Edited by: John Gerritzen
A review of the sequel to Life is Strange probably needs to begin with the first game. That quirky, story-driven experience had a unique feel that charmed many of the people who played it. While there’s no strong plot reason to play the original Life is Strange, it helps to understand where the tone and themes of the second game are coming from; the sequel even begins by asking what your final decision was in the original. If you haven’t played it, it’s a dramatic little story about a hipster at a private photography school who discovers the power to reverse time. There’s something about the poorly-written dialogue and the mechanic of going back to change your decisions that makes you want to keep playing and find out what happens next. The plot deals with heavy issues like rape and assisted suicide, but these are placed alongside ridiculous, edgy young adults who are oddly entertaining in the way they’re portrayed. So, Life is Strange 2 either needs to be something completely new, or it needs to maintain the peculiar balance that made the original successful. In this regard, Episode 1 is hit and miss.
There’s that same cringe-worthy dialogue.
Episode 1 jumps right in by taking a crack at the adolescent slang that was criticized in the original. As before, there are phrases from the nineties mixed up with what can only be the writers’ idea of cutting-edge street talk. The teen protagonists use long-lost words like “emo” one minute, then make you cringe with unintentionally aggressive jabs like “you thirsty bitch” the next. There seems to be a lot more swearing in this edition, maybe to cover up the anachronistic jumble of words, but also to let you know that this game is going to be real, and it’s going to be edgy.
There aren’t just teens in Episode 1, however. There is also the little brother of the main protagonist who is a… who-cares-year-old? In one scene, the little brother talks like he’s a toddler, and in the next he’s delivering dry remarks about sleeping on the hard ground like a jaded retiree. Whatever he needs to say to make the scene more dramatic, he’ll say, and that is the only rule guiding his character. Life is Strange 2 is a story about an older brother bonding with this kid, so there are plenty of awkward moments listening to the child and teen actors trying to be emotional and cry with each other. And if you were expecting the “howling like a wolf at the moon” trope that has never, and will never, be comfortable to watch, you will not be disappointed.
But Life is Strange 2 also brings something to the table that was not in the original: Politics. The story is extremely political, and the few characters you come across are either ultra nice liberals (like seriously, the white liberal savior character is creepily generous) or insanely angry racists (think Klan member but more violent and irrational). This provides many laugh-out-loud moments, when characters yell unprompted things like, “THIS is why we need to build that wall!”
But the political message is hardly earned.
Episode 1 makes several references to Trump’s America, which is completely fine, but it relies on the real world to tell the story instead of the game’s plot and mechanics. The instigating event of the plot is police brutality — the murder of an immigrant because of a misunderstanding. While this is the kind of heavy subject matter that helped drive the story of the original, it seems just a little unearned in Life is Strange 2. It comes out of nowhere, and yes that’s how actual police brutality goes, but the dialogue and actors certainly don’t sell the conflict. Even though the police brutality kicks off the story, this theme feels completely disconnected from the narrative. The main characters don’t even react emotionally to the event until the very end of Episode 1 and even then it feels like an indirect reference that sparks a sudden explosion of drama. Just as suddenly, the story does away with the obligatory reaction and moves on. For all these reasons, it comes off as an attempt to sell a story by exploiting the tragedy of police brutality instead of an important and sincere message.
This problem also has to do with the way the non-linear storytelling is handled. In order to cut down on the number of outcomes, story-driven games often branch off based on your choices, but then they need to work their way back to the main plot. But some of these moments in Episode 1, especially involving racism, fail to disguise this transition and make you feel railroaded. For example, there are some actions the protagonist can take that could believably instigate an angry racist kidnapping him, but if you avoid those actions, he kidnaps him anyway and it comes completely out of nowhere. Again, all of this isn’t to say these things never happen in the real world, it’s just that real racism is most often concealed — insidious, even — and conflicts escalate for, well, actual reasons.
Some great storytelling elements are lost because of the plot.
Episode 1 also largely takes place out in the forest between two brothers. As a side note, this means you are essentially doing a game-length escort mission — something developers refuse to understand that gamers hate. It also means one of the best interactive story mechanics from the original title is lost. In Life is Strange, you could, for example, wander around peoples’ dorm rooms and find out more about their characters. You could talk to people and use this information, and it would affect the background details of the story later on.
In Life is Strange 2, there is much less of this supplemental plot flavoring. You can talk to your brother, or you can find out more about your brother. And remember, his personality is whatever is convenient, touching, or cute at the time. This gives the game a very linear feel, even given the clever use of items to give your choices consequences later on.
There is also a supernatural aspect to Life is Strange 2, but it’s being brought up this late in the review because it hardly factors into the gameplay at all (so far). Plus, it’s an uncontrollable and cliché power your little brother has (How many times have we seen unintentional psychic powers when a kid is angry?), instead of the signature time reversal that served as the core element of the original game.
As a result of these factors — wandering through the forest, not being able to reverse time, interacting with few people and ending up at the same spot no matter how you interact with them — Episode 1 feels disappointingly narrow and limiting compared to the original.
All that being said, there’s a possibility this is part of a slow-building potboiler. The tone is right for it: The scenery definitely adds to the moody atmosphere, and the music is used sparingly but effectively. Sometimes, the dialogue is even moving and uncharacteristically realistic. In other words, we’ll see in the next four episodes whether the story gets any more interesting.
The Verdict: Good
Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 will probably scratch the itch for more of that quirky Life is Strange style, but the story ditches many effective elements of the original. The political message is important but not quite earned, nor is it very revolutionary. The characters and dialogue are entertainingly unrealistic as always, and the overall aesthetic is pleasing, but the jury is still out on the plot.