Life is Strange 2 isn’t pulling its punches

Before playing Life is Strange 2 for myself, I was as skeptical as I was hopeful. While I certainly liked the look of the characters and was intrigued by the game’s premise, I had a number of questions as I sat down to play for the first time. Would the protagonists be relatable? Would Life is Strange 2 work as a road movie, rather than sticking to the same town? Could it capture the same sense of magic without fan favourites like Chloe and Max, and could Life is Strange 2 really touch on its chosen subjects such as racism and police brutality with meaning and sensitivity?

Having played the first episode in its entirety, I am thoroughly convinced – Life is Strange 2 is already turning out to be something special. It also doesn’t pull any punches.

Oh, and before we go ahead, a word of warning: whopping spoilers lie in wait for Life is Strange 2 Episode 1, as well as Life is Strange and Life is Strange: Before the Storm.

It’s no secret that the Life is Strange fan base adores original characters Max and Chloe, so the game’s first hurdle was always going to be convincing those players that new protagonists Sean and Daniel Diaz are worth caring about. Thankfully, Life is Strange 2 does a great job of swiftly introducing its new characters and giving us reasons to invest in them. The Diaz family home is alive with both witty chatter and a rich seam of emotional honesty. Life for the Diaz boys isn’t without its foibles, of course, but all in all the immediate sense is one of a loving and cohesive family unit – even if the absence of the boys’ mother comes painfully into focus for Sean in the odd moment of quiet.

The Diaz family is one built on trust, honesty and emotional openness and in terms of Life is Strange it’s fairly extraordinary as it’s not something we’ve really seen before. Chloe Price’s family is one of discord and tension, always threatening to bubble over; Max’s parents are only ever in touch by text message; by the time we meet Rachel Amber’s folks, we already know that her father is living a lie. The Diaz family dynamic is, for Life is Strange, nothing short of remarkable.

This being Life is Strange, of course, that sense of security and unity is torn violently away as a twitchy police officer reacts badly to a situation and ends up shooting Sean and Daniel’s father dead. This incident triggers Daniel’s latent telekinetic powers and the officer himself is killed, forcing the boys to go on the run. This scene, punctuated by nine year-old Daniel’s tearful shouts of fear and confusion, sets the stage for the rest of the game but also makes a chilling example of those instances in which police procedures go horribly wrong. Sean and Daniel’s father is taken from them both suddenly and senselessly and it’s hard to escape the feeling he was killed for who he was, not what was happening in the moment.

The disbelief, the pain and the anger Sean expresses over the course of the rest of the episode is a powerful exercise in empathy, calling to mind the numerous families and communities that have been torn apart by police shootings (at the time of writing, The Washington Post claims that 732 people have been shot and killed by police so far in 2018). This is not a subject matter that ought to be used lightly but, thankfully, Life is Strange 2 employs it deftly without getting carried away.

The fact this scene takes place in late October 2016 – less than two weeks before Donald Trump became President-Elect of the United States of America – is no accident. Sean and his best friend Lyla exchange texts about how upsetting the most recent Presidential debate was. Later, a racist store owner spits ‘this is why we need to build the wall’ at the Diaz brothers as he immediately assumes they’re causing trouble.

It’s a very deliberate background, reminding us that political rhetoric has far-reaching and potentially disastrous implications. The two boys are then cut loose in these tempestuous waters, desperately searching for some measure of security in a country that treats them with suspicion without regard for their innocence or guilt.

After such an explosive, traumatic opening, the rest of the episode is punctuated by moments of fear and tension, moments of suspicion, heart-racing scenes of existential horror and, most importantly, those precious moments of hope or levity that help make Life is Strange so special. These are all the more important in Life is Strange 2 as the overall atmosphere of Episode 1 is oppressive in a way we’ve not seen from the series up to this point. While Sean and Daniel may be younger than Max and Chloe or Chloe and Rachel, the narrative in Life is Strange 2 is far more adult than that of Life is Strange or Life is Strange: Before the Storm.

That’s a tricky balancing act, of course – countless game and movie franchises have taught us that bigger or heavier doesn’t necessarily mean more profound, but so far Life is Strange 2 is walking that line admirably. Dontnod has made a number of bold design decisions for this sequel, from the boys’ itinerant journey to a satisfying new puzzle format that involves ordering Daniel about, but (for the time being, at least) I’m convinced they were right to make those choices. While Episode 1 was as exhausting to play as it was exhilarating, it’s certainly put my fears to rest – and it’s left me hungry for more.

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