Life is Strange 2 Episode 1: Roads – Lost Hermanos
Xbox One (Reviewed), PS4, PC
Following the critical and commercial success of 2015’s episodic supernatural teen drama Life is Strange, it would have been safe to expect developer DONTNOD to quickly deliver a sequel and subsequently cash in on the fandom which sprang up around the characters of Chloe Price and Max Caulfield. However, rather than take the road most travelled, they opted to allow fellow developer DeckNine to create the prequel series Before the Storm while they moved ahead, in more ways than one.
Leaving behind Max, Chloe and Arcadia Bay, DONTNOD made the decision to use the Life is Strange branding as a means to tell different stories in a shared universe, beginning earlier this year with the release of the excellent (and free) Life is Strange 2 prequel episode/demo The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit which Player2 reviewed on release. As well as showing off the switch to Unreal Engine 4, it also gave players a brief glimpse of the protagonists of Life is Strange 2, Sean and Daniel Diaz.
Life is Strange 2 kicks off in South Seattle in the state of Washington during Autumn, a gorgeous setting which provides both beauty and mystery in equal measure. Sean Diaz arrives home after school to get ready for a party that night, chatting with his father and teasing his younger brother Daniel as he organises enough supplies to ensure he and his friend Lyla will make it through the night. One thing that struck me during this opening sequence is the heavy contrast between the life of Sean and Daniel compared to that of Chris from The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Having played them back to back for the purposes of this review, I wholeheartedly recommend this approach. As Sean meanders around the house collecting food, drinks and drug money, the narrative takes a turn when he rushes outside to resolve a confrontation between his racist neighbour and Daniel which escalates once a passing police officer becomes involved. This sets of a chain reaction of events which spiral further of control than anyone could have predicted. Shortly after, Sean and Daniel are on the run, making their way towards Mexico along the backroads of Washington state and further down into Oregon.
Life is Strange 2’s first episode delivers in spades what fans of the series have come to expect in terms of emotional scenarios, tough decisions with far reaching consequences and quiet moments of introspection that echo the famed ‘pillow shots’ of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, breaking up a sequence and instilling a sense of place and mood in the viewer. Giving away more of the narrative would remove much of what makes this series so enjoyable, but there are plenty of new elements and refinements DONTNOD have included that are worth discussing. First is the dynamic between Sean and Daniel, which I found both believable and compelling as an elder brother myself. Players will find Daniel annoying, entertaining and frustrating over the course of this episode, enhanced by the performance of voice actor Roman George and his chemistry with Sean’s VA Gonzalo Martin. The latter realistically conveys exasperation and caring in equal measure, helping to sell the roiling emotions of a teenager struggling to come to terms with an impossible situation whilst also trying to protect his younger brother from its repercussions. Mechanically, this overarching character development is mirrored in the way Sean’s actions and behaviours impact Daniel throughout the course of the Episode and no doubt the series as a whole. An early example involves Sean being able to scare Daniel a number of times during a journey through the woods, the end result of which means that Daniel is unable to sleep properly that night and loses some faith in Sean. DONTNOD have demonstrated a subtler approach to the implementation of these branching outcomes and much like Before the Storm, the lack of a rewind mechanic makes them more daunting to make. In many ways, Life is Strange 2 works hard to prevent players from too much forward planning, as choices don’t always have the consequence you anticipate.
Aesthetically, Life is Strange 2 is served fantastically by the return of Jonathan Morali as composer and the stylised visuals of concept artist Edouard Caplain, realised more fully in Unreal Engine 4 and the experience this team have built upon since the release of the first Life is Strange title. Music licensing is again on point, although this episode lacks anything close to the emotional punch of ‘Obstacles’ in Life is Strange, ‘Black Flies’ in Before the Storm or ‘Death With Dignity’ in Captain Spirit – I have no doubt it’s coming however, and I’ll probably need some tissues handy when it does. With confidence that seems to have grown since the warm reception Life is Strange received from members of the LGBTQIA community, DONTNOD have tackled a number of social issues that are of particular concern in a post-Trump USA, albeit in what could be considered a fairly heavy-handed manner. I’m hoping that these issues are given the focus they deserve throughout the narrative, with DONTNOD making it abundantly clear where their politics lie in regards to these matters.
After rolling credits on Life is Strange 2 Episode 1, I’m more anxious than ever to see where the story goes, especially given the implication that Captain Spirit protagonist Chris will soon make his appearance. Provided that series fans can deal with the fact this isn’t a story about Max, Chloe or Rachel, Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 is an experience well worth your time with an engaging pair of protagonists and a scenario that I can’t wait to see more of.
It was whilst toiling away in the bowels of the now mythical Australian Gamer forums that Stephen del Prados attempts at writing were recognised by then up-and-coming Matt ‘Hewso’ Hewson as “not terrible”. Since then Stephen has contributed to such sites as The Age’s now defunct Screen Play, the recently retired Black Panel and currently serves under Editor-in-Chief Hewso for Player2.net.au, at least until the pattern of decline obvious in his previous engagements is picked up by Hewso and he is exiled from games journalism forever