Life is Strange 2 continues with episode 2, Rules, and there’s a definite shift in pace after episode 1. Gone are the long leaps in between scenes, replaced by a slice of story that stays in roughly the same place throughout. This is both a good and a bad thing: as a positive, Episode 2 tells a far more personal, focused story. As a negative, it often drags along at a slow pace, bringing in several characters who - while pleasingly complex - aren’t all that memorable or likeable. It’s worth noting that there are spoilers for episode 2 from this point onwards, although I’ll try to keep them to a bare minimum.
Rules also carries over many of the positives and negatives from the first episode with it. The relationship between Sean and Daniel - the two brothers who watched their father die, and who are wanted for his murder - continues to grow in fresh, interesting ways. While Sean is the older brother, we see Daniel increasingly pushing for independence and making his own decisions. With his power comes a confidence that often makes life difficult for Sean, who spends most of episode 2 attempting to control or contain Daniel’s secret. The title of the episode, Rules, comes from Sean’s increasingly futile attempts to keep a low profile as his younger brother early strives to explore his strange new powers.
And while this creates a fascinating dynamic between the boys, making them by far the best thing about this season of Life is Strange, it really pokes holes into the game’s decision making and morality systems. In Rules, Sean becomes almost laughably Saint-like or uncharacteristically petulant, depending on how you play. When the pair are taken in by their estranged grandparents, your only options when chatting to them are to be good little Christian boys, or brattish anarchists, who flat out refuse the rules of their hosts. For a game that creates such complicated and realistic characters, the scenarios they become involved with are rarely as sophisticated. What’s more, some of the choices you get when in this situations are utterly meaningless. At one point I told Daniel he couldn’t do something that would break the rules of the house. He said he’d do it anyway, and Sean just folded and went along with it. It’s clear the creators of Rules needed to get the brothers from point A to B, and you know exactly where they’ll end up at the end of the episode, and that seriously undermines everything that happens in between. Rude or convivial, Sean and Daniel end up in the same place.
What’s more frustrating is that the choices you do make add up to inconsistent or uncharacteristic actions later in the episode, and you’re actually penalised for trying to keep Sean and Daniel safe and secret. Sean is insistent that Daniel ‘behaves’ and doesn’t show his powers throughout, but following through on this path leads to consequences that feel as if you’re being punished. Having encouraged Daniel not to use his powers unless he’s absolutely helping, he fails to do so when it really matters, but a glimpse at the decision tree at the end highlights why. Sure, a teenage boy doesn’t necessarily know what’s best for his brother, and there’s a smart lesson here about cause and effect, but narratively it definitely feels like you’ve been hoodwinked in order for the story to pack in a quick shock or two; to distract from just how linear the plot really is.
Choice and morality aside, the episode is let down by a slightly poorer soundtrack than most previous outings. While other games could be forgiven for something like this, Life is Strange has made such a virtue of the licensed music it uses, especially when using it to heighten the emotion of a specific scene, so it’s telling that there really aren’t any musical scenes in episode 2 that stick in the mind after completion.
The settings themselves are pretty dull too. While Life is Strange delights in the ordinary, often making it extraordinary or highlighting the beauty of everyday existence, Episode 2 just genuinely features some dull backdrops. They are packed with objects to see and interact with, but few items evoke a sense of wonder or curiosity as they do in other instalments. What’s telling is that the most fascinating aspects of this episode have already been explored, about six months ago.
Yes, we finally get a look at how Life is Strange 2 entwines with the Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, the free mini-episode released in June 2018. It’s a nice touch to see the characters interacting, and for Captain Spirit himself to bring some much needed colour and humour to an otherwise very downbeat, deeply serious episode. Chris is a genuine highlight of Rules, and we get a much clearer view of his father’s perspective here, which is a neat touch. Their home, and the interactions between Chris and Daniel are both heart-warming and tragic, Life is Strange 2 at its best, but they’re too few and far between, in amongst the weightier themes and more strained relationships.
Clocking in at around 4-5 hours long, depending on how much time you want to spend in this episode, Rules is a frustrating and often tough episode to play through. While the central characters are well developed and likeable, most of the supporting cast clearly exist to get Sean and Daniel on to the next stage of their journey. Chris is the exception here, and this episode could have benefitted from more of him to balance out the doom and gloom. And while there are some tricky choices to make here, it often feels like the biggest decisions are out of your hands (or irrelevant), and that the choices you do make lead to consequences that don’t quite fit with the narrative.
It’s tough to balance a game with branching paths and complex characters like Life is Strange, and the story each player gets will rarely completely satisfy or feel like ‘the right outcome’. Most of the time this series gets it dead right, but for me Rules misses too many narrative beats in favour of shocks and ‘hard lessons’ to be a classic episode of this still great franchise.
Turn to page two for our Life is Strange 2 episode 1 review...