Episode 1 – Roads
At one point in the first episode of Life is Strange 2, entitled ‘Roads,’ your character gazes at a photograph and muses to himself, ‘Can old people be… cool?’ The writers behind these games, doing their best to ape the tics and trends of youthful patter, seem determined to find out. Early on, after hearing characters mention how ‘emo’ they feel and worrying over the state of their ‘BFFs,’ the answer, as it was back in 2013, seems to be ‘no, but they might pull a muscle trying.’ But as the episode steers out of a slow start, the tone shifts, shirking its teen leaning and taking to the open road.
Aside from The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, which was a short prologue to this season, this episode marks the return of season one writers Christian Divine and Jean-Luc Cano. In other words, Life is Strange 2 stares into the headlights of the sophomore slump. The game’s focus is on two brothers, Sean and Daniel Diaz, who were first glimpsed at the end of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Sean is 16; Daniel is 9. After their lives are shaken by confusion and cruelty, they both need to act older – fast. The need for emotional calluses weighs most heavily on Sean, whom you play as – and it’s a slight pain that the stiff lip-synching and doughy faces undersell the impact of the more moving scenes. Fortunately, the gloom that’s engrained on his actions sits on your shoulders.
On their journey, the stresses of survival have you managing their meagre budget, eating into what’s left of Sean’s money to accommodate the appetites of the brothers. As they alight at a petrol station for supplies and food, you can feel the hungry hiss of pressure as Sean holds their fate in the thin slip of his wallet. When you’re given the option to steal, it rings in your ears like the howl of a wolf. Larger choices are telegraphed with a freeze-frame, the screen split into shards as you deliberate. You’re given a greater degree of choice here than has been in previous games, with more than binary decisions dominating the twist of the tale.
But it’s the small choices that truly test the brothers’ bond: will you swipe a chocolate bar from the dash of a parked car? It’s Daniel’s favourite, but he’s watching your every move, and it isn’t a good example to set. These choices creak with tension, each one a moral bear trap baited with something you could really do with; the punishment – you’re sure – lurking down the line. They are earthed in turbulent soil as well, with decisions testing not just the boys’ connection, but their relation to the outside world.
The episode is couched in the anxious murk of October 2016, just after the US presidential election debate, and politics pours in throughout. The Diaz brothers, being of Mexican descent, tread through fraught exchanges with people whose hearts lie behind walls. The writing starts off timely and conscious. When Daniel claims that someone ‘Totally looks like a mushroom,’ I had to suppress a smirk. It’s clear the team at Dontnod was blessed with luck, writing, as it was, long before the storm of recent headlines. As the episode unwinds, it swerves into the unsubtle – ‘Everything is political, Sean,’ insists a Seth Rogen stand-in – and crashes into clumsiness: ‘Oregon is like the edge of the world,’ one character remarks, contained in their own coastal bubble.
If ‘Keep Portland Weird’ is that city’s unofficial slogan, perhaps Seattle’s should be, ‘Keep Seattle Strange.’ As the two boys encounter a bearded blogger with a big heart, called Brody, he warns them, ‘This ain’t Seattle no more.’ It’s an odd reversal of Dorothy’s line in The Wizard of Oz, who marvelled, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Unfortunately for the two boys, they’re headed in the opposite direction, turning their backs on the Emerald City and heading into the wilds of the woods.
Quite what they will find there remains to be seen, as this first episode struggles to gain sure footing. but it isn’t the imagined sanctuary they’re heading toward that makes an impression; it’s what they’re running from. The romance of the road the two boys walk is like a frontier tale in reverse: they’re venturing back into the untamed, rejecting the hand they’ve been dealt and turning inward to each other.
Episode 2 – Rules
If you were to judge Life is Strange 2 on the titles of its episodes, you might think to gear up for the breathless thrills of a traffic safety seminar. The first is called ‘Roads,’ and now we have ‘Rules.’ You would be well within your rights to expect episodes three, four, and five to be: ‘Proper Vehicle Maintenance,’ ‘Licensing, Tax, and Insurance,’ and ‘The Drink Drive Limit.’ Sure enough, this episode is stuffed with a litany of laws, lectures on responsibility, and warnings against the temptations of intoxicating power. I’m expecting a test at the end.
We pick up the trail of Sean and Daniel Diaz, two brothers on the run from the police, as they make their way down the backroads and byways of Oregon. Their destination is Puerto Lobos, but it may as well be El Dorado – a golden glint of illusory promise that takes a backseat to adventure. The boys’ father, Esteban, was shot and killed by a police officer. This triggered a surge of telekinetic power in the younger brother, Daniel, a shockwave of anger that flipped a car like a pancake and wound up killing the officer.
