A Bold and Challenging Sequel
For me, there are two kinds of superhero stories. The first kind is what we normally see with most Marvel and DC movies. They follow a formula, and fill themselves with disposable action and jokey one-liners. Many of these movies can be good and develop fandoms of their own, but rarely do they stand out in the genre. The other kind involves superheroes, but isn’t really about them. They’re best described as “stories that just happen to have superheroes in them.” In this category, I’d place Watchmen, Logan, and the original Christopher Reeves Superman. They’re character-driven, filled with subtext, and are often lauded for their genre-defining achievements. In another sense, it’s the difference between a normal John Wayne western and a classic like Red River. Or what sets Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings apart from much of the fantasy genre. These stories look beyond simply fulfilling genre conventions – they’re looking to say something vitally important, too.
In the middle of playing the first episode of Life is Strange 2, I got the feeling that it might fit into that latter category. So far, the superhuman powers are there, but the story is focused elsewhere. The game begins during the final weeks before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and focuses on teenager Sean Diaz and his little brother, Daniel. Gone is most of the “hip” slang of the original Life is Strange, and in its place is a biting political narrative. It’s a story of racism, identity, and escape that’s wrapped up in current politics in a way that makes this title feels very different from its peers.
The game starts slow, allowing players to explore the Diaz household like in The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. There are clues for where the game is going all over the place, it just might be a while before you realize it, because the beginning of the real plot eases in and takes control. Sean sees Daniel get bullied by a neighbor and decides to step in, but the incident keeps growing and growing. The cops get involved, there’s a shooting, and some kind of explosion that leaves everyone but Sean and Daniel critically wounded or dead. Knowing how bad this looks, Sean does the only thing he can think of – he takes off, Daniel in tow, and goes south – to Mexico technically, but the game makes no promise that the two will get that far.
The boys end up walking the forest trails of Washington state, where they run into an assortment of people who know about them and their situation. Some act friendly like Brody, the online journalist who looks a lot like Seth Rogen. But not everyone is so trusting and accepting. One trip to a rest stop ends up with Sean accused of stealing and zip-tied in an office by the owner. He’s taunted, kicked, called a thug, and has his citizenship questioned, but whether or not he’s innocent is up to the player’s actions.
It’s the kind of situation that feels ripped from the headlines, giving the scene a rawness that made my stomach clench. I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid for a character in a game quite like this, but there’s little else I could do – some of the characters reminded me of people I know in real life, and I had trouble unseeing those connections. Somehow, Dontnod captures the emotions of the last couple of years into a single game. I see potential in future generations using this story to help others understand what this era of American history was like.
If you’re familiar with the gameplay in Life is Strange, you’ll find more of what you like here, but with some changes. Since most of the episode takes place on the road, this leaves less to investigate like before. However, there a lot of smaller decisions to make that could be the key to Sean and Daniel’s survival. These can range from seeing which wild berries are safe to eat, to stealing and begging for food. Many of these options are dependent on your actions in the past, so screwing around isn’t always viable. There are lives on the line.
I haven’t even mentioned the superpowers much, but that’s kind of the point. Daniel’s abilities are there only as a catalyst for the plot. Much of the episode is accepting that this is something he’ll do again and again, until he learns to control it, but even that realization isn’t fully brought up until the very end. Some might see the focus on politics as a lame substitute, but I think it’s the game’s greatest strength. It’s a kind of video game story we haven’t really seen before, and it just so happens to feature some superpowers in it. There’s no telling where the subsequent episodes will go, since so much happens in this action-packed beginning. It’s easily the best installment of Life is Strange yet and sets up high expectations for the episodes that follow. You don’t want to miss this.
Did you like this review? Feel free to let me know on Twitter, or by emailing me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com. This game was reviewed using a digital copy I bought from the Playstation Network. It is also available on PC and Xbox One.