**SPOILER WARNING: Some story elements of Life is Strange 2 do get discussed for critique here. If you’re interested in Life is Strange 2 and have yet to know anything about it yet, then… I dunno, read the last paragraph or something.**
The, err, first Life is Strange? NOT GOOD.
Alright fine, it wasn’t bad, but there was room for improvement. Even though I wasn’t the one who reviewed the first Life is Strange for Sick Critic, I can still agree with the statements made, although I do believe Before The Storm is better. Before The Storm’s narrative structure didn’t change, but the age of the characters did, meaning that there was no awkward pause when you realize that it’s 20-year olds saying such stupid shit. Three years later, Life is Strange 2 is here to see if it’s changed enough.
This is the latest episodic title from French studio DONTNOD, a polarizing developer to say the least. Remember Me, the aforementioned Life is Strange, Vampyr, all of these titles either have people loving or hating them, and it’s rare to find an in-between opinion. They have two games in the works: The rest of Life is Strange 2 and Twin Mirror, their most interesting game since Remember Me.
You play as Sean, a Hispanic teenager who is going through typical teenage problems, including being in a loving family consisting of his younger brother Daniel and father Esteban. Things are swell until they are not, when Sean somehow kills a neighbor in an altercation, and— actually, no, let’s not dwell on this, because this needs to be talked about.
Life is Strange 2‘s big angle is commentary on racism, just like how the first Life is Strange had commentary on rampant sexism throughout the state of Oregon. In the first Life is Strange, it was executed poorly, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a 22-year old white male, but because it was a hamfisted message with over-exaggerated examples. Also, DISCLAIMER: I’m not denying that the types of accidents portrayed in the intro chapter of Life is Strange 2 happen, okay? There are countless reports of police brutality every year. However…
Sean gets into an altercation with his next door neighbor, who calls Daniel a “fucking retard”, which escalates to the point of the neighbor breaking his spine on a rock. Anyway, the police come over, point guns at the kids, Esteban tries to defuse the situation, Sean’s in hysterics, Daniel’s the quietest one in the situation and then BANG! Esteban’s dead and Daniel lets out a scream that sets the neighborhood on fire.
I guess that’s why they call it Life is Strange, but what on Earth happened here? Three people dead because this cop couldn’t just tell everyone to calm down, and Sean’s acting like a 10-year old instead of Daniel? I don’t know man, the entire thing just seems off. In truth, the racism angle gets turned down considerably right after the initial chain of events, with there being only one other instance of it happening, when a cartoonishly-racist old white man refers to Sean with a slur, and also says something about Sean being the reason that “we need to build that wall”.
The bottom line is that Sean is now carting around Daniel, who turns out to be Professor X or something, with a road trip set for Mexico. For some reason, it’s set up so that Daniel loses his memory after his dad gets shot or something, except he gets it back to remember the situation with the neighbour, but now he only remembers select parts. I just… Let’s talk about gameplay.
Gameplay is slightly upgraded from the original Life is Strange. You’re still bumming around small areas, inspecting every single piece of paper that hasn’t been consumed by The Void for one line of dialogue, and there are small environmental puzzles every once in a while. I can’t say as to whether or not this will be a prominent feature throughout all the episodes, but there is a neat money-handling aspect that made you think about your purchases. Aside from that, though, there is one small detail that might make or break your opinion.
What’s changed is that now it’s an escort quest, and you’re supposed to keep an eye on Daniel at all times. It’s a noble feature, and it’d be even nobler if it was actually important. You can carry on stuff without calling for Daniel every waking moment, and I believe it was DONTNOD’s way of making the relationship seem stronger? I have no clue, but regardless of the intentions, I’d wish for it to actually work.
Life is Strange 2 has a few technical problems in the same way that I have a few bad reviews. Aside from the usual frame drops, the pathfinding for Daniel is absolutely buggered, and conversations can actually mix up in how they’re supposed to go (example: “Hi!”, “Good, you?”, “How are you?”). It’s not often, but I was playing this game as slow as possible, and it still messed up like this? The weird thing is that all of these problems disappear about thirty minutes before the end of Episode 1, and the writing gets better!