There are shades of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the young prodigy who manifested similar abilities as a reaction to the abuses of her upbringing, like a rose rising from manure. Elsewhere, Daniel rescues someone from harm using his gift, only to be cautioned by Sean, who worries about the attention these things attract. I thought of Man of Steel, where a young Clark, after saving a busload of his peers asks his father what he was supposed to do, let them die? Back comes the answer, spoken without conviction: ‘maybe.’
Playing as Daniel, you have to help Sean control and conceal his powers; hence the rules ‘hide your power’ and ‘run from danger.’ Later on, when in the care of their distant grandparents, they have new ones dropped on them both – ‘don’t leave the house,’ ‘no phone/no internet’ – owing to the dangers of their fugitive status. It’s frustrating for them both to be bound by these fears, but for us it’s just boring. Choices are often hollow-hearted and pointless, like minor potholes on the path to be skirted round. And idle stretches of this episode are spent watching, not playing.
It seems churlish to chastise a game so concerned with story for its lack of mechanical engagement, but Life is Strange 2 all too readily casts off its connection to its adventure game heritage. I could do with a puzzle or two. Last night, my play session was interspersed with me making coffees, and eating a Twirl; the notion that I had to pause now and again to prod someone forward or press a button to trigger the next conversation was only irritating.
The challenge of the anthology series is changeability. Each season must seize upon the timbre of its forebears while refreshing the contents completely. Life is Strange 2 has certainly done the latter, but what of the former? In short, what makes Life is Strange? Is it the songs on the soundtrack, that mixture of plaintive piano and plucky folk music? Perhaps it’s the misty light, the faded pink and peach of those Oregon mornings. Or maybe it’s the fir trees, huddled at the fringes of the series like a Twin Peaks picture frame.
One luxury the Diaz brothers don’t have is time. The stillness and slowness of the first two seasons allowed for the gradual cross-hatching of detail upon a small town, the hopes and fears of scattered residents written across the hours. Here, people come and go, briefly resting a hand on the boys’ bubble but never breaking through.
Thankfully, it’s in these brief exchanges that the writing blooms. One moment sees Sean’s grandfather tell him ‘America is your home.’ At another, Sean reads a newspaper article in which the dead cop’s family reaches out with a message of even-handed hope, that their thoughts are with the Diazes, and that, ‘It’s easy for people to judge and attack behind a keyboard, but just as we mourn for others we mourn for the loss of a brave public servant.’ But before we feel any joy, Sean asks, ‘How can I feel bad for him?’ reminding us that, while there is hope, the wounds are freshly riven and still raw.
In the end, perhaps this is what makes Life is Strange: the mixture of the everyday and the cosmic. The choice to hide Daniel’s power (something that Max never had to do) reminds me of Coach Carter, of all things – another tale of tensions, both racial and familial, in America. To hear one troubled youngster proclaim, ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us,’ is exactly what the boys need to hear. I hope they don’t have to hide forever.
Episode 3 – Wastelands
If you still weren’t quite sure of the themes in Life is Strange 2, fear not; in Episode 3 – entitled ‘Wastelands’ – one character says to Daniel, ‘I bet it’s hard to be his brother and father figure.’ There you are, mystery solved. The writing that undergirds the drama is at its best in this episode – smartly crutching the present with the past to texture its central relationship – but the dialogue still thuds heavily here and there. Thankfully, this episode conquers its clumsier aspects, as well as the plodding pace of Episode 2, by the simple strategy of being good.
We find the two brothers part of a caravan of tents in Humboldt County, California. They’ve fallen in with a hardscrabble band of hippies, two of which appeared briefly in the last episode. There’s Finn, dreadlocked and dumbstruck, who advises you to ‘go with the flow’ and is best described – or rather diagnosed – as suffering from chronic gap year. There’s Cassidy, a Southern girl who croons by the campfire with her guitar. Then, there is a jumble of others – a Swedish couple, a mother hen type, a space cadet, a Christian whose faith has wandered – who float along like jetsam on the tide. As has been the case this season, with its restless feet, we aren’t given long to know them. ‘I think I look cooler as a sketch,’ says Cassidy, after Daniel draws her in his notebook. She might be right.
