I came into Life is Strange 2 with as little foreknowledge as possible. I avoided the trailers, interviews with the developer and previews of the game, because I wanted to be completely fresh to the story and themes. I would highly recommend that you do the same if you have any interest in playing Life is Strange 2, for while I won’t be going into any major plot spoilers I will be discussing themes and ideas that the Dontnod team use that I think you’re better off not knowing before you play the game.
We’ll start with the technical side: Life is Strange 2 keeps many of the technical qualities of the other games in this series. It runs smoothly and consistently, and the art style of the world is really strong. The motion capture has really stepped up from previous titles, with the animations becoming sleeker and more realistic, allowing Dontnod to have more action-packed scenes. This isn’t all good though, because the motion capture has also affected the facial animations.
Life is Strange is focused on the interpersonal relationships between the characters, so there are a lot of close-ups of the characters faces. This style with the completely realistic facial animations is weird. It’s so weird. Uncanny Valley, makes me feel slightly uncomfortable weird. I think it’s the eyes, there isn’t enough detail in them for how detailed the face muscles are. This is, at a certain point, also a blessing - one scene features intense raw emotion that I’m not sure would have translated without these detailed animations.
The previous games in the series all touch on some hard topics in various subtle ways. LiS2 does away will all subtlety: This is a game about racism in America. From pretty much the beginning, the game sets out some of what it is like to be Hispanic in America in 2016. Specifically, late October 2016, mere days before the election of Donald Trump - a recurring theme of the game. There are text messages referencing the last of the televised debates, and one character uses the line “People like you are why we need that wall”. Make no mistake coming into this game: there are definitely politics here, and it universally paints Donald Trump and the most extreme of his supporters as the bad guys.
This leads to some scenes where LiS2 made me feel genuinely uncomfortable. I don’t live in the US, or have any real reference to what life is like there, so I don’t know if what Dontnod presents is in anyway representative of reality. But the fact that I’m asking these questions, that I’m unsure if the events of this game are that far-fetched, made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I suspect that Dontnod were going for this exact feeling when they built up the narrative.
I think it’s important to appreciate the narrative they’ve built though, and I think they’ve perfected what games of this type should go for. The decisions you make don’t impact the narrative of the story, with every choice leading to pretty much the exact same place. They do impact the morals of protagonist Sean and his younger brother Daniel, with every major decision shown at the end (in the “Here’s how everyone else played” section) amounting to a moral choice, mostly on how you treat Daniel.
They’ve left the story quite open too, with a clear path forwards but plenty of places for that to be derailed. There’s also a decent amount of foreshadowing, with certain important family characters mentioned without appearing on screen. I feel reasonably confident that, given the tracks laid down in this episode, future episodes will expand significantly on the themes and characters we’ve met so far.
The series has played with different primary mechanics, from Max’s Time Travelling ability to Chloe’s Argument Powers. This time around, there isn’t really a mechanic that affects the story, but Sean is an excellent artist and often takes time to sit down and draw. This involves focusing on the subject, and the waving the mouse around erratically for a few seconds as the image appears. It’s an almost completely pointless mechanic, but it’s a fun distraction from the more serious themes of the game. That isn’t to say there isn’t some extranormal business going on, but it’s not a primary mechanic this time around.
Returning are the sections where the playable character sits around and some music plays while the game takes the form and function of CPU intensive screensaver. Again, these serve no real purpose aside from making the characters more human if you let them play. Some have additional lines of dialogue, but nothing of massive note, but for the most part it’s just pleasant to give the characters some time off from the awfulness of their lives.
I’m really looking forward to where Dontnod go with this story from here. I hope that they keep up with the intensity of the themes, and I kinda hope they maybe turn down some of the more realistic facial animations. If you liked the previous games in the series, it’s more of the same high quality work, but if you’ve never given the series a go before you can definitely jump on here, as it is an entirely standalone entry. In a time where more developers are trying to stay apolitical, I really appreciate Dontnod going in the opposite direction.
Life is Strange 2 (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
A beginning of a political and troubling story, with some “uncanny valley” animations and dark themes - Dontnod once again proving they are the top of this genre.