You know what to expect from a Life is Strange game. Mature storytelling, a mixture of beautiful and deliberately mundane locales to explore, and a softly-played guitar soundtrack - all combined into a thoughtful and often melancholy adventure set in some of the less-trodden parts of America. So distinctive is developer Dontnod’s formula that partner studio Deck Nine was easily able to ape it for the prequel Before the Storm earlier this year, crafting a story of equal beauty and power to the original. Life is Strange 2 is set in the same world, with all the same hallmarks of the original, but it’s a subtly different beast to the original.
That’s both a good and a bad thing, based on my playthrough of Episode 1 - Roads. This story follows the relationship between Sean and Daniel Diaz, who are forced away from their home at the start of the game after… something incredibly tragic happens. To say any more is a huge spoiler, but the pair end up on an unexpected road trip, camping in the woods and fending for themselves. Sean, the older sibling, is forced to take responsibility for his younger brother, and the pair bond (or don’t) depending on how you play.
It’s a heartwarming narrative, no matter how you choose to craft the relationship between the two, although Sean’s behaviour can be a little inconsistent depending on the choices you make. He’s an introverted, polite guy, but one who can easily kick up a fuss and refuse to hug his own father after being treated incredibly generously. Sure, Sean’s a teenager, and subject to mood swings, but there are a handful of choices and dialogue options that feel out of step with how the rest of his personality is presented.
Dontnod deserves massive credit for the raw human emotions on display here. In fact, it’s only when the creators are forced to give control of the story to players that the narrative shows any sign of cracking. Judging by the stats at the end of my playthrough, it seems that the majority of people are trying to play the game in as narratively consistent a way as possible. The real splits in opinion seem to stem from some genuinely knotty moral choices you’re forced to make. Life is Strange 2’s decisions are among the best in the series, with a nice blend of obviously big choices, right through to smaller ones that have either major or minor consequences later in the story. At one point, for example, Daniel asks to eat some random berries from a bush - do you choose to let him go hungry, or do you deny him the food because it could upset his stomach? And what will then happen when the pair go to sleep, either hungry, sick, or satisfied?
The supporting cast are a varied bunch, with some more realistically written than others. There’s one encounter at a gas station that feels excessive to the point of parody, and it’s here where LiS2’s system of choice falls apart most noticeably. Accused of stealing, Sean is never given the option to prove his innocence quietly - you can either aggressively confront your accuser or guiltily attempt to avoid the confrontation. Whatever you choose, the outcome is the same. The creators seemingly wanted to make a comment on rural America, and its attitudes towards immigration and race relations - an admirable goal, and one that’s written exceedingly near the mark here - but the way the game gets you there feels a little artificial.
In fact, Episode 1’s biggest shortcoming is in the way it fails to really link its scenarios properly. There’s too much space in between scenes where players are left to guess what might've happened, which erodes the believability of some key scenes later on. It just feels like this first episode is a collection of vignettes, each one designed to give the player a handful of choices and make a comment on society, family, or American culture. As a consistent narrative that flows from start to finish, it’s very scrappy.
And there’s another thing that doesn’t count in Episode 1’s favor: it’s lack of playability. The original game had Max snapping photos, exploring college, rewinding time, and experiencing flashbacks. Let’s just say LiS2 is far slower to start. You can find collectables, Sean can sketch a handful of environments… and that’s about it, beyond looking at stuff and interacting with it. Sadly, the sketching mini-game is a wreck. You observe your surroundings by pushing a button, then draw the scene by randomly wiggling the left analog stick on your controller. For several minutes. Yes, Life is Strange is meant to be slow-paced, but the sketching is mind-numbing.
Some moments of interactivity work really well: there are micro-scenes where the boys interact with each other. One poignant scene, for example, has the older brother teaching his sibling to skip stones on a lake - but there’s actually very little to actually do during these 4-5 hours besides watching the story unfold and making a few choices. Sure, it’s obvious there are more thrilling moments to come, but this first episode feels very much in love with the idea of scene setting and exposition, rather than being an actual game. Life is Strange has always been about story-first play, but there’s a fine line between telling a compelling tale while someone plays, and just dictating the narrative to them.
Overall, it’s a disappointing and slow start to the new season of Life is Strange. While the story has some incredibly powerful and well-constructed moments, it doesn’t hang together particularly well. And the lack of actual gameplay, combined with inconsistent consequences and choices, is a worry. The settings and overall mood are wonderfully crafted, and the soundtrack (with the exception of a single duff track from The Streets) is hauntingly beautiful as ever. There’s even a swift nod to Arcadia Bay from the first game, and a handful of Easter eggs to spot. Fans will undoubtedly enjoy what’s here, but most will expect much more from forthcoming episodes. Like Sean’s often rocky relationship with his little brother, this one is very much a work-in-progress.
Reviewed on PS4.