The group, including Daniel and Sean, work for a nearby cannabis farm, nipping buds for a man named Merrill – the ranch boss whose rule is enforced by Big Joe, a bearded boor with an AK47. Two things leapt out early that I enjoyed. First, rather than keeping you locked into cut scenes, this episode trusts your curiosity; waking up in a tent after a time jump, you explore freely, gleaning names and details by rummaging around the camp. Second, and more cheaply compelling, was a rhythm-action game that dictated your success at pruning – just as Mary Poppins sang, ‘You find the fun and… snap! The job’s a game.’ You might think me a sucker to fall for such simple divertissements, but it kept me on edge in a scene where bickering breaks out.
And there is plenty of that to go around this episode. A rift widens between the brothers as Daniel befriends Finn, and we fear, as ever, that Daniel’s powers will cause catastrophe for those he’s close to. Elsewhere, Sean is drawn to Cassidy – and thus away from Daniel – and the guilty embers of enjoyment start to glow (‘I actually feel… free’). In the meantime, a foolish heist plan springs up and threatens the safety of the entire group. For an episode that starts off leisurely, it jolts into life in its later acts. In one lakeside scene, in the calm before the cold front of an argument, Daniel floats a handful of stones above the water, like leaves on the breeze. It isn’t dissimilar from the way the story is told – scraps of story and pieces of plot breaking off and blowing in the same direction.
Yet we still don’t get any real sense of movement. In the first Life is Strange, I remember the bittersweet rush of reunion in Chloe’s truck, as her and Max hurtled through Arcadia Bay. Then again in Before the Storm, there was the nervy feel of adventure as Chloe and Rachel skip school to go freighthopping. In Life is Strange 2, there are static scenes – brief homesteads through which the boys move. These may not be as rounded or vivid as Arcadia Bay, but they are beautiful. You see California redwoods with trunks as wide as houses, and the game is lit, as it always is, with light so soft it’s as if the lens has been rubbed with vaseline.
What we are left with is a sibling connection that comes under fire from within, and a cast of orbiting characters that demonstrate the dangers of being with others. In its final moments, we are left amidst the rubble of one of Daniel’s emotional shockwaves, and the camera floats above scenes of quiet isolation. My mind went to Of Mice and Men, another tale of California drifters who labour in loneliness. The pair at the heart of that story huddled at the hearth of their own company, too, but fear drove a wedge between them. Steinbeck summarised his own themes a little more naturally than is managed in ‘Wastelands,’ but he also captures something more interesting than parental and brotherly bonds going on in Life is Strange 2: ‘Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.’
Episode 4 – Faith
In the fourth episode of Life is Strange 2, our hero, Sean, escapes from a guarded hospital room and creeps, in his socks, along a strip of scaffolding. Minutes later, he hotwires a car and drives through the night. Then, he trudges along a highway and hitches a ride with a trucker. After the previous three episodes, you might need to take a moment to cope with the adrenaline rush. Indeed, for a season that centres on a road trip, we haven’t felt much movement. It’s an odd state of affairs, especially considering the last two seasons of Life is Strange, which were rooted in a single place, still had a roving feel to them – filled with characters whose souls were itchier than their feet.
Sean is desperate to get back to Daniel, slipping state custody and heading for Haven Point, a church community where he thinks Daniel has been taken. The episode is called ‘Faith,’ which has an ominous ring to it. Rarely is good faith engendered when churches are bound with chain-link fences. Sure enough, after sneaking into a service, we see a zealous preacher introduce her flock to ‘The Angel Daniel.’ She describes him as ‘our latest miracle,’ which makes it sound as though they have worshipped their way through a string of disappointments. Daniel is trotted out, robed in white with a newly clipped bowl cut, and uses his powers to float a crucifix for the crowd. The preacher is Lisbeth Fischer, who has the irritating habit of freighting her every syllable with sermonlike loftiness. ‘Can I get a Hallelujah?’ she says to the crowd. Oh God.
If you are steeling yourself for an exploration of the dangers of religious devotion, then my advice would be: don’t. Most of the themes, and many of the characters, this season are glimpsed only briefly, as they blow past. The reason the episode resonates is that it feels bitten by the desire to move. This season lacks the leisurely joys of interiors that the first two seasons had – the way they had you combing through clutter for report cards, diary entries, letters – not to obtain a vital ingredient for progress but to solve the more abstract puzzles of the characters. The moment, in this episode, where you find yourself rummaging through a house is the opposite – frantic and wound tight with tension. However, there is one interesting puzzle that shows up: the boys’ mother, Karen, who left when Sean was eight.
