You Should Play Life Is Strange 2

life is strange 2 review

The final episode of Life Is Strange 2, “Wolves,” released on December 3 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. When I try to understand why people did not react with an open outpouring of excitement and glee for Life Is Strange 2 after the success of its predecessor, I think of Marvel movies.

Superhero films strike me as an exercise in talking about the war on terror: Standing in for the United States is a human being with extraordinary power struggling to reach a conclusion on when and how to wield it. While some of these movies try to grapple with the politics of their worlds, the later movies don’t even try—they’re political if you squint but ultimately more about, for example, Tony Stark’s wonderful toys than his place in geopolitical conflict. Marvel Movies make unimaginable mountains of money, while Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a disillusioned soldier returning from the war in Iraq to appear at the Super Bowl, dies at the box office.

As far as I can tell, the sequel is the better game, but it’s a bit like staring straight into the slow-exploding supernova that is our political reality.

Life Is Strange 2

BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE

'I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.'

TYPE OF GAME

IV drip of angst

LIKED

Emotional writing, well-rounded characters, choices that matter.

DISLIKED

Everyone looks like they're made out of wax.

DEVELOPER

Dontnod

PLATFORMS

PlayStation 4 (played), Xbox One, PC

RELEASE DATE

December 3, 2019

PLAYED

15 hours

The first Life Is Strange didn’t make you look at our world directly. Players looked at it through the eyes of Max Caulfield, a precocious teenager who stumbles upon a murder mystery and who also has the ability to turn back time. It went through a greatest hits of teen drama television shows: drug deals, teen suicide, the possibility of a LGBT romance.

It was a surprise smash hit, and Life Is Strange 2 was always going to have to live in its shadow, even before it was announced that it would be an unrelated story with different characters. But Life Is Strange was always flawed, especially when it came to the moment to moment writing, which was cringe inducing at best, and its ending, which came down to a single binary choice.

Life Is Strange 2 makes good on all the promises of the first game. Where the dialogue in the first was stilted and awkward, here it feels fully human. Where the first game had two endings, Life Is Strange 2 has seven, all of them deeply influenced by the choices you make throughout all the games, and they all feel like a natural narrative ending for whatever story you’ve been telling. The final episode of Life Is Strange 2 felt like a perfect end cap to my version of this story, to the choices that my versions of the characters made.

In the first Life Is Strange, you were just making choices for Max. In this one, the choices you make not only affect Sean Diaz, the protagonist, but also Daniel, his younger brother who you’re raising. After the death of their father, who was shot by a trigger happy cop, and in the ensuing chaos, Daniel developed telekinetic powers, killing the police officer. Now the Diaz brothers are on the run, trying to make it to their father’s ancestral home of the fictional Mexican town Puerto Lobos.

Life Is Strange 2 won’t let you not think about divisive, sometimes scary politics of the world we inhabit. This is a story of two children on the run from the law because they simply don’t trust our country’s justice system to not lock them both up and call it a day. The Diaz’s grandparents own a red hat with white writing whose text I couldn’t quite make out but was familiar enough. One of the crust punks they get to know ran away from home because he was going to be forced into conversion therapy. When Sean and Daniel make it closer to the border they’re waylaid by a couple of vigilantes that take it upon themselves to capture illegal immigrants.

Despite how sobering this story can be, it’s the connection to our world that gives Life Is Strange 2 its enormous heart. Every episode practically pleads with you to care about the kinds of people you’d normally overlook. In the panhandling crust punks, Sean and Daniel find allies and friends, and for Sean, maybe even love.

The Arizona commune provides a respite for the weary brothers near the end of their journey, and a chance to meditate on what it means to be free. Had Sean and Daniel stayed put in their Pacific Northwest suburb, they would never have met these people, never created such strong connections with them. If there’s anything that Life Is Strange 2 wants to say, it’s that everyone in the world deserves dignity, happiness and love.

The most important thing that the sequel inherited from its predecessor in its writing is its almost embarrassing earnestness. In some cases, I felt like the characters were all but turning to the screen to say, “racism is bad.” At worst, it’s mildly corny. For the most part, it’s refreshing to see such candidness in an industry where getting the developers of military shooters to admit that their games contain politics is like pulling teeth. Life Is Strange 2 doesn’t offer much of an escape from the world, but that’s why it’s worth playing.

