If you go into Life Is Strange 2 thinking it will be a similar journey to its predecessor you are going to be in for a shock. Life Is Strange 2 retains the same humanizing sensibilities and just slightly surreal world-building that made the town of Arcadia Bay come to life, but what it does with those strengths in the first episode looks very different. This change up will leave some people reeling and others deeply invested in where this story will be going as more episodes hit digital storefronts around the world.
Roads plays very much like the previous Life Is Strange episodes before it. Players can walk around gorgeous environments that manage to find the beauty often hidden within the mundane and interact with objects or people, complete with a running internal monologue. When interacting with some items or character, players will have the opportunity to make choices that could affect what happens later on in ways ranging from whether a small token appears on a backpack to whether an entire town exists or not. That framework still functions as well as it ever did, though I particularly enjoyed its incarnation in Roads.
Early in the episode, players have the opportunity to gather a collection of supplies, including money. That money is then used later on to buy food and other essentials from a gas station. Based on how much money you were able to scrounge in the beginning, players will face different pressures and choices about what to buy and what decisions seem to make the most sense. The way the team at Dontnod designed the scene leaves a lot of room for players to fill in the blanks for themselves and presents a great moral dilemma, the bread and butter of any narrative-heavy adventure game, in an original way.
I will also say off the bat that The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit does not have a ton of overlap with the first episode of Life Is Strange 2, though it did tease some of its inciting incident. From what Dontnod has revealed so far, we can probably expect more Captain Spirit-related events in future episodes.
Whereas the original Life Is Strange focused on the struggles of a young white girl in the early 2000s and her life in an aging coastal town on the decline, the sequel takes a look at the life of a young Hispanic boy named Sean Diaz living in the Seattle, Washington of 2016. At first, things seem like they will follow the same sleepy, nostalgic setup seen in Life Is Strange. It's near Halloween and the kids at the local high school are throwing a party, complete with all the pressures and concerns that go with that scene. However, a small disagreement with a neighbor kid escalates when punches are thrown and a police officer arrives, drawing his gun. When Sean's dad comes running out to see what's going on, the officer panics and shoots, killing Sean's father in front of both Sean and his 9-year-old brother Daniel. The trauma of the event causes Daniel to lash out with some unexplained power, sending a massive shockwave through the area that destroys parts of the surrounding homes, flips cars, and kills the officer and possibly the neighbor. Upon regaining consciousness, Sean takes in the situation and realizes that there's no explaining any of this away; running becomes the only thing that makes sense.
So it is that Life Is Strange 2 becomes about hitting the road in the modern United States. As they travel, they encounter a small slice of people from across the socio-political spectrum. The first game painted a clear picture of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, but Life Is Strange 2, at least from the first episode, holds the larger ambition of reflecting the entire country. And that reflection doesn't pull punches.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, the fluff of nostalgia that permeated the first Life Is Strange (and perhaps made some of its more disturbing moments palatable) has been replaced by a more immediate and applicable sense of time and place that, frankly, we aren't used to seeing in video games. It's surreal to hear characters throw slurs mixed with rhetoric about building a wall between the United States and Mexico or demonstrate a nonchalant attitude toward marijuana that reflects its legalization in Washington state. The veracity of these attitudes hits home as I have seen people act the same way in the real world. Especially when it comes to the uglier topics Roads touches on, the experience does not feel comfortable, but that's precisely the point.
In some ways, it feels as though Life Is Strange 2 Episode 1 is having a conversation with the player. The developers must have been aware that some people would fall into the category that firmly believes games should be meaningless fun and wanted to subtly make the case that maybe some games should have more substance than just fun. Roads hits several extremely polarizing issues right off the bat, from police violence to racial prejudice, in such a way that it might shock people who aren't used to games that have pointed things to say about those subjects. Then, near the end of the episode, a character comments that, "Everything is political," both to the characters in their scene and also as if to directly address the player. And what are we supposed to do with that information? One of the closing conversations of the episode asks just that question. And the answer seems to be to continue pushing forward, whether that's for truth or for some kind of safe haven. Because that's all anyone can ever do.
Life Is Strange 2's first episode blew me away. It manages to both be a heartfelt examination of the relationship between two brothers while unflinchingly engaging with incredibly weighty and difficult topics. It also doesn't leave the player with any easy answers or ways to address those issues in the real world. I suppose those might be coming in future episodes, but if I had to guess from how Roads played out we won't be presented with feel-good solutions.
The story of the Diaz family left me constantly wondering what would happen next. While the episode ends with a somewhat concrete plan, I wouldn't be shocked if it veers off in completely unexpected directions. This episode manages to be equal parts gorgeous, funny, and searing all at the same time; gripping in such a way that you'll finish it in one sitting. It's going to be a long wait for Episode 2.
Life Is Strange 2 Episode 1: Roads was reviewed on PC and is currently available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.