These games have always been, in part, about absent parents, and the children who drift around them as if in faltering orbit of a flickering star. There was Rachel Amber’s mother, who left when she was a baby. There was Chloe Price’s father, whose death derailed her family. And there are Max Caulfield’s parents, whom we only glimpse in photos. How nice it is, with Karen, to have one of them return. She is a cool and calming presence in this flaring episode. We are given the opportunity to have Sean fire questions at her, and she answers plainly, as if quenching a fire. One of the more touching answers she gives is when she says, ‘Making your own choices doesn’t mean you can never fool yourself, Sean.’ Of course, when playing a Life is Strange game, making your own choices – or at least believing in them – requires it.
Unfortunately, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for the decisions that split the screen in two; they feel like tributaries, all of which flow towards the same finale. And, I have to say, the overarching weight of these is done no favours by the format of the game’s release. The last episode was three months ago; I had to stop and consult Sean’s journal to recall who Karen was. There is one upshot of the space between releases, though: once enough time passes, all but the most moving images disappear from the mind. What remains of episode four are snapshots from the road – the scalded scrubland of the Nevada desert, a lowly hotel with a sun-warmed pool and white plastic chairs – and, at the very end, a destination comes into view. Hallelujah!
In the final episode of Life is Strange 2, Sean and Daniel get to the U.S.-Mexico border and stand before a wall of brooding steel. Daniel reaches out, firing up his telekinetic skills, and rifts the metal with his mind. It’s a canny image: the pained yearning of a young soul bending the iron will of the system. It would be all the more potent were it not slyly lifted from the opening moments of X-Men, in which a young Erik Lehnsherr—better known as arch-villain Magneto—warps the wire fences of Auschwitz, after being separated from his parents. That scene was fresh, showing the forging of a villain, while its echo, in Life is Strange 2, rings with second-hand symbolism. In the end, this season hasn’t been about the breaking of barriers, or cooling the rash of racial tension. For all its road-bound searching, it has arrived at the same theme that has thrummed through the series since the first season: the hunt for a place to belong.
The brothers have journeyed across five episodes, from the wilds of Washington state to the baked plains of Arizona, and we have travelled with them, at a lurching pace prone to bouts of lethargy. The main problem is of a mechanical nature. Due to the flighty premise, which has narrowed the edges of exploration, we arrive at the end of Life is Strange 2 with the frustrating sense of being funnelled there. The feeling of free choice in these games has always been thinly draped, with all but the largest of decisions offering mere diversion, disguised by open environments that were ripe for rifling through. And the rifling proved fruitful; the characters lived in the clutter, gradually taking shape despite being shunted to the margins of the story.
Not so in the sequel. Early on in this episode, you explore a trailer park, where Sean and Daniel have been living with their estranged mother, Karen. In similar fashion to the third episode, we are thrown in with a throng of new characters after a time jump. We briefly chat with a rudderless middle-aged couple, before using Daniel’s powers to assist an artist, who sculpts with scrap metal. Both are brisk distractions, but owing to the way the characters feel shakily sketched, you wind up longing to be nudged back onto the narrative track. Half-way through, we meet David Madsen, who was in both the original series and the prequel mini-series, Life is Strange: Before the Storm. His comes bearing grizzled nuggets of wisdom, gleaned from a deep well of common sense. “You and Daniel can’t just hide out forever,” he says to Sean. “If you step up and face the law, you can be free… sooner than later.”
David unwisely opts for cargo shorts; he sports a ponytail; and his temper, famously short, has been tamed. He even wears a floral print shirt. The ex-army hard-arse has become a hippy! Despite being uprooted and relegated to the sidelines, the weight of his presence makes us realise that there is a general shortage of presence all around in Life is Strange 2. All the restive movement has made a blur of most of the characters. Details get hazy in the haste. I found myself eager to poke around David’s trailer for traces of the past. I lingered outside, listening to his phone call with someone whose house I had been in. This is what we’ve been longing for. It isn’t that we miss the mists of Arcadia Bay specifically, or that we long to retread old ground; it’s the slow etching of stories, scattered with care. “Townlife always sucks,” David says to Sean. Actually, David, it doesn’t. It was really good once.
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PC, PlayStation 4
Release Date: September 27, 2018 (Episode 1) / January 24, 2019 (Episode 2) / May 8, 2019 (Episode 3) / August 22, 2019 (Episode 4) / December 3, 2019 (Episode 5)