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Dontnod Entertainment had a breakthrough hit in 2015 with the original Life Is Strange, which blended storytelling, teen angst, and supernatural powers. But the French game studio found it had another story to tell with Life Is Strange 2, a sequel that is set in the same kind of universe but has some very different characters in the form of two young brothers.
While the stories and characters are different, the weight of making tough moral choices between options that aren’t very appealing is at the heart of the game. Dontnod and its publisher Square Enix debuted Episode 1 of Life Is Strange 2 in September 2018, and the fifth and final episode debuted on December 3.
The story revolves around Sean and Daniel Diaz, two brothers who are cast as a couple of lone wolves. At the beginning of the first episode, their gentle father is tragically and accidentally shot by a Seattle policeman. In the ensuing confusion, nine-year-old Daniel has a flash of anger and unleashes his superpower of telekinesis (moving physical objects with his mind) for the first time, killing the policeman. In a state of shock, 16-year-old Sean, the older brother, takes Daniel on the run, with a quixotic plan of reaching a place called Puerto Lobos, their father’s hometown in Mexico. The tale tugs at your heartstrings, with beautiful music accompanying it.
During their epic journey from Seattle to Mexico, Sean guides Daniel to make the right decisions through words and examples. You play as Sean, but your biggest impact on the events of the game is through your influence on the behavior of Daniel, who is akin to a force of nature.
Now that I’ve finished all five episodes of Life Is Strange 2, the question is about how many choices the developers give you. Are you in charge of the story? Or do the storytellers want to direct you to a particular ending? And the interesting thing is that you have really made all of your big choices by the time that Episode 5 comes around. Playing as Sean, you can only set Daniel on the right path and hope for the best when a crisis occurs.
What struck me most about the ending is that, in a year when game developers were constantly criticized for failing to be political, Life Is Strange 2 embraces its chance to make a political statement.
Check out our Reviews Vault for past game reviews. Please note this review has spoilers.
What you’ll like
A universe that is familiar and full of interesting new characters
Dontnod’s strong point is creating interesting characters, both as heroes and villains, but mostly as ordinary people. Life Is Strange 2 takes place in the same universe as the previous games — Life Is Strange (2015) and Life Is Strange: Before the Storm (2017). While the previous games focused on female teens, this is the first title that deals with males. The game immerses us in the Mexican American culture of the boys, where Sean calls his brother “enano” (“dwarf”), but they are far more Americanized than their father.
Their mother, Karen, left the family not long after Daniel was born, and their father raised them on his own. When you explore the rooms of the boys, you see the influence of the mixed heritage, with typical American superhero obsessions and the occasional reference to their Latin background. You find this detail embedded throughout the world.
On the road, as the boys try to survive, they meet various strangers. Some strangers are kind and try to help them, while others are openly racist. This theme comes back in the ending of the game.
But you can tell that you’re in the Life Is Strange universe because the game asks you at the outset what life-or-death choice you made in the ending of the original Life Is Strange, and it also asks you in Episode 2 if you played the short game, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, as the decisions in that game affect the boys as well.
The universe feels authentic, from its beautiful music to its pretty nature scenes. When you are trying to paint the scenery, as Sean does, you feel very immersed in a real place with real characters.
While Max Caulfield had the ability to rewind time in the original game, Daniel’s power is different. The brothers have to decide when to use telekinesis to get them out of a tough situation, or to refrain because Daniel can barely control the power when he is emotional.
Regarding those powers, Sean tells Daniel, “Never in public. Never talk about it. Run from danger.” The boys have to stay in the shadows, and their plans to find refuge keep falling apart. They go to their mother’s parents’ home in search of their mother. But she isn’t there, and the grandparents are law-abiding citizens who feel mixed about harboring alleged criminals.
Daniel makes friends with Chris, the boy from the Captain Spirit game, and he starts spilling his secrets in a way that can lead to disastrous outcomes. The cops eventually catch up with them, and the boys have to escape at the end of Episode 2. In Episode 3, they fall in with other wandering teenagers who find work at a pot farm.
