Developers: Dontnod Entertainment
Publishers: Square Enix
Plot: Sean is the friendly Hispanic kid whose worries amount to asking out the hot girl at school and precuring beer money for a party. Then his little brother starts displaying dangerous powers.
Life is Strange is the victim of its own success. Dontnod Entertainment set the indie gaming world alight with their story-based choice game that strayed away from the mainstream gaming dynamics of fighting or even action and simply gave the players a story about two best friends, struggling with their lives. The problem with Life is Strange is that its story formed the perfect arc, tying off all the loose ends. Returning to that same storyline would only have served to weaken the strength of the narrative. However, in choosing a brand new set of characters, as Dontnod have eventually decided to do with this sequel series, the company risked losing that spark that fuelled the first five episodes.
As a result, the opening episode of Life is Strange 2 is a little jarring. Much like the stock characters Dontnod like to write about, the episode feels like it is trying to find its own identity in a busy world. The trick is to keep enough old dynamics and story beats to make the gaming experience feel familiar, but not be too weighed down by the past achievements. The sequel has to find its own voice, its own quirks, its own personality… Not every fan will be satisfied with all the choices, at least not with this opening gambit. Gone are the strong female leads, replaced with two male heroes. Gone is the debate about sexuality, no underlying bisexual subplots lurking beneath the surface of the story (at least not yet). And gone are any trace of the stories that have come before. There are no cheeky references to Max Caulfield, no cameos from the side characters… this is a totally new beast. Instead, we are thrown into the lives of two Mexican brothers, living in Trump’s America. There is a clear political discussion here as the writers take asides to invite the audience into the casual racism the two boys suffer at the hands of their fellow Americans. The next door neighbour hurls snide comments at them. A gas station owner makes the assumption you are shoplifters. In a clever move, the writers actually try to tempt you into validating the stereotype. It becomes so much easier to break the law to complete a mission than try and do things the right way, dealing with the frustrating prejudice of the supporting characters. The underlying issue is that racism doesn’t quite lend itself to the story the same way the secrecy of hidden sexuality did. It is interesting in beats and when you come up against an obstacle that would have been simple in the last game, it does make you think. Once again, Dontnod have come up with a thinking man’s gaming experience. Thankfully the racism, while particularly heavy-handed in certain scenes, isn’t the whole of this first episode. The centre of the story is about family and this next set of episodes will likely be fuelled by the fraternal bond at the heart of the series. The game asks you not only to think about completing the mission, but how to be a role model.
It’s not just the content of the game that has changed by the whole dynamic. Roads is actually quite interesting, because it spends a good portion of the opening, playing with your expectations of what the game is going to be. It all feels very familiar, despite the new cast and shift in focus. You come from a loving family, with enough question marks to suggest there are avenues yet to explore (where is the mother?), and the usual teenage dilemmas are there. A fun best friend character delivers exposition. The opening moments are defined by the playable character’s wooing of the cool girl from school. The tone feels very similar to what we are used to. However, it isn’t long before Dontnod Entertainment throw a massive spanner in the works. It is probably the riskiest move of Roads, which is saying a lot. It is hard to judge if the gamble has paid off with this first episode, like most choice-based things. The decisions made here have had little bearing on the story thus far. However, perhaps it can be for the best. Without this gamble, Life is Strange 2 risked not progressing far enough. It would feel like the same creature but with a new face stapled on the front. No matter the reception of Roads, it cannot be accused of suffering the fatigue of sequels. There is a greater problem with Roads, which has nothing to do with the major changes made. In fact, it is the same issue I’ve had with most of the other entries in the Life is Strange canon. There are too many areas where the game slows down to reflect on its characters and the emotions of the current events. Just when the game is heating up, everything is put on hold, so the two brothers can have a sweet family moment. It is an over-used trick and already, by the end of the first episode, there are certain scenes that should have you captivated, but feel overcooked, because of everything that has come before. The slow story-telling style also means that all of the neat potential for gaming styles will never turn out as good as you want them to be. You are given a budget that painfully trickles away with every scene. It could have lent itself to a clever bit of financial deducing. Do you wisely put your cash only into food and drink? Or do you invest in something expensive that might come handy later? Or do you waste a dollar on an arcade game, so your little brother can get a smile on his face? However, much like the mystery element of the first season, the gameplay never quite lends itself to this idea. It is charming, rather than a puzzle. At the moment, Life is Strange 2 is interesting enough, but hasn’t quite gripped. A true judgement can only be made in a few episode’s time.
Final Verdict: A risky move from Dontnod Entertainment, and with the slow-burning nature of the series, it is hard to tell if it has paid off yet or not.