Another sequel? Not exactly. Life is Strange 2 has pretty much nothing to do with Life is Strange “the First” (one of the finest adventure games ever made), except that it takes place in the same country and within some kind of a similar timeline. But the similarities stop there. This time, we follow the story of two brothers, Sean and Daniel, of mixed culture and ethnicity (their father is Mexican and their mother is a white American). When the story starts, you learn that they live with their dad in a little town, and it looks like their mother, Karen, has bailed out for a long time now. Sean still remembers her and resents her for what she did, while Daniel, the youngest, barely has any memory of her.
On a fateful day, a fight with a kid from the neighborhood ends up in a drama, as the police intervenes and shoots their father dead. When this occurs, Daniel appears to have some kind of ESP (telekinesis) and apparently ends up killing the policeman before losing consciousness. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Sean, still conscious, grabs his brother and runs away on foot in the woods in order to escape the authorities. This is the beginning of a long road trip for the two of them. Ultimately, Sean has in mind to flee the country and return to their father’s homeland, Mexico, to avoid a life behind bars for his brother and himself.
The first Life is Strange almost followed the rules of classical unities (in drama): there should be one principal action, things should occur within a day or a few, and exist in the same physical location. Everything took place in Arcadia Bay, the action was revolving around Max trying to save/help Chloe… but it did not follow the rules of time. The whole mechanics of the game were about manipulating the past and the present to influece what was to come. It’s what made Life is Strange so brilliant and new at the same time (while being heavily inspired by movies such as “The Butterfly Effect”).
It took me a while to realize that Life is Strange 2 had no such trick up to their sleeves. This is a pure adventure game in the classical sense - very much like what Telltale does/did. Nothing wrong with that, while it is somewhat of a let down as there is pretty much nothing innovative in a narrative sense. But who needs that when you at least have a good story?
Well, that’s where it hurts me to say that… Life is Strange 2 is very poorly written. There’s not much tension while the kids are supposed to be tracked and hunted by cops. Most of the time it feels like the cops are on vacation, taking a nap, and never getting even close to catching them. Even the FBI is involved and all of them are clueless at stuff like tracking mobile phone signals (remember the story takes place in the recent years…) for days to find where the kids are. So realistic. When the authorities stop being completely useless, you are at the last episode, but that’s after 10+ hours of utter boredom.
Characters are one-sided and have no depth whatsoever. Sean is the typical teenager who’s not too confident in himself and who suddenly has to grow up in order to take care of his little brother. Daniel is still a little kid, naive and childish - he wants his way and often gets in trouble with Sean. To make things even more painful, Daniel is painted as an obnoxious brat. He’s supposed to be 9 years old but the writers gave him the brains of a 5 years old at best. So you have to babysit this crybaby the whole time who can’t exercise any form of judgment. Makes you wonder what kind of education he got for the last 8 years. To all writers out there: please, don’t write children as utterly stupid. They are typically smarter than you think.
The first Life is Strange, on the other hand, had UNUSUAL characters with complex problems. Max was the good student type of girl, skilled and interested in arts, but a little too shy for her own good. Her friend, Chloe, an extrovert, is failing school mostly because of deep-rooted familial issues and bad relationships. There were almost the opposite of each other’s. This always ended up making Max do things she would normally not do, pushing the player to experiment with the best ways to get something done out of their comfort zone.
Back to Life is Strange 2, where there’s no background story. Barely a skeleton of it. You end up with a short intro that lasts about 30 mins in the first chapter before the big event that will change their lives forever occurs. You never get to see Daniel or Sean going to school and what kind of relationship they have with their friends and classmates. This lack of background is significant, because you can’t really communicate what these 2 young people lost if we don’t even know what they had to begin with. This is also a major difference with the first Life is Strange, in which the first chapter was virtually a very long introduction to the world, the characters, their environment and what they struggle with in their daily lives. It seems like Life is Strange 2 skipped on all the goodness that makes for believable characters.