By the time I reached the end of Life Is Strange 2’s final episode, I had been on the brink of tears for hours. As I’d later discover, each of the seven endings of the game relies not only on the choices you’ve made as Sean but also on what you’ve taught Daniel. If you try to make a choice that runs counter to the morality you’ve shown Daniel through your words and actions, he can disagree with you and take a different tack. The ending I got is reflective of a Sean that taught Daniel to live within society’s rules, and the fate of the Diaz brothers seems appropriate for that story.

Still, I wonder if my ending would have been more satisfying if I had played more selfishly. There is nothing neat or comforting about the endings of these games, nothing so narratively pat as the end of the first game where Arcadia Bay remains relatively unchanged. This isn’t an allegory—this story asks its players to engage fully not just with the game but with the world it draws from. Life Is Strange 2 won’t provide answers, but the question is worth asking.


Comments

    I haven't played the last episode yet. Not sure when I'll get around to it. Life is Strange 2 is okay, but it didn't grab me like the first game did, or even the prequel game did.

    The story it's trying to tell just doesn't seem suited to this sort of game. In Life is Strange 1 you were visiting the same locations every episode and seeing the same people over and over again. This gave you a connection to the characters and made you want to see how they would develop in future episodes.

    In LiS2 you're on a road trip, which means every episode is a new location and a new cast of characters. It makes it hard to care about anyone you meet when you know you're not going to be seeing them again next episode. Plus the road trip angle makes the story sort of predictable, as you also know every episode will end with you having to shuffle off to a new place.

    If LiS2 was a traditional game, where the entire thing was available from the get go, it wouldn't be so bad because you could just sit down a smash through it as a single story. The Last of Us for example is essentially the same sort of road trip story, but you don't care when you move on from places and characters because it all feels like part of one continuous narrative, whereas LiS2 feels really fractured because of the episodic nature of the game.

    Aside from the story not really being suited to this sort of game, it also has problems making you actually care about what's happening in it. The whole goal is "get to this place in Mexico", and you can sort of understand why the main character Sean wants to get there, but the player isn't really given any reason to care. You could replace "place in Mexico" with any other location in the world, and it would mean the same thing to the player.

    There's no hook to make the player want to finish the journey and get to that end destination. One Sean and Daniel get there they might be safe from the cops, and that's it. LiS1 hooked the player with a murder mystery, time travel mystery and natural disaster mystery. TLoU gave the player an impactful reason for travelling: reach the destination and you could cure the zombie plague. There was a clear "something is going to happen when you get there" plot. But with LiS2 you get there and what? You're just there.

    Maybe something amazing does happen when you're there. As I said, I haven't played episode 5 yet. But there's nothing in the narrative of the first 4 episodes to suggest it'll be any different to the several other safe spots Sean and Daniel reached and stayed in over the course of the story so far. To put it another way, the way the story is structured, Mexico doesn't feel like a destination, but just another stop in the trip.

    The story also suffers from something almost all stories with kids suffer from, which is that the main character's younger brother, who you have to spend the game looking after, is an insufferable jerk. Maybe he's written realistically given his age and the situation he's in, but that doesn't make him any more enjoyable for the player to be around. He spends most of the game being a nuisance and an asshole, and feels like he's always dragging the player/Sean down and keeping him from actually having fun and doing interesting things.

    And speaking of Daniel, he also highlights another reason the LiS2 isn't as good as the first one, which is gameplay. In LiS1 you had time travel powers you could use regularly during the game. Talk to someone, take the conversation one way, then rewind time and use the knowledge you'd gained to take the conversation in a different way. See someone open a door, walk down the hall and the door close behind them, then rewind time so you were standing close enough to the door to slip inside before it shut.

    A lot of that stuff was pretty scripted, but it was fun. And you always had the power available to you and could use it for stuff that didn't really matter. Like if you just wanted to see a scene play out again, or listen to the same conversation again for any reason.

    That doesn't exist in LiS2 because the player character isn't the one with the power. It's his brother who has telekinesis, and you only get to use it during these heavily scripted story moments. You can't just use it while out in the world to interact with people and places in fun ways. And those story moments where you do get some control to it, where you have Sean advising Daniel how to use it and so can choose which rock to have him move around and the like, are fairly boring.