It was kind of bad at the beginning, although it’s partially because it was hampered by some truly awful voice acting from Sean. Daniel, Esteban pre-murder, the fat Seth Rogen lookalike, they all sound and talk naturally, you can believe their characters, alright? I didn’t feel a single ounce of conviction coming from Sean, but I guess crap voice actors for main characters is a trend in DONTNOD games.
One of the main problems is acoustics, as Sean always says his lines like he’s trying to do an ASMR video for YouTube, but even later on, characters voices don’t get dampened or muted by the loud noises. An example would be near the end when Daniel is shouting at Sean in a hotel room, while all of this clutter is flying around the room, and also a dog is barking, but their voices are crystal clear? How do you forget about something like this?
Back to the writing, and what’s really weird is that as soon as the end is near, the animation quality gets remarkably better, as does the comaraderie between Sean and Daniel. They’re rarely given a chance to connect in the first 90 minutes of gameplay, even when there’s absolutely nothing happening, but as soon as they see that motel? It’s magical, they actually start acting like human beings.
The best part of it is easily when Sean has one final talk with someone and he does something after the conversation. I’m not going to spoil this particular part, but it is genuinely one of the most heartbreaking and human actions I have ever seen in a video games, although it does highlight a problem within both main Life is Strange titles: A lack of consistency.
In every episode of the first Life is Strange, you see those moments of blistering genius. Mirror-shine writing, perfectly executed moments and soul-warming tenderness, but they’re always buried underneath an avalanche of piss-poor social commentary, cringe-inducing dialogue, and memes. Episode 1 of Life is Strange 2 is no exception, with the choices being the worst offender.
To go back to the first Life is Strange one last time, the problem with their choices were that is was always easy “Yes/No” questions. It was so incredibly black and white, but in Life is Strange 2, they have an added bonus of ambiguity. To go back to the old man shouting racial epithets at you, I attempted to “Discuss” the problem with him, but Sean didn’t discuss anything. He didn’t explain his case, he just acted mightily suspicious about the food he bought, instead of saying “Ask your wife, old man, I bought this shit.”
Yeah, you could argue that he’s trying to hide from the cops, but why did he enter the shop in the first place? He saw his bloody face plastered on the newspaper outside, and you really thought it was smart to act all cool in the shop, and then lose your shit when someone acts just as normal as everyone else around you? It’s that consistency complaint coming back, but fortunately, the game’s still enjoyable regardless.
The bullshit isn’t piling up to the ceiling anymore, DONTNOD are showing competence and more frequent brilliance in dialogue. It’s no longer filled with inane references to popular media, with Daniel’s talk of Minecraft not actually seeming as cringy as I first thought. Call me insane, but Life is Strange 2 might actually be populated with actual human beings.
It’s not for everybody, and it sure as shit isn’t going to win over anybody who hated either past Life is Strange title, but it should still be enough to tide over fans of the series. It feels like some of Deck Nine’s ideas have transferred over to DONTNOD, and that’s great, because Deck Nine knew how to build a world better, and now DONTNOD are meeting them at an equal level.
I like Sean as a character, I think he is going to become someone I will thoroughly enjoy over the next four episodes, but please tell the voice actor to take the scenarios Sean is involved in into account. Daniel’s superb, Seth Rogen was really neat, the picturesque environments are stunning now, the tender moments are given weight even when they’re not plot convenience. We might be onto a winner here, boys.
The final thing I will mention however, and it’s something you should take into consideration beforehand, but don’t get excited about the menu prompt asking you if you chose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay or not. It doesn’t lead up to the payoff you’d imagine, and to put it a better way, it’s like the episode of The Simpsons where Bart donates blood to Mr. Burns, and all the family gets is a Thank You card. Just saying.
In the end, despite a really poor and confusing start, Episode 1 of Life is Strange 2 is looking to be something special. It’s probably not going to be the episodic adventure game to end all episodic adventure games, but these characters, this world, these ideas? We’ve got a chance for at least Season 1 of The Walking Dead-greatness here. If we’re lucky, maybe even The Wolf Among Us!
Only time will tell.
This review of Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A rocky start shows a promising adventure. Please don't mess up, DONTNOD.
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