Dontnod Entertainment’s story-driven adventure series, Life is Strange, has returned in what is probably a bigger and bolder take on modern culture and politics. While the previous game and its prequel lightly touched upon topics and issues in our current society, the full sequel really puts a laser focus on hot button issues. How does the sequel stand up, and is it too heavy-handed or more fairly balanced? Read on to find out.
Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 – Roads
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Platform: Windows PC, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), and Xbox One
Release Date: September 26th, 2018
Players: 1 Player
Price: $7.99 for EP 1, $39.99 for Complete Season
Life is Strange 2 makes the full leap to modern platforms, and northwestern United States has never looked better in this franchise. Character models look nice, foliage and environments are somewhere in between realistic and some kind of middle area where you just know it’s a video game and not a movie. Overall, I think the presentation in the sequel has definitely improved.
There are some performance issues, however, and considering my first generation PlayStation 4 sounded like a jet engine the entire time the game was running, I’m thinking it’s poorly optimized. From the get-go, I noticed pop-in while the menu booted up and while exploring, as well as framerate dips and the like. I’m normally not a stickler for this, but it definitely breaks the immersion.
Perhaps the game was optimized to run on PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, however, a sizeable portion of the install base for both platforms still (like myself) have original hardware, which obviously appears to struggle running the game. Again, I’m nowhere near obsessed with graphics or performance, but this is a narrative game – characters skipping and such ruin the experience.
As with all the previous games in the series, the primary thing you’ll be doing in Life is Strange 2 is walking around, interacting with the environment, and interacting with other characters. There’s also quite a bit of decision making, ranging from trivial things like what food to buy all the way to how you’re going to deal with the police.
The game isn’t so much a challenge as it’s simply telling a story, with the player having minimal to some affect on the outcome of the story overall. One thing I actually kind of miss from the previous game(s) is the argument system, where you can throw comebacks and overcome some kind of challenge. They seem to be gone altogether – now you just react to whatever’s thrown at you.
If you’re not into pure story-driven games, you probably won’t get into this series. The actual gameplay exists solely to drive the story and characters further along in the plot, and there’s not much more than that. Since this is just the first episode, there’s only so much interactivity and story decisions as this mostly sets up the rest of the game, which has four more chapters.
Voice work is definitely good as in the previous games, and the small cast just in this first chapter all give solid performances. The two brothers, Sean and Daniel Diaz, are obviously the stars as they get the most on-screen time. As you progress and explore, you’ll hear a variety of banter and conversations between the brothers and really get a feel for them.
As with previous games, however, lip syncing tends to be a hit or miss affair with this sequel. This could definitely be related to the game’s performance, however it seems to be an ongoing thing and I’ve kind of gotten used to it. When the characters are on point though, you’ll get an emotionally driven narrative that helps drive home the hot-button topics and situations.
Music is generally more of what you’d come to expect from this franchise – soft and ethereal shoegaze tunes with mumble lyrics set to the backdrop of the northwest. I actually enjoy this kind of music, and it still fits here. When things get dramatic, of course, the music tone can switch up quite a bit, so it’s not all whispers and acoustics.
The story in Life is Strange 2 is probably the reason why the majority of you are reading this review. The short version is the game takes place in Seattle, one of the most socially liberal cities in the nation, and sees the two brothers, Sean and Daniel, as they get inexplicably thrown into a life on the run. The series has been known for its heavy-handed politics, and this one ups the ante.
Considering both the brothers are of Mexican descent and their father has a noticeable accent and works as a mechanic – the stereotypes and nauseating politics are something to behold. Without spoiling anything, it doesn’t take long for the brothers to get into a scuffle with their white neighbor, only to have a white cop show up, and suddenly – you guessed it, tragedy strikes.
Look, I’m one of the few openly moderate-conservative game critics out there, and I went into playing this game knowing what it could throw at me. Is police brutality a serious issue in our current society? Yes. Did this game handle the subject with a reasonable depiction of said brutality? I don’t think so. It was almost silly with how brazen the stereotypes are, and it was disappointing.
If you want to get really technical and look at local policies that are relevant to each state, city, and town, you could easily say that recent policies in the greater Seattle area have actually massively discouraged officers from using force. Furthermore, actual crime data notes 65% of those shot by officers are in fact – white. Latino victims don’t even show up in those pie charts.
There’s more themes of racism from evil rural white people as well, said examples generally made my eyes roll so hard they almost popped out of my head. I grew up in the rural farmlands as an olive-skinned boy and never saw racism like what is portrayed in this game, but I digress. Both writers on the series aren’t native to our culture, and it kind of shows moreso in the sequel.
I genuinely liked the two brothers and seeing them fight together, stick together, and overcome things as a family when horrific things go down. Sadly, I feel like the brick-like tropes and stereotypes will hit you over the head so hard you might not be able to enjoy their story. I actually enjoyed the previous story with Chloe and Rachel, but that didn’t have shoehorned politics.
This sequel literally takes place just prior to the 2016 Presidential election, and it comes off like a cringe-worthy take on the partisan culture taking hold over our society. I get that people were scared of the possibilities of their candidate not being elected, however, I wish this was more grounded in reality and had a more neutral outlook on our government and our rights.
I never put my own politics into the content here because it usually makes no sense to, however, this game literally has bad takes on probably the worst parts of our modern culture. Are there people that do or say awful things in our country? Sure. Does this game greatly exaggerate current issues for dramatic effect? Absolutely. I would just rather have it be only about Sean and Daniel.
There is an element in the story, which I won’t spoil here, that is naturally the wild card thrown into the mix when the writers need to make things spicy. I’m genuinely curious to see how this is explained – if at all – and where it will lead the brothers on their journey. When it gets properly revealed I had a legit double-take moment, only to realize it was a real thing.
To wrap up my review, a line from a certain character is very apropos to how this game sees our current year politics and culture: “Everything is political, Sean.” I think the game has a good road movie story in there with the two brothers, however the heavy-handed politics are written for pretty much only one crowd: the folks who think our current president is literally Hitler.
I’ll definitely play through the rest of the episodes as I honestly want to see what happens to Sean and and Daniel, and obviously what is really going on with that certain individual. There’s a lot of unknowns currently where the story left off, and it’ll be very interesting to see how much more of the “current year” will be thrown at me.
Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 – Roads was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 7
- Endearing dual protagonist brothers
- When it’s just the brothers, you get a fun and heartwarming road movie experience
- An interesting attempt at covering extremely hot-button topics and politics
- Even heavier-handed politics when compared to previous games in the series
- Lip syncing goes off sometimes
- Visual/performance issues like pop in, framerate dips