That earns them some much-needed money, but it also leads to bad influences. Sean is torn because he wants to spend more time with his friends like Cassidy, but that leaves Daniel feeling neglected. One of the teens, Finn, becomes more of a brother to Daniel than Sean, and he leads Daniel astray by plotting to rob the pot farmer. They get discovered and Daniel loses control of his power, unleashing an explosion that hurts all of them and blinds Sean in one eye.
Throughout this time, Sean is struggling with finding his own identity, including his sexual identity (and this is where Dontnod gives players the most choice in the game), while still trying to do what’s best for Daniel. And Daniel acts up when he feels Sean pulling away or trying to control him too much. These are normal tensions between an older brother and a younger brother, but they result in a tragic separation.
Accelerating to the climax
The game does a good job of taking you from the disastrous separation of Sean and Daniel in Episode 3 to Sean’s efforts to find and win over Daniel by the end. As these events happen, you can make small decisions that add up. If you allow Daniel the freedom to make his own decisions and then push him to do the right thing, then Daniel will know when to use his power for good.
But there are many things that can go wrong, and the result can be murder. During the final episodes, the boys’ mother, Karen, comes back into the picture. As they team up to try to win Daniel back, the player can decide how much Sean will welcome Karen’s presence back into the family, and how much he will hold her abandonment against her.
A good ending (real spoilers here)
Things come to a head at the end, and this where some of the casual scenes about racism come to a head. The boys find that their final path to Mexico is blocked by Donald Trump’s border wall. It is fully built, and it is insurmountable. The only solution is for Daniel to blast a hole in it with his telekinetic power.
He does so, but then he is shot and knocked unconscious by a couple of racists. They’re fictional but based on real vigilantes who are helping to guard the U.S.-Mexico border. They capture the boys and turn them in to border patrol agents. The vigilantes are dumbfounded to hear that the boys are trying to escape to Mexico, where their father grew up.
The agents are a lot less abrasive, and they also arrest the vigilantes. Then they put the vigilantes in a jail cell next to the brothers, who are housed with other captured migrants. This turns out to be a bad idea, and the female vigilante gets into a political shouting match with the migrants, who plead they are only looking for a better life for their unborn son. It’s an ugly scene.
Eventually, the boys escape as Daniel, separated from Sean, once again loses control. Sean can keep Daniel under control, if they have a good relationship, and stop him from outright murdering the guards. But as they steal a car and return to the border, they find a blockade of police and an FBI agent awaiting them.
Daniel can unleash his power here, but nothing will end well. I chose to surrender, ending the story of the wolf brothers. Sean says to Daniel of the criminal alternative, “That’s not who we are.” This turns out to be one of the happier outcomes. There are seven different ways this can end, but the political milieu around the ending always stays the same. I consider this ending to be very well crafted, and not shy about condemning the forces that put so much pressure on the boys and the immigrants who are caught up in the border violence.
“In Life Is Strange 2, the last choice of the game is one that you make, the player, but it’s also dependent on choices that you’ve made from the beginning of the game,” said Jean-Luc Cano, co-creative director of the game, in an interview with me. “It’s partly about Sean’s choices, and partly about Daniel’s choices. Because Daniel has been shaped by all of your previous choices, he’ll act differently in response to your last choice.”
What you won’t like
Slow moments are really slow
There are times when you feel like you should be moving with a sense of urgency. But then you are forced to deal with some extremely pedestrian matters. Are you going to wash the dishes with Daniel? You better do it, because it’s a bonding moment for the boys. But it’s also quite tedious.
Life Is Strange has been criticized as a “walking simulator” by people who don’t appreciate its finer points. You spend a lot of time searching through everything in the hopes of finding something important. Escaping from a hospital is quite important, but it takes Sean a long time to actually get it done. All the while, you’re worried about what has happened to Daniel.
