Life is Strange 2 Review
A disconnected brotherly bond that goes south
I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with D. Is it Daniel Diaz, the youngest brother from Life is Strange 2 with the supernatural abilities? No, think of something from the game that is less abrasive. Is it Dust? Nope, although there is plenty of that in these desert locations. Donald Trump supporters? We’ve seen a few of those across the five episodes, but this “thing” is even more prevalent. Drawn-out cutscenes? Nah, the real answer is more abstract. Discontinuity? So close… keep going. I don’t care anymore; this game is a disappointment. You got it.
It has been a long and boring road to get here. DONTNOD Entertainment released the first episode of Life is Strange 2 back in September, 2018. It took them over fourteen months to release the next four episodes. Having a pit stop every four months would have crippled most episodic games (not that there are many left), but this sequel gets away with it because there is little story overlap between each one. New faces and new places mean it does not matter much if you don’t remember what happened. It makes sense to release it this way, but playing the episodes in quick succession highlights how inferior it is to the original Life is Strange and its prequel, Before the Storm.
Sean Diaz is a sixteen-year-old boy living in Seattle with his brother and father. While preparing for a party with friends, he is drawn outside when his nine-year-old brother, Daniel, gets into an argument with a neighbor. Sean starts a fight and a policeman shows up just as their father, Esteban, comes outside. In the kerfuffle, Esteban is shot and killed, and Sean’s life is torn apart. The police cruiser is tossed into the air like cardboard, and the officer is thrown across the road, dead. In the panic and confusion, Sean picks up his unconscious brother and makes a run for it.
We learn that Daniel Diaz has telekinetic powers that bubble to the surface when he’s afraid or angry. Sean plans to harness them and train Daniel, so “accidents” won’t draw the attention from law enforcement that want to question the boys over the Seattle incident. So, at least on the surface, it is similar to the first season: two main characters, one with a newly discovered superpower. Since players only control the powerless Sean, it has less practical use compared with Max Caulfield’s ever-present time rewind. You can look at things and ask Daniel to throw them about, but Daniel’s abilities are usually reserved for key moments, out of your control. With a child wielding dangerous magic, things tend to go south quickly.
The brothers are heading south too—Sean’s goal is to take Daniel to Puerto Lobos, Mexico. This is where his deceased father planned to retire. Sean has never wanted to go before. Despite the implication that they are wanted for the murder of a police officer, their main goal is still hard to accept. Sean’s life and friends are back in Seattle. One of the best characters, Lyla, is begging him to return. His hometown has far more pull than any southerly target. But the road trip is unavoidable, taking the pair down the west coast of the U.S. to meet a range of characters.
Daniel is not that keen to follow his brother to Mexico. He would prefer to search for his mother, who abandoned the family when the superhero kid was young. With this comes some conflict. Daniel does not always listen and is, in fact, a brat for around two of the five episodes. Even for the rest of the journey he whines and questions why Sean wants to do this or that. Their regular arguments over when to use the telekinesis power grow tiresome. Daniel is not as likable as Clem from The Walking Dead franchise, even though his attitude may be more realistic. The moments of playfulness are mostly reserved for the second and final episode, but they are fleeting and disjointed.
The episodes are practically unrelated from one another, aside from the brothers and their goal to cross the border. There are huge time skips between each: usually weeks, if not months. In the first episode they are on the run in the stunning forests of Washington. Then they join their grandparents in a quaint Oregon home. Next it’s off to a hippy commune in California to work (or slack off) on an illegal marijuana farm. Disaster strikes in the fourth episode, as it channels David Cage—circa Beyond: Two Souls—when the brothers visit a cult in Nevada. And finally, we hang with some random disillusioned nomads in the desert.
There is so little continuity that it hurts. Only a few characters appear in more than one episode, and usually it is in a cameo role. The sequel has more mature characterization, because there are fewer tropes (aside from the blatant racists), but short-lived characters can’t develop much through a handful of branching conversations. It also puts a lot of pressure on the brothers’ quarreling relationship. Sean has no time to grow, restricted to familiarizing himself with a whole new place and its inhabitants. There are only brief moments in episode three, when Sean mingles with kids his own age and can undertake some optional romance, that he frees himself from being Daniel’s concerned guardian.
