Life Is Strange, and then someone dies…
This isn’t a slight on Life Is Strange whatsoever – but sometimes I just want something nice to happen in one of these games. Obviously one can’t build great emotional drama with sunshine and rainbows alone, but as a player you know that every time something good happens to the protagonist in a Life Is strange episode, that a sudden misfortune is usually waiting just around the corner. Again, this is not a shortcoming of the series, but rather it is a sign that the writers have successfully endeared the characters to us in a short space of time. And that is key to the emotional tales that Dontnod try to build in their franchise.
After the pretty conclusive ending to the first series (whichever outcome you choices throughout led you to), it makes sense that the development team decided to go forward with entirely new characters and a new story – albeit one that shares the same universe. Whereas the story of Max & Chloe involved time-travelling mechanics, this new tale of brothers Sean and Daniel on a road trip through the American Northwest sees an entirely different supernatural power slowly begin to rear its head as the episode progresses. What seems like a perfectly happy family unit suffers a disastrous event that forces the two siblings to go on the run and fend for themselves.
And that is the main focus of the episode. Playing as older brother Sean, one must take on the role of provider and protector – making sure that the pair are well-fed, well-rested and kept warm and safe. The dynamic is one of mentor and student, whereby you soon start to notice that your actions and choices will all have clear consequences – both on the world around the pair and directly influencing how Daniel sees the world and what he perceives as acceptable actions. Should you choose to steal a chocolate bar to help survive the hunger pangs of life on the road? Fully expect Daniel to believe that stealing is now permissible. However decide to avoid confrontation and take peaceful actions when threatened and Daniel will conversely learn a better moral lesson. This is the delicate balance you must maintain with your choices throughout.
This choice and consequence gameplay is very similar to that of the first game, but it remains to be seen just how the supernatural power that we see glimpses of in “Roads” will weave itself into future gameplay. The time turning feature in season one was integral to it, making the game stand out from other similar interactive story games (such as those from Telltale that were so popular at the time of its release). Without this mystical twist, the title does little to differentiate itself from its peers. There are a few new touches, such as the ability to manage your backpack inventory – useful for the pseudo-survival mechanics at play in feeding and looking after the brothers. And the whole game engine has been tweaked and tightened up even from the 2017 stop-gap release, Before The Storm.
This tweaking isn’t reserved purely for gameplay interactions, with Life Is Strange 2 looking much nicer than ever before. The game still maintains its stylised, slightly painterly aesthetic, but everything is a lot more detailed and crisp. Performance has also been beefed up, with none of the noticeable slow-down or technical issues that sometimes plagued the first season. Music once again plays a strong part throughout this first episode, like it did in its predecessor. A mix of recognisable licensed music and original compositions from in-house composer Syd Matters help lend weight to the more action-packed moments, as well as lending greater sentiment to the more tender or heart-rending ones.
Finally it should be said that Dontnod have done a great job of finding strong voice actors for the two key roles of Sean and Daniel. Finding child actors who can convincingly carry the emotional weight of a story like this one must be a very tricky task, and child voices can easily run the risk of being irritating rather than compelling. Both leads in Life Is Strange 2 do an admirable job and help to build a solid start to this story. As players we quickly become engrossed in their plight and in trying to help them to reach their destination safely. Of course we don’t want to give away any key story beats, but in just one single episode these two characters are put through a the whole gamut from joy to despair in a believable way. The second chapter seems a long way away when you are eager to know what happens next.