Life is Strange 2 is almost a direct reversal of the acclaimed first outing. Where Max and Chloe’s story took place in the same town, largely focusing on the same characters throughout its five episodes and prequel series Before the Storm, the second season barely introduces you to normal life before throwing you out onto the open road. Gone is the fraught navigation of school and everyday life, along with the ability to reverse any social blunders or dangerous accidents. The underlying murder mystery has been swapped out for a much larger political tension, and instead of teenage girls finding themselves we have a tale of two brothers, Sean and Daniel, who are on the run from the law after a tragic accident.
It’s an ambitious change of pace, and a necessary one. Life is Strange has a dedicated fanbase that was built on Max’s time warping powers and anxious relatability, Chloe’s rebellious charm, and the overarching enigma of Rachel Amber. To succeed outside of that story, the franchise needs to put some considerable distance between the two seasons whilst maintaining that core theme of life upset by tragedy and things beyond explanation. Episode 1 does just that, and you spend just long enough in Sean’s normal life worrying about girls, underage drinking, and his annoying nine year old brother to start feeling comfortable before it all gets ripped away. After some slightly heavy handed social commentary leads to tragedy, Daniel manifests a dangerous power, and the two begin their trek across America.
Roads instantly subverts some of the series’ mainstays. You aren’t the one with the power this time, in any sense of the word – instead, you have responsibility, guiding and nurturing Daniel, a bright, naive but inquisitive kid. The game offers teachable moments and opportunities to bond, some obvious, some a little more subtle. Climbing over a fallen tree is easy for Sean but if you don’t help Daniel over he’ll try to climb it himself and fall. If he sees you stealing food, he might pick up the habit. You can send him to beg or distract shopkeepers, or maintain his innocence and shoulder the burden of feeding and sheltering the pair alone. Previous instalments saw your phone become a hub of interaction with other characters, but Sean is forced to throw his away early on, along with any hope of keeping in touch with his friends from before. It’s just the brothers and the long road ahead of them.
This makes encounters with other people fleeting and intense. Before, characters like Victoria Chase, David Madsen and, hell, even Chloe had more than enough time to develop at a slow burn, in some cases showing themselves to be better people than initially thought. The Diaz brothers are in a different position – they have to trust or distrust at little more than face value, and goodbyes to the people who help them along the way might well be forever. Life is Strange is about relationships as much as it is teen drama and superpowers, though, so even small encounters can be incredibly meaningful. It’s harder to pull that off in short bursts, but DONTNOD have managed to pack some memorable encounters into the three hours or so you’ll spend in the first episode.
Some narrative themes are already beginning to emerge. Sean is constantly passing on bits of knowledge his father taught him to the smaller Diaz, and there seems to be an emphasis on the concept of keeping promises even when it’s not convenient. Daniel is nine, after all, and he doesn’t know that the cost of the chocolate bar Sean promised him earlier in the day might mean they go without a proper meal later on. The inventory plays a much larger role in this game – you need to buy food and water as you travel, and cash is obviously not easy to come across as a couple of kids on the run. I found myself regretting not stealing ten bucks from the change jar in the opening act when I could barely afford water and a loaf of bread. As the credits roll on the first episode and the game highlights the choices you made or missed compared to everyone else, it starts to become obvious that we’re not just keeping Daniel safe – we’re shaping him into a young man, one who happens to be some kind of telekinetic wrecking ball. Do we want to encourage a child with that amount of power to be selfish and take what they need from others, or do we go the honourable route and suffer half-empty stomachs every night?
Given the desperate situation the boys are in, it’s easy to justify stealing from a gas station or asking your little brother to beg a travelling family for spare food, but there’s more on the line than immediately presents itself. Our choices obviously impact the kind of person Daniel will become, and Sean is perhaps too young himself to grasp what all those little moment to moment decisions could add up to in the long run. Of course, this all depends on how well our choices translate to future episodes, and it’s something that could fall entirely flat like so many episodic games have before, but Life is Strange has always stood apart in the genre and season two is off to a very strong start.
It establishes itself as a new story with new motivations, and yet strikes so many reassuringly familiar chords. It has the same boundless potential, the same warm, familial overtones, the same opportunities to sit and take in the world around you even when it’s about to come crashing down. More importantly, it shows that the Life is Strange universe has life in it without Max and Chloe, who played a huge part in establishing the franchise’ following. With a long road ahead, it’s impossible to guess at where the Diaz brothers’ story will take them next, but the stage is certainly set for an experience just as rich and emotionally rewarding as the first.
Life is Strange 2 is an episodic game that releases over time. As such we will score each episode individually and provide a final score/TL;DR in our review of the final episode. It is available on Xbox, PS4, and Steam, developed by DONTNOD and published by SQUARE ENIX.