Not only Life is Strange 2 fails at providing some background, it also fails at providing some depth and new elements throughout the story. There is not much we get to learn about Daniel’s abilities or where they come from or what it all means. It’s not essential but it would have been a nice thing to provide some trickles of information as the story progresses to keep things evolving. In the first Life in Strange, Max progressively discovered things about her power and how it all related to what she was experiencing and living, making it another narrative element in itself on top of her relationship with Chloe.
Worse, the whole writing in LiS2 is caricatural from beginning to end. There’s the *not so subtle political commentary about the US, and the constant encounters with stereotypes: cops are evil bastards and shoot before asking questions, about half of the white people you meet are evil racists, religious folks are evil fanatics, and hippies are all good guys who just happen to love drugs… like WTF? Did they really have to paint such a binary world in which everyone is either supremely good or incredibly evil without any inch of subtlety? If I wanted to get some low level political satire, thanks DONTNOD, but I know how to find my way to Twitter anytime. I don’t need that kind of cartoonish crap in my games.
Jean-Luc Cano, the main writer, excelled at writing about relationships between 2 teenage girls in the first Life in Strange in a suburbian town, and completely stumbles when it comes to talk about two teenage boys and their experience as they travel in the US. I cannot fathom how a writer can fall from great to mediocre levels in such a short time. Either they lacked ideas in the first place, or they were asleep at the wheel on this one. Narration deserves a solid F.
The game hammers down “Decisions will change how the game unfolds”. Really? I have never realized how my decisions would actually impact anything but the immediate problem at hand. You would be unable to judge the game anyway on this aspect unless you purposely restart every chapter one by one to see what could happen. Life is Strange 1 was innovative in that regard since it forced you at several times in the game to reconsider your choices with the time-travel mechanism. Here we are in a Telltales games algorithm where choices don’t really matter as you never have a clear hint to what they lead to later on in the game.
Talking about actions anyway, I have never seen such a dull collection of actions required in an adventure game. Most of what you have to do is to “pick up stuff”, “look at something”, “draw something”, “talk with someone”. There’s no real puzzle to solve, no challenge, no real difficulty to figure out what to do next. I can’t imagine why they decided to make the game LESS exciting to play than your daily chores at home.
The story turns out to be amoral as well. The whole point of LiS1 was that there was a balance in the universe and to get what you wanted, some other things would have to be destroyed in exchange - call if karma or what you like. Here in LiS2, you can literally get away with murder, avoid any consequence and make it to live on the beach and drink beer in the end. I guess extradition treaties don’t exist in a cartoonish world. Life is Strange, indeed.
Too bad the writing is so poor since everything else about the game is a great jump from the first one. The art department did a wonderful job, avoiding photo-realism while giving everything the colors and feeling of the real world. The attention to details is rewarded by a number of cinematic scenes whenever you arrive in a new place, lingering on object, landscapes, animals… all very well done and evocative. The game feels even more wasted in light of all the art that was produced.
Ultimately as the credits rolled, I felt absolutely nothing about the story, the characters and their relationship. None of it was interesting, gripping, memorable or even thoughtful. I can still remember distinct moments in Life is Strange 1 YEARS after playing it, and I can’t say the same about the second one just days after I am done with it.
A word about the port
I tested the port from Feral (no Proton magic this time around) and they did another very solid port. Performance is very good most of the time (I only noticed some heavy frame drops whenever you faced a mirror in a room), and I can run the game at High Settings (60 fps, full HD) with a GTX970 or a GTX1060 3GB, which are considered to be relatively low-mid range GPUs nowadays. Very High Settings would result in less than ideal switches between 30 fps and 60 fps for a marginal increase in visual quality in my opinion.
I did encounter a few weird crashes (and reported them) when my Steam controller would disconnect after 10 minutes away from the screen, and tried to reconnect it - for some reason it make the game freeze or crash at least twice. This had no big impact on my experience of the game since the game saves your progress automatically as you go, making it almost painless to restart and continue. Other that that, it was all good and as solid as all recent Feral ports I have tested. Every time I see ports as good as this, it makes me wish Feral could produce a lot more of those.