9.5
Score

Pros

  • Strong writing and a unique setting
  • The best use of "D.A.N.C.E." ever
  • Impactful choices
  • Experimental and transgressive - in a good way
  • Tight pacing

Cons

  • Sometimes character models load in after a scene starts
  • Camera angles occasionally glitch out
  • More scenes with minor characters would be nice

Final Verdict

Wastelands is an excellent chapter in the Life is Strange 2 saga, and features some of the best character development yet. This game continues to be political and relevant in a way few others could dare to be.

MAKING OUT IS PUNK ROCK

After a night of hard partying, Sean Diaz, ever the teenager, is late for work. His friends yell his name from the back of the flatbed that serves as their ride. The gruff driver, Big Joe, lays on the horn incessantly. Roused from his slumber, Sean jumps into action as the song “D.A.N.C.E.” by Justice electrifies the scene. Sean sprints to the truck as everyone chants his name. After he hops on, the truck takes off, and he lets his legs dangle off the back. The air around him is clear, and the California redwoods are stunning in their majesty. Everyone, even Sean’s younger brother Daniel, seems alive and excited. Though he’s probably hungover and maybe questioning the skunk tail he got last night, it’s rare to see Sean so happy. As the vehicle careens around corners and zooms through the forest, it’s hard not to get caught up in the joy of the moment. Everything seems just right.

Then, as the song keeps going, players are reacquainted with what this “work” actually is. We see a day in the life of Sean and Daniel’s job on an illegal pot farm. Cultivating plants, trimming buds, and working for men with guns who don’t care, and might not even pay at the end of the week. In just moments, the game takes players through a warm, if ordinary, moment and juxtaposes it with the cold reality that hides behind it. The images, combined with the excellent choice of song, leave a lasting impression. They will stick me long after this game wraps up.

There are several impactful scenes like this one. Another, somewhat different, is just before the montage. Everyone in the little hippie commune working on the farm sits around the campfire late one night. Their discussion starts off casual, but eventually brings out their worst memories. As they talk, Sean can drink, smoke, or throw stuff into the fire if the player wants him to, but the point is to listen. Characters paint pictures of their lives before the farm, of the people that they used to know, the experiences they shared – all as if they really lived them. When the stories become too somber, Sean can choose to leave, but if he stays, it’s a chance to learn more about him. His views on cute boys. Whether or not he wants a haircut. Having been to my share of bonfires, I couldn’t help but vibe with the moment. It was as if Dontnod bottled my experiences and boiled them down to their essence. Not to be too hyperbolic, but I felt like I was really there.

These two moments aren’t the only ones I found myself relating to, but they’re important because of the universal experience they convey. I will never experience Sean’s life for myself, but thanks to the the interactive nature of games, I can interact with the world through his eyes. This is the goal of many video games: to let players slip into the world and actually roleplay as the protagonist, seeing what they see and feeling what they feel. Usually, I find that most writing isn’t good enough for me to buy into that, but Life is Strange 2 is different. I feel like I could have lived through these scenes as a teenager. The world around Sean and Daniel could be a place I’ve been to. The parts that are intentionally unrealistic, like Daniel’s superpowers, are integrated so well, it doesn’t phase me. It’s just a natural part of the story.

This dialogue choice ain’t a tease.

It helps to have side characters who are well-rounded, even if their impact on the plot is small. Ingrid and Anders, for example, are Swedish tourists working on pot farms and other shady places to fund their trek around America, while Jacob is a small town boy who questioned his faith, only to become ostracized by his community. Their lives are minimally intertwined with the Diaz brothers, but Dontnod finds the time to make it so players understand who they are, even if they don’t know them all that well.

Some of the other side characters feature more prominently, and the plot finds excellent ways to use them. Cassidy, who helped bring the brothers into the fold, has had a mutual interest in Sean for some time. She hates working on the farm, but shows a level of comfort with the hippie lifestyle that Sean knows he can’t have. Finn, meanwhile, is greedy and kind of a blowhard, but shows an interest in raising Daniel and flirts with Sean openly. I was left wondering if the story would be content to leave Finn’s flirting as just that – but no, players can choose to go further.

Both are situated as love interests, but the game also makes clear that they’re not going be around when the boys inevitably have to leave to continue their journey. For Sean, this leads to an awakening of sorts, where love is love and love is free. Romance is complicated, even when it’s mutual, and it becomes a now or never moment to act on his feelings – whatever those may be. It’s a subtle thread that helps Sean shape his outlook on himself and the world, and I’m eager to see where it goes in the next episode.

The slightly tedious weed-trimming gameplay segment.

I know for some people, the subject matter here will be disconcerting. Two kids working on a pot farm isn’t the kind of visual you always see in the papers or online. It’s almost surreal. I don’t think the subject has been tackled in a video game before. Despite how it may sound when I describe it though, the way the boys move from their quiet life in Seattle, to the lonely house of their grandparents, to their new set of friends and worries is explained. Dontnod makes it as clear as A to B to C. To do this is undoubtedly a delicate balancing act, and I give the writers much respect for keeping the experience so grounded, all things considered.

I say that, because LIfe is Strange 2 feels like the kind of controversial lightning rod that most publishers would avoid. The first episode starts out with a police shooting, and ends up a statement on what it means to grow up as a young Latino boy in the Trump era. Then it takes those ideas and expands on them in subsequent episodes, tackling topics from weed legislation to child abuse, and somehow doesn’t lose sight of its overall worldview in the process. This is an odyssey through the modern American landscape that feels surprisingly real coming from a French developer. It’s like this game fell out of the sky from another dimension where large scale adventure games tackle real life and politics regularly. I’m glad this is the direction that Dontnod pursued, and I’m even more glad Square Enix isn’t out there trying to blunt the message by saying it’s not political.

Sketch that doggo!

It’s a political story that has all the potential to read like some unbelievable tall-tale but, like a story by Hunter S. Thompson, manages to feel more like real life than fiction. The story so far reminds me of many of the great road stories I’ve read over the years, like Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex and Williams S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, even if it’s not quite as wild. Life is Strange 2 is a piece of art that’s trying to convey a message it believes is important. Whether we choose to listen or not is up to the individual, but I believe in what I’ve seen so far. It feels like the work of one person, but it’s not – and to have a team come together to make something so personal and unified is remarkable.

Life is Strange 2‘s choices are carefully integrated into the world, and the world responds in various ways. Every character demands a level of attention that tells us everything we need to know about their personality before we learn their names. Dontnod’s characters are inherently complex people, and it would be so much easier, I’m sure, to keep it all simple and delineated between good and evil. This whole game is like an experiment to see how far developers can push the boundaries of the medium, and society has yet to snap back.

It’s clear why each episode takes months to release – to add this level of detail takes time, and rushing it will only dilute the message. I understand. I want them to take the time they need. However, August 22 can’t come soon enough.

-9.5/10

This chunk of gameplay covers quite a bit, but is relatively spoiler-free.

This episode was played on a PS4 Pro and was downloaded using a season pass for the game that I purchased on PSN. It is also available on Xbox One and PC. As always, if you like this review, feel free to leave a comment below! You can also reach me on Twitter, or email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com.