Life Is Strange 2: Episode 1 – Roads review

Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 review
Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 review
The Good:
  • Powerful story about loss, family, and survival
  • All choices feel like they matter, even the little ones
  • Lots to explore, both in the world and in Sean’s backpack
The Bad:
  • Attempts to explore American race relations feel heavy-handed
  • No Max and Chloe—but it turns out that’s okay
Our Verdict:

With a compelling fraternal relationship at its core and a challenging journey ahead, Roads is a positive and promising evolution for the Life Is Strange franchise.

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I’ll admit, at first glance I wasn’t all that interested in Life Is Strange 2. I’d grown to care about Max Caufield and Chloe Price, the protagonists of DONTNOD’s previous series. Even though that game’s prequel, Before the Storm, disappointed me, the idea of starting all over with a new cast of characters seemed exhausting—especially since they were boys. (Ewww!) Now, I’m perfectly happy to play games with male protagonists (I wouldn’t have many options if I weren’t), but one big reason Life Is Strange resonated with me was its emphasis on the friendship between two teen girls, a theme that doesn’t make the cut in most pop culture, let alone games. So when I saw that the sequel would focus on two brothers, I thought, Meh. I’ll wait for a sale.

Good thing the game went on sale.

Life Is Strange 2 differs from the previous games in a lot of ways, but it turns out that’s okay. In fact, of the three LIS series to date, I believe Roads is the best first episode so far. You play as Sean Diaz, a high school junior who lives with his brother Daniel and single father Esteban in the Seattle area. The story opens on a Friday afternoon as Sean and his bestie, Lyla, get off the bus to the backdrop of indie rock anthem “Lisztomania,” talking about a house party they’re planning to attend that night. Sean likes a girl, Jenn, but doesn’t know how to talk to her. Lyla grabs the phone from his hands and fires off a suggestive text. Problem solved.

The first section of the game, which takes place in Sean’s house as he prepares for the party, introduces him as a three-dimensional teenager. You get to choose if he smokes a cigarette with Lyla or refrains, if he steals money from the “pizza fund” jar on the kitchen counter or not, if he pilfers beer or soda from the fridge, if he tells his dad about his plans for that night or lies to cover his butt. Your initial to-do list involves finding items to take with you to the shindig, which provides a task-oriented way to absorb as much (or as little) as you want of the house’s environmental clues. The interface is familiar: you control Sean directly with the keyboard or gamepad’s left stick and move the camera with the mouse or right stick. Approaching a hotspot causes its label to appear, with the actions you can perform mapped to on-screen icons for your control scheme of choice. I played the episode twice and each time spent about an hour poking around in this early section, to get a feel for Sean and his family situation.

While Sean gets ready for the party, nine-year-old Daniel is working on his zombie costume for Halloween. He and Sean have a believable big brother/little brother relationship, in that Daniel wants to impress Sean and Sean finds Daniel interminably annoying. A bratty younger brother runs the risk of being… well, bratty, but fortunately that’s not the case here, particularly thanks to voice actor Roman George’s nuanced performance. Daniel’s just a kid, being a kid, who gets on his brother’s nerves—especially when he barges in as a zombie while Sean is Skyping with Lyla, eager to show off the fake blood he made from cornstarch.

Sean forces Daniel out of his room and unwittingly sets in motion the chain of events that lead to the game’s true storyline, which has nothing to do with a house party or whether Sean and Jenn will hook up. It’s a skillful bait-and-switch that allows us to immerse ourselves in the Diaz boys’ world before fate suddenly, tragically, yanks it away. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but it involves a scuffle, a nervous cop, and a shooting—and now Sean and Daniel are on the run.

In DONTNOD’s previous series, I complained about the pacing being too slow, especially in the early episodes. Roads seems to start off the same way, but this time for a good reason: once the inciting incident happens, Sean and Daniel can never return to their normal lives. That glimpse into their home and family is the only one we’re going to get. And with no one to depend on but each other, the relationship between the two brothers and the lessons their father taught them will be the foundation for everything that follows.

The rest of Roads feels, appropriately, like the start of a long journey as Sean and Daniel navigate their unplanned situation and get to know each other in a new way. For much of the episode, Daniel doesn’t even know what’s going on. Unable to find the words to explain what happened, Sean tells his little brother that they’re camping and will go home to their father soon. Here’s where the early groundwork laid for their relationship pays off: Sean may have found Daniel insufferably irritating when everything was normal and he could get away with slamming the door in his brother’s face, but like Lee Everett in the first season of The Walking Dead, Sean now has a child to take care of under life-or-death circumstances. This dynamic made me care about both of them—Daniel, the child ostensibly in my care, and Sean, the teenager thrust into the role of parent.

Walking along the southbound highway with a vague plan to go to Mexico, where their father grew up, the brothers’ journey begins in a wooded area where Sean and Daniel must find a spot suitable for spending the night. Wandering the woods gives you a chance to play Sean in different ways. He can be playful by agreeing to a game of hide-and-seek, protective by helping Daniel down a steep drop or taste-testing potentially poisonous berries, instructive by pointing out a raccoon or teaching Daniel how to read trail markers—or you can stay totally hands-off and leave Daniel to fend for himself. Many of these decisions subtly influence the dynamic between the two and the events of the story. Downplay the warning on a “don’t feed the wild animals” sign, for example, and Daniel might have a good night’s sleep, but go out of your way to scare him and he’s sure to have nightmares. Since I felt like I was responsible for Daniel’s well-being, each of these small choices felt as important to me as the bigger moral choices spaced out through the episode.

In the absence of any real puzzles, most of the gameplay comes in the form of interactive dialogue and exploration, with only a few simple Quick Time Events. Occasionally you’ll pick up an item, but you’re more likely to stash it in Sean’s backpack than use it to advance the story. Certain of these objects (billed as “souvenirs”) double as achievements, rewarding you for thoroughly combing the environments. While you can’t control Daniel in this episode, at points you can choose to talk to him or draw his attention to things, which sometimes feeds into the brothers’ relationship. It’s not as blatant as “Daniel will remember that,” but a running wolf icon appears at the bottom of the screen to hint when you’ve done something to influence their bond.

Like the first Life Is Strange, the new series involves a supernatural power, but it’s not clear until late in the episode exactly what this is. While Max’s time-rewind ability often felt like a second plotline tacked on to generate puzzles, this time the superpower is more organic to the story, and at least in the first episode there’s no gameplay attached to it. The time-rewind mechanic often felt gimmicky to me, so I’m on board with this change. Sean also has a creative talent, sketching, which parallels Max’s photography in LIS and Chloe’s graffiti in Before the Storm. At certain points you can prompt Sean to sit and draw his surroundings—a simple (but not completely intuitive) mini-game that involves using the mouse or gamepad as directed until the picture is as detailed as you want it to be. Any sketches you do are stored in Sean’s journal, which contains some older drawings you can flip through to glean backstory. He also carries a cell phone, where you can read previous text chats to learn about his friendships and after-school job.

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