Life Is Strange 2 review
Adventure Gamers Awards
DONTNOD did Life Is Strange 2 a disservice when they named it. While this five-part series does take place in the same universe as the original Life Is Strange and its prequel, Before the Storm, it’s a completely different scenario with new characters and a much more serious and ambitious scope. In all other ways but its title, Life Is Strange 2 is a standalone series—and a standout at that.
This is the story of two brothers, Sean and Daniel Diaz, who live a comfortable life with their father, Esteban, in the Seattle suburbs. Esteban is a Mexican immigrant who has been raising sixteen-year-old Sean (the playable character) and nine-year-old Daniel alone since the boys’ mother left the family years earlier. Our initial glimpse of their home life reveals that Daniel idolizes Sean, Sean finds Daniel annoying, and good-natured Esteban has a knack for keeping the peace. They’re a tight-knit, normal family.
In a world where life is strange, however, normal can’t be maintained for long. When a scuffle with a neighbor results in an unexplained explosion and Esteban’s death, Sean panics, scoops up his unconscious brother, and takes off running. This snap decision will drive them through five episodes and as many states as they attempt to flee to Puerto Lobos, the coastal Mexican town where their father grew up.
Each episode takes place in a different state along the way, with a new mini-cast of characters and a discrete plotline related to that location and those people. For me, this jumping around was jarring at first. I’ve grown accustomed to episodic games recycling characters and scenes from one installment to the next, like a sitcom filmed on the same set week after week. Life Is Strange 2 completely goes against this convention, with each act essentially a self-contained game around three to four hours in length.
As a result, it can continually feel like you’re starting over. This made me restless as I played the relatively quiet second and third chapters—I just wanted to get Sean and Daniel to safety, as quickly as possible. But with each episode the stakes increase, until the Diaz boys are so deep in problems of their own making they’re left with no good choices. By the end of the series you can look back and see how each stop along their journey complicated the situation a bit more, leading to an inevitable showdown as Sean and Daniel’s decisions catch up with them at the US / Mexico border.
On a second playthrough, I was able to relax and better appreciate the settings, supporting characters, and interactions between the brothers—especially the humor that emerges when they’re getting along. While a few of the larger plot points can be hard to swallow, the writing shines when it comes to Sean and Daniel’s relationship. Daniel is an earnest, energetic chatterbox who loves Minecraft and fantasy, and we see the best of both characters when Sean meets Daniel on his level. The way these siblings relate to each other is incredibly touching, and it made me love them both. Their impressive voice actors, Gonzalo Martin as Sean and Roman George as Daniel, deserve recognition for their roles in this realistically depicted relationship. (A sweet detail that I gleaned from the Life Is Strange 2 Fandom site: "enano," Sean’s endearing nickname for Daniel, was ad-libbed by Martin; it’s what he calls his own little brothers.)
Writers Jean-Luc Cano, Raoul Barbet, and Michel Koch have also done a great job of evolving Sean and Daniel’s bond and developing their characters. In Episode 1: Roads, the boys are thrust into new roles following their flight from home, with Sean hesitantly becoming a surrogate parent to his younger brother. In Episode 2: Rules, they’re still feeling out the hierarchy of this new relationship, and by Episode 3: Wastelands, Daniel is rebelling, testing his older brother’s loyalty. Along the way their personalities are changing too: Daniel is losing his innocence, more likely to swear and lash out, as Sean becomes more street smart and sure of himself. A stunning cliffhanger at the end of the third episode threatens the brothers’ bond, and this heightened threat stays at the forefront for the remainder of the series. By the final two episodes, the goal is very clear: Sean must protect Daniel, at any cost. You, the player, must protect them both.
That’s easier said than done when innocuous decisions made in those quiet early episodes come back to haunt you. A common complaint of this genre is that choice-driven games only offer an illusion of choice; in the end, most of your decisions don’t have much effect. Such limitations can be an annoyance, but they’re also a safety net, giving you the freedom to try out one thing or another without having to constantly pause and think through the possible repercussions. When big choices are telegraphed by the user interface and even some of those don’t have an obvious impact, it’s easy to assume that everything else lacks accountability.