At least choice and consequence comes into play during this long road trip. The game pauses and lets you pick from two (or three) options: run or fight, join a heist or stop it, go to bed or get a haircut, and utilize powers or repress. How Sean guides his superhero brother will determine whether a friendly kid is nailed by a car or if that kid helps the brothers escape. An exploitative character might be crushed by Daniel or merely brushed aside.
Filtering choices through Daniel makes outcomes hard to predict; if he regrets killing a wild animal for revenge, it doesn’t stop him from powering up later, in similar retaliation. The link between Sean’s choices and Daniel’s actions is murky. In any case, most differences come at the end of episodes. And since there is a time jump, consequence is an illusion. Sean can read letters and look at images to learn about what happened after the dramatic events of the previous episode, yet the changes are slight. That kid that got smashed by a car is fine, by the way, so what does it matter?
It matters at the end. The choices culminate into a decent finale with four different endings. Daniel’s moral disposition will determine what fate befalls the brothers. There are some good clues in the early parts of the fifth episode, like when our little superhero picks up a scorpion. We can read from this how the final, possibly catastrophically awesome, events will transpire. Behaving consistently will result in a more tolerable outcome. But given there is a hidden moral system, the ending may not turn out as expected. At the very least you will get some minor references to the first Life is Strange and a lengthy final montage.
It will take around fifteen hours to push through the whole five episodes at a leisurely pace, which is roughly the same as the first season. The episodes are about three hours long because of the glacial pacing, not the adventure game mechanics. There is not much gameplay and the dialogue trees are shallow. The longest interactive sequence involved (optionally) trimming marijuana buds and clumsily trying to speak with a time limit. Sean can also walk around and look at various knickknacks, although rarely does this lead to anything important. He does draw wonderful sketches in his notebook though, just like Max took photos, so the world does have interesting corners to sit down and take it all in.
Previous games reveled in the quiet moments, but here the slow scenes are painful and forced. Why is there seventy seconds of Sean standing silently in the shower? The clunky washing animation conveys no emotion and his midriff bruises are no surprise. Why are there minutes of Sean driving along a bland desert road? Because it is a title sequence and they go for an eon. There are just too many of these dull, overlong scenes. In combination with the dismal gameplay, it is far less interesting than it could have been.
While comparatively rare, there are some great visual compositions. An overhead view of a snowy field, bathed in diagonal shadows from pine trees, is jaw dropping. The visuals retain the cartoon style graphics of the original, with warm colors and a neat plasticine sheen. Imagery is soft and ancillary details (like Sean’s notebook doodles) are excellent. Characters and environments are carefully designed without compromising the overall design. Lip syncing is certainly accurate enough, although it still has a way to go to produce emotion that it occasionally stumbles through. Various licensed music tracks pair up nicely most of the time, even if some scenes are oddly silent.
The sequel is not politically silent, with various themes that may or may not resonate. The most overt theme is that of immigration and racism, presented in reverse: Americans fleeing to Mexico. This is an interesting concept, but not one that is done deftly or deeply. The other main theme, aided by the discordant episodic structure, is one championing a nomadic lifestyle. Characters getting away from modern life and criticizing social norms are rather common in the back half. Unfortunately this theme lost me and the game never recovered.
There must be an audience for Life is Strange 2, somewhere. For me, the sequel is disappointing. It has neither the intrigue nor universal appeal of the original. Sean’s goal of reaching Mexico doesn't make enough sense, and he is rarely given time to be anything more than a worried babysitter. Daniel has all the power, literally and figuratively, via the choices that are filtered through him. Every episode is too disconnected from one another, not allowing characters to develop. Plus the entire season is a slog due to dawdling scenes and stale interactivity. At the end of this long and dusty road, it is clear that Life is Strange 2 is well south of the original.