I picked up some bugs in the first couple of episodes, but it didn’t really bother me that much. And eventually, there were no major problems with the final episodes.
Daniel is still really annoying
Daniel is as annoying as a nine-year-old can be. He agrees to rules. He breaks them. Then he doesn’t think about the consequences. Sean has to be patient with Daniel, but he already knows that Daniel has a history of not behaving. Sean can see the basic problems at hand. If they are exposed, the police will get them and maybe pin a charge of murder on them. To escape, they have to get out of the country. To get out of the country, they need more money. To get money, they have to hang on to their jobs.
Sean can see that making waves — or just being a kid — will get them discovered. But Daniel isn’t so logical. He goofs off. He causes trouble because he’s bored. He wants to use his powers because it’s fun. In other words, he’s a kid. Sean is more mature, but he has to build up a mountain of patience to manage Daniel. It feels like you are stuck with a really annoying kid. You have to be understanding, and that is so tough. It’s an interesting lesson that Dontnod forces upon us, but did it have to be so extreme? Daniel just seems to get worse over time.
It’s a good game
The game gave me memorable decisions to make. I helped Daniel and Sean escape where I could, but I tried not to use Daniel’s powers and violence to enable those escapes. I welcomed Karen back into the family to a degree. I found that 97% of the players did the same thing, based on the post-game statistical report on my choices. As I noted in the past, that’s a sign that Dontnod set up a story with a foregone conclusion, where there really wasn’t a viable choice in not welcoming Karen.
But the stats were mixed on other ending choices. I was in the group with four out of five players who chose not to let the migrants out (I didn’t even know I had this choice) and not to let the vigilantes out. And, as Sean, I chose to take the fall for Daniel, allowing myself to be blamed for the crime spree. I liked how the game let you choose your version of romance, without severe consequences.
And I was in the largest group in deciding to surrender. But only 37% of the players were with me. Others decided to charge through the blockade, with disastrous consequences. There are multiple ways that Daniel can turn out. He can grow up (in the credits scene) to become a good citizen and to finally be there when his brother, Sean, is let out of jail. In seeing how Daniel’s life played out, I knew I made the right choices as Sean. It made me feel like a good parent, or maybe a good surrogate parent. I taught Daniel to be moral, and this meant something in the long-term arc of Daniel’s life, which plays out in the final scene.
“There’s no good or bad ending in the first Life Is Strange, and the same is true in Life Is Strange 2,” Cano said. “There are more endings, but none of them are good endings or bad endings, a right way or a wrong way. It’s all in this gray area. In every case, it’s maybe a bittersweet ending. There’s no purely happy ending or bad ending. In every ending we’ve tried to include both good moments and bad moments, because that’s what happens in life most of the time.”
That’s a very unique feeling that I got from this video game full of choices, and I’m happy how it turned out.
Eyes wide open when it comes to politics
And I was also quite pleased to see that Dontnod — without being overtly political or partisan — chose to shed a light on the situation at the border, as it could be when a wall is fully built. The game doesn’t force you to choose a pro-Trump or anti-Trump point of view.
The developers, based in France and looking at the racism in the U.S. from the outside, chose to paint the picture in a factual way. In one of the outcomes, gang members confront Daniel and Sean, or just Daniel, in Mexico. So the game doesn’t paint the political situation as one-sided. There are bad people on both sides of the border.
But there’s a lot that Dontnod put in front of our faces to help us draw political conclusions. The racism that Daniel and Sean experience isn’t imaginary. It’s real. The plight of the migrants is laid out for us to hear in an empathetic way. The vigilantes are coarse and unbending. The wall is a menacing thing that stands in the way of a final escape. The political viewpoint of Dontnod seems obvious, but I like how they build it into the environment, rather than directly bringing it into the conversations of the boys or forcing you to make a choice about it.
So yes, for those who want a political game, Dontnod has created one. And it’s a good one with a strong enough message.
Disclosure: The publisher provided us with a code to play the game on the PC.
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