With Life Is Strange 2, DONTNOD has sneakily, invisibly changed the rules. As described in this blog post and video, Daniel has both a morality ranking and a brotherhood ranking that determine his understanding of right and wrong, as well as the likelihood that he’ll go along with Sean’s instructions. With his father suddenly gone and his world thrown into chaos, Daniel is impressionable and vulnerable. As he and Sean make their way toward Mexico, Daniel doesn’t only need to be safeguarded from lurking danger, he also needs to be taught to behave like a decent human being.
In the early episodes, you lay the groundwork for what type of person Daniel will become. You’ll see the consequences of these choices as Daniel grows increasingly independent and begins to make his own decisions, regardless of what Sean tells him to do. Some of the choices that shape Daniel are obvious, like whether to step in and stop him from hurting an animal, but many more are subtle and not telegraphed, such as whether to pelt him with a snowball. Daniel looks up to Sean as a role model, and unless your version of Sean practices what he preaches, you might be dismayed by Daniel’s behavior.
A few examples of “monkey see, monkey do” emerge early on, such as when Daniel swipes a toy if he sees Sean shoplift, but I didn’t fully appreciate the ramifications of Daniel’s malleability until the third chapter, when the end-of-episode choice summary tipped me off that Daniel can either obey or disobey Sean in the volatile final scene. The impact of Daniel going rogue only gets more serious as the game hits its climax: Sean’s last, crucial decision is a binary choice, but his decision can play out in four different ways depending on whether Daniel’s morality is high or low. This adds a welcome new dimension to the standard good path / bad path rhythm of a choice-driven game, and makes for more complicated and thought-provoking endings.
A nine-year-old’s morality might not be such an issue if Daniel weren’t a superhero (or supervillain) in the making. Remember that unexplained explosion in Seattle that sent the boys on the run? It turns out Daniel has emerging telekinetic powers, and learning how to use them wisely is part of this journey. Since Sean is the character you control, you don’t directly solve puzzles with these powers, although sometimes you can ask Daniel to lend a hand. The telekinetic abilities play a significant role in the story, though, and whether or not to encourage Daniel’s use of them is often the basis of one or more of an episode’s major choices.
Daniel’s telekinesis is really the only strange element of this Life Is Strange narrative. Virtually everything else about the America where Sean and Daniel live is starkly realistic. Issues of race, class, religion, police violence, gender politics, sexual orientation, and marijuana legalization are all touched on, some more gracefully than others. I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes at the first episode’s heavy-handed references to building a wall, but Sean’s later encounter with two bigots who humiliate and dehumanize him brought me to tears. Daniel’s innocent question—why is there a wall along American’s southern border with Mexico, but not along the northern border with Canada?—made me sad about what he didn’t yet understand, and what Sean didn’t know how to explain. In many real ways, this game depicts today’s America, and it’s right to make us uncomfortable.
Such references tend to work better in passing than as major plot points, but that could simply be because the writers’ strengths lie in the quieter moments. (A showdown with a fundamentalist Christian cult definitely crosses the line into soap opera territory, but I was willing to give that a pass because of how it set the stage for Sean to prove himself to his brother.) Life Is Strange 2 gravitates toward controversial issues, and people who turn to games to escape the 24-hour news cycle might be turned off by that. Personally, I found the real-world elements to be relatable and even refreshing. With the exception of Gone Home, I can’t think of another game that so successfully captures the vivid yet mundane details of a specific time and place.
Speaking of place, DONTNOD’s environment artists have outdone themselves, five times over. From the towering trees and rustling foliage of the Washington woods to a snowy small town in Oregon weeks before Christmas; from a green Humboldt County pot farm to the dusty Nevada desert and the canyons of Arizona at sunrise, Life Is Strange 2 is a breathtaking road trip. Diverse characters with extremely natural animations and facial expressions contribute to this rich, living world. The serialized structure complements the overall aesthetic, giving the artists an opportunity to age the characters, change their clothes and hairstyles, and rough them up as the journey progresses. Sean and Daniel are not the same boys at the end that they were in the beginning, and seeing their physical changes as their time on the road takes its toll strengthened my connection to these characters.
