Life is Strange 2 | Principal Platforms: PC (version tested), PlayStation 4, Xbox One | Developer: Dontnod Entertainment | Publisher: Square Enix | Genre: Adventure | Year: 2018
On a narrative level, Life is Strange 2 is many things at once. It’s a deconstruction of popular comic book tropes, as well as an urgent rebuttal against racism, homophobia, and religious bigotry. Chiefly though, this is really a story about empathy. I’m sure if there’s one thing that Dontnod Entertainment desperately wants us all to hear, it’s a plea for compassion; no matter how afraid we might be of people who are inherently different from ourselves.
Life is Strange 2 focuses on the relationship between two brothers and the tragic events that shape that relationship after the pair are forced to become fugitives. Like the first Life is Strange, this similarly heartfelt tale features supernatural heroics that ultimately lead to a fuller expression of the bond between our two central characters.
You play as Sean Diaz, brother to Daniel Diaz; a young Washingtonian who manifests telekinetic abilities upon witnessing his father’s murder. Despite their innocence, Sean fears that racial bias against his family’s Hispanic heritage will help condemn both him and his brother to an unjust punishment, so with no other option left, he gathers the traumatized Daniel in his arms and sets a course for the Mexican border.
Despite playing in an almost identical fashion to its predecessor, Life is Strange 2 is arguably better at generating drama because it doesn’t cast you as the “hero” of the adventure. There are no puzzles to solve nor any particularly dramatic moments that require quick thinking, and the innate spectacle of superpowers is poignant because of your almost complete lack of control over them. Only Daniel has this power, but it’s clear that he’s scared and unready for the responsibility that comes with it. How you care for Daniel is what really matters here.
Video games have certainly become fond of using moral choices as a way of getting players more involved with their avatars, but never before have such choices meant so much. Not only do you have to balance what’s right and wrong in any given situation, but you also need to consider the effect those choices will have on Daniel. Like most younger brothers who don’t have their father around, Sean becomes Daniel’s most trusted and idolized figure, and the young pup will follow Sean’s teachings in beautifully seamless fashion.
If Sean continues to use vulgar language in dialogue options for instance, the impressionable Daniel will follow his example, effing and blinding throughout subsequent cutscenes! A little swearing here and there is harmless of course, but more serious ethical concerns such as stealing and even murder will soon be on Daniel’s mind, and these can be difficult issues to manage when Sean must also ensure the pair’s survival. This makes for an excellent story hook that feels incredibly unique. You don’t really play with a “dark side/light side” mentality here; the choices you make are not considered in such a binary fashion.
You can see hints of this genius in the game’s global statistics. The very first choice you make as a player is whether or not to gift Daniel a chocolate bar. The players who chose the gift option are firmly in the minority, whereas later decisions to appease (or not appease) Daniel are heavily weighted in the kid brother’s favour. That’s not only a testament to Daniel’s likeable growth, but also to how easily you can get attached to the game’s characters if given the time. You’ll care about Daniel because the game cares about Daniel. I can’t stress how important this is to the overall experience, especially because of how strongly the game relies on storytelling technique.
It almost goes without saying that Life is Strange 2 unfolds at a very deliberate pace. You’ll need to look elsewhere if you’re not the kind of player who enjoys combing locations for snippets of insight. There are no puzzles to test your understanding of Daniel’s powers and no physics-based trickery to show them off either. This is a more grounded affair with a slower delivery to match. It’s arguably less exciting than Life is Strange; an understandable repression considering the fugitive concept. Players will need more patience to reach the dramatic moments, but it’s worth it because the bigger scenes can resolve in many different ways.
The video game surrounding the main story is about as structurally sound as the first one was, though graphically things do look more impressive. There is a greater variety of locations with many well-rendered side characters that you’ll sometimes be quite sad to leave behind. There are occasional hiccups with the engine, like how Daniel’s pathfinding sometimes goes a bit wonky, or where the odd villainous female is made to look silly because of her glitchy ponytail. Activating contextual button prompts feels a little off compared to previous games too, and I was surprised at how inferior the music sounded when compared to the memorable songs heard in Life is Strange and its prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
Those remain fringe concerns at best though because stylistically Life is Strange 2 is on point. Dontnod Entertainment are clearly very adept at making this sort of game now and it really shows. The dialogue feels more natural and the status quo is constantly being upended by major plot developments. All of the most effective beats in this sense revolve around the two brothers. Watching their kinship being tested by petty jealousies, squabbles, and the sort of brotherly angst that families can relate to in real life. It’s gripping, magnetic drama that feels all the more real and impactful because of the tools you’re given to help shape it.
Now, it is a valid criticism that the writers are a bit heavy-handed with their political statements and symbolism. But just as equally; it’s sometimes necessary to shout passionately about these things so that people can hear you. For my money, Dontnod Entertainment have handled some very delicate themes with real care here.
Take the romance sequences as a perfect example. The one I pursued in my own playthrough requires players to answer at least three different prompts before the love scene — which had already taken several hours of gameplay to foster — could go ahead. Little touches like that send out very encouraging messages about intimacy and consent, which is especially impressive considering how emotionally stunted this medium tends to be on such matters.
The game’s greatest asset is probably that pacing. It’s damn slow at times; there’s no way around that, but the resulting story rarely comes across as languid or lacking in momentum. Just consider the suite of endings that suit not only the choices you’ve made as a player, but also the choices that have made Daniel into who he is as well. Your effort in composing the wider tale is taken into account right up until the end; never to be negated by some arbitrary final choice. You’ve got to appreciate effort like that.
Overall Life is Strange 2 is a patient, professionally realised drama. It’s a must-play title for fans of the series and another stunning example of the extraordinary places that modern video games can take us to.