Clearing the Backlog: Life is Strange 2 Episode 1

Life is Strange, the breakout hit by Dontnod, ranks as one of my favorite games. While the visual style can be grating sometimes and the lip syncing can be horribly, hilariously off on occasion (or all the time), the story is absolutely superb. I’m the kind of gamer that can forgive a lot of faults if there’s a good story. Game looks like absolute garbage, but the story is Oscar-worthy? Sold. I’m also a huge, huge, HUGE fan of adventure games from the likes of Sierra (may they rest in peace). The adventure genre is famous for having perhaps some of the best narratives in the industry. While the adventure genre’s heyday is long behind it, a couple of gems still pop up here and there. Life is Strange is one of those gems.

I could go on for days talking about how much I loved Life is Strange, but I’d like to instead talk about Life is Strange 2, the sequel that was released in September. First things first: If you haven’t played any games in the series and have an interest in doing so, turn back now, for I will be mentioning spoilers. Lots of’em.

One of the first things that immediately struck me about Life is Strange 2 was how absolutely powerless Sean, the protagonist, is. In fact, he is an ordinary teenage boy. There’s nothing special about him. It’s his younger brother, Daniel, that holds the power. Yes, in Life is Strange 2, you, the player, do not have special abilities like the first game. Instead, your younger brother possesses a strong and destructive telekinetic ability, one he is initially unable to control. Taking the power out of the player’s hands was a surprisingly brilliant move. At first, I was upset; I wanted powers. I wanted a new set of abilities to solve puzzles with. Taking the powers out of our hands, however, presents a new and unique challenge.

Now you must mold your younger brother, and shape him into whatever you want. Will you turn him into someone who will do anything to survive, or will you teach him there are some lines you just don’t cross? The game presents you with a myriad of choices, much like the first game, that range from small and seemingly inconsequential to gut-wrenching and far-reaching. What’s new here is that the seemingly small and inconsequential choices actually matter now. Daniel will learn and grow based on your actions, no matter how small they may appear. For example, while arriving at a rest stop with barely any money, you’re tasked with finding food for Daniel and yourself. The day before I had promised him a candy bar. Now, the reality of my situation dawns on me. Do I hold up my promise and buy him a candy bar? It won’t be very filling, but it shows I’m a man of my word. I could also steal the candy bar, or a number of other things in the store, but that sends a message to Daniel that stealing is ok. I opted to pay for everything and had to make some tough decisions about what to buy and what to leave behind, but I got him that candy bar as I promised, and I also got him a toy, to show that I do care.

Apparently, there’s a variation of events where Daniel, based on your own actions in the store and the events leading up to it, steals something. In my game he didn’t, because I didn’t steal anything. I absolutely love this mechanic, the ability to shape and mold my younger brother based on my actions. It feels real and organic, as most of these choices happen organically in the gameplay and do not appear as 50/50 coin flips that you actively select.

Once again, Dontnod’s strength seems to be in the characters and the interactions they have. The characters feel real and alive, and their interactions feel organic. The game focuses heavily on racial tensions, something that is all too real these days, and considering Sean and Daniel Diaz are of Mexican descent, they encounter a lot of racism. One instance, at the same rest stop mentioned earlier, particularly stands out. The owner of the rest stop, an older white gentleman, recognizes the two brothers as being fugitives. One thing leads to another, and Sean is chained to a radiator in the backroom of the rest stop while Sean is hiding somewhere outside. The two eventually escape and encounter a character brilliantly brought to life by Seth Rogen (something that took me totally by surprise). Rogen’s character acts as a guardian and guide for the two boys, helping them on their way and helping them get settled. All of these interactions and characters feel real, their situations organic, and the consequences of their actions meaningful (and not always apparent).

Perhaps my favorite moment is the conclusion of Episode 1 where the two brothers are in a motel (paid for by Rogen before he left the boys to their own journey). Rogen had previously told Sean that he needs to tell Daniel what really happened to their father. Anxiously, I wanted to rip the band-aid off and get it over with. Daniel had a right to know what happened, and I wanted to get things over with. The game made sure that process took a little time, and Sean wanted to make sure the moment was right. Daniel is watching TV after a bath, so Sean goes to get a soda right before he tells Daniel the truth. All of a sudden, the lights begin to flicker and Daniel shouts. Sean runs back to the room to find Daniel in front of the TV with a vortex of objects swirling around him. Desperately, Sean tries to reach his younger brother, to calm him down. This moment is gut-wrenching and powerful. I almost teared up a little playing it. My description of the moment does not do it justice.

The mechanics in the sequel haven’t changed much since the first game. You still walk around a scene and interact with the objects in it. A small difference here, though, is that you can’t rewind time anymore. Previously, your actions and choices could be erased and re-done to a certain extent. Now, your actions are permanent and cannot be redone. It isn’t as big of a change as some might think, though. I never found myself wanting to re-do my actions. The game also looks a little prettier but retains the same art style as the first game (a decision I fully support, as I quite loved the art style in the original). Dontnod fixed a lot of the issues from the first game and kept a lot of the mechanics that worked. Their focus this time around seems to have been more on the storytelling than the engine or the mechanics. There are definitely improvements to both, but it’s clear that the story is the big focus.

Overall, Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 is a strong start to a new chapter in the Life is Strange series, and I’m eager to see where the story goes, and where the Life is Strange universe will go next. There’s a couple of nods to the first game for those familiar with it, but the sequel can be played with no prior knowledge of the series. I’d recommend playing the first game, but to each their own.

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