Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
At the end of 2015, Dontnod and Square Enix released the first season of Life Is Strange, a coming of age story with a Twin Peaks twist, a time rewind mechanic, and the unforgettable relationship between Max Caulfield and Chloe Price.
It was a story that embraced queerness, struggled with issues of sexual assault and classism, and touched the hearts of millions of fans. The ending was brutal and heartbreaking. When Season 2 was announced, no one was sure where Dontnod could go with the series