    And going back to story for a moment, the telekinesis doesn't really feel connected to the story in the same way Max's power does in LiS1. It sets off the inciting incident the causes the road trip to happen, but otherwise it feels just sort of there. Max's power felt like there was an actual reason behind it with the storm plotline and her deer spirit animal. As though the universe wanted her to have the power for a reason. Daniel just sort of has his power because it's a Life is Strange game and so there's got to be some sort of supernatural happening.

    I've just realised how stupidly long this post is. I didn't mean for that when I started. I just had some thoughts.

    TLDR: Life is Strange 2 is okay, but it lacks the kind of narrative and gameplay hooks the first game had to really draw you in.

      Been waiting for the whole game to release before I played this one. but you've just confirmed for me what I had been fearing about this game all along. I'll still get it at some point but I won't be holding hope for it to be better than the first game.

    I might get around to playing episode 3 onwards now that the end is there. I played LiS and BtS well after their original releases and everything about them (except maybe the graphics) is just better than the sequel for many of the reasons listed a couple of comments up.

    I haven't played LiS 2, but I did play the first one. Reviews for the second one have seemed pretty mixed, with the little brother frequently mentioned in the ones I read as a drag on the story.

    What ultimately decided me against playing it was that in 1 you were playing the person with powers, whereas in two you weren't.

      The real deciding factor should be whether you're OK with the narrative it's trying to tell - you're playing as a kid that is in way over their head and stuck looking after their younger brother. It's a story about disempowerment, responsibility and the sacrifices responsibility demands - so you don't get to have the fun you want to as a result of the narrative. If that doesn't work for you the 'powers' and who had them wouldn't really matter, the game is about finding the beauty in small moments, seeing the good in people that wronged you and trying to pass on morals and ideas you (as the young protagonist) aren't even fully comfortable with yourself.

      The narrative conceit of being the guide to the brother with the powers is that of a new parent terrified of the impact their children might have independant of your wishes. If that doesn't land or work for you then neither will the game, but if it does the powers and who has them is a very minor concern and one that won't ruin the game for you.

    LiS 1 is no doubt the more bombastic, immediate narrative - I'm certain this is why most will prefer the first. 2 is less dramatic, more considered and a much slower burn. To get the most from the game demands that you spend time in it, rather than simply head to the next destination, it's very much structured like a road trip.

    In my eyes 2 is the better game, though one that didn't have anywhere near as personal an impact on me as the first did. That's no insult, and I'd actually rather the series (assuming it goes on in the future) carries on in the way it did in 2, but 1 was a lethal injection of angst, nostalgia and regret that felt pretty familiar, while 2 was less relatable to me.

    There were a lot of wonderfully realised characters that came far ahead of those in the first game, though with a couple, especially in Episode 4, that were disappointingly very much black and white did leave some moments ringing a little hollow. Where the first focused on Max's abilities and what she did with them, the second focused more on how Sean narrativised their journey than on specific moments in it or even Daniel's powers. His sketchbook / diary is so much more important to 2 than it was in 1 because a lot of the smaller choices that previously lay in Max's powers and the world around her now lie in what Sean records, whether he records it and why he records it in the way he does. Max's photos were sort of collectable bits that added texture to the world, but Sean's drawings evolve and change as he grows and with the recap narrative at the opening of each episode after the first and the ways that sketchbook will be unique to your play through those drawings become really exciting, I'd love to see a future game push that even further.

    It's definitely got issues, episode 4 didn't land for me, a lot of the time adults will give straight up awful advice that makes for a better game but makes a lot of the adults feel like children and a couple of the explicitly racist characters just come across as cartoon characters which leaves some of the points the game wants to make feel less engaging than they might have otherwise. There's also less of a strong feeling of place that LiS 1's Arcadia Bay had as a result of the road trip narrative, and this structure also lead to conversations or revelations that were taking place weeks or possibly months after I feel they would or should have done in real life, which is a little pet peeve of mine.

    Much like the first game's 'hella' awkward dialogue, 2 has a lot of things you kind of have to get over (though I thought the dialogue was a lot better this time around) but once you do it's pretty damn fantastic, and I absolutely loved it.

    The ending for me was much more of a pay off this time around. Luckily my choice and the way I raised Daniel synced up and we got a bad ass ending that I was happy with. After watching the other endings, I'm happy with the one I got.

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