm a first-generation Mexican-American whose parents came to the United States in the 70s. They've since earned their citizenship, for those who care.) That's something for me to touch on another day, but from a review standpoint, I couldn't help but feel like Sean's approach to the situation is such an extreme that it doesn't feel realistic. It's established throughout the first episode's opening minutes that Sean has an entire support system of friends and neighbors, but if he were to realize that he could rely on those people and try to fight a clear case of police brutality, then there is no story. The narrative relying on such a huge suspension of disbelief makes it feel weak. And without spoiling further details of the story, Sean's ultimate plan for how to deal with the situation not only sounds ridiculous, but as a first-generation Mexican-American, it honestly made me feel offended. It's the first time I ever had to stop a game in the middle of a review, take a walk around the block, and ask myself, "Is that seriously where this story just went?"
Outside of the flimsy narrative, Life is Strange 2 takes some new ideas and utilizes them to great effect. Dontnod is no longer content with simply interacting with objects and offering dialogue choices. The formula has moved forward with certain dialogue choices that must be selected within a time limit. While that's hardly a new idea for the genre, the passage of time doesn't stop there. Players are presented the option to interact with nearby objects as conversations are unfolding. Other characters will be going about their routines in the background, with players able to either interact with them or simply ignore them and let them go about their business.
Lastly, Life is Strange 2 is at its best when it focuses on the two brothers themselves. The idea is for Sean to not only engage with Daniel, but because he's the only father figure the little boy has left, he has to set an example. That means Daniel is observing Sean's actions and his choices. Sean can either prove to be a good example or set a bad one, with Daniel acting accordingly. It's an idea that I'm excited to see come to fruition in later episodes.
Sean also has entire actions that are tied to Daniel, adding a new dimension to the adventure game mechanic of object interaction. The two can play together, set up camp together, and interact with certain people as a tandem. It makes it so that players don't just interact with objects and people for one character, but for two, with both characters exchanging banter along the way. It's a fascinating idea and Dontnod pulls it off well.
While there's still a lot of time for Life is Strange 2 to surprise me with its narrative, the first episode struck a sour note with me. Beyond some of the absurd circumstances surrounding the story's setup, the attempts at social commentary felt ham-fisted at best and tone-deaf at worst. Dontnod is at its best when it focuses on Sean and Daniel as brothers and I'm hopeful that's where the storytelling pendulum swings in the next episode. Because I have no love for Life is Strange 2 when it focuses on Sean and Daniel as the Mexican boogeymen.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 - 'Roads' impressions