The gameplay is focused on storytelling, which is often subtly told through exploration. Every location has loads to look at, details that tell you about this place and what happened before you got there. Sean’s sketchbook is also a valuable resource, growing to more than one hundred pages by the end. A spin on the “backstory journal” that adventure game characters so often carry around, the sketchbook is a mix of doodles and drawings that showcase Sean’s artistic talent, and of jotted notes that let us in on his private thoughts (carefully guarded from Daniel) and fill in the plot gaps between episodes. You can add to the sketchbook by choosing to draw certain scenes you encounter—a simple minigame that seems pointless at first but gains poignancy as the journey progresses. In the early episodes, I skipped the sketching interludes to get on with the story, but by the end I sought them out. I wanted to remember where I’d been.
Sean and Daniel both carry backpacks, which hold an ebb and flow of items picked up along the way. These are not traditional adventure game inventories—you can’t remove items to try to use them—but you can look at them, and Sean’s perspective on each item changes according to what he’s been through. These fluctuating inventories highlight the security the brothers have lost and the uncertainty of their future. In the last episode, Sean finally has a chance to look at a flash drive he’s been carrying since the beginning, after most of his original belongings have been discarded or lost, and peeking back into that old life hammers home how very far he and Daniel have traveled. I love that the game’s designers have depicted these characters’ development in so many ways: their appearance, their speech patterns, the things they carry, the things they’re willing to do to survive.
Life Is Strange 2 is a fascinating example of the episodic format, the first I’m aware of to make the real-world passage of time between chapters part of the fictional story. The timelines don’t match up exactly—the first episode launched in September 2018 but is set in October 2016—but every period of waiting for a new installment to release also signified a passage of time for the brothers, with gaps in the tale that we don’t see. Considering that the game unfolded over nearly one year of the Diaz brothers’ lives and more than a year of mine, I’m sure the sheer amount of time I’ve invested in their story has contributed to my feelings about it. I don’t know if Life Is Strange 2 will have the same impact for people who start playing today and binge play all at once. I hope it does.
I mentioned that there are four main outcomes (slight variations bring the count up to seven). DONTNOD deserves major props for the endings in this game—all four are accompanied by lengthy, fulfilling cutscenes that show how your final decision plays out well into the future. Life Is Strange 2 had a longer than expected development schedule, and creating new character models and locations for multiple end-of-game cutscenes couldn’t have been cheap. The developers easily could have skimped out; I’m so glad they didn’t. Game endings this complete and satisfying are a rarity, and should be savored. I’m also intrigued that no one ending is obviously the good one (although there is one devastating possibility that I think everyone will agree is the bad one). Instead, they’re bittersweet and complicated—just like life. Days later, I can’t stop thinking about the result I got on my first playthrough, and what my decision meant for these characters I’ve grown to care about so deeply.
Since I first played and reviewed the season’s debut episode, I’ve watched the relatively subdued reactions to the series online and had this nagging worry that too many people are missing out on a really good game. The first Life Is Strange was a surprise hit that seriously surpassed expectations, and maybe getting that level of recognition a second time was too much to hope for. I think that’s a real shame, both because Life Is Strange 2 is a better game and because it’s an important one. DONTNOD took so many chances with this project—to hold a mirror up to ugly truths about America; to present a teenage boy’s experience with sensitivity and emotion (especially when their audience expected another story about girls); to focus on authentic, complex, poignant relationships between human beings, and ideally teach us something about humanity in the process.
This is not the game to play if you’re looking to be challenged by puzzles or put your reflexes to the test. And, quite honestly, it’s not the game to play if you’re looking to kick back and enjoy yourself. The reason to play it is to see life through the eyes of someone you’ll probably never be, and to experience what you hopefully never will. This game shows you how it feels to be Sean Diaz: an American unwelcome in his country, an older brother who unwittingly became a father, a good person forced to make bad choices in order to survive.
I will never have, or be, a brother—but now I have an idea of what that’s like. I’ve never had to make the wrenching, impossible decision to sacrifice my needs for a person in my care—except now I have. Life Is Strange 2 made me feel, deeply, and I’m grateful for that.
I did my best for you, enano. I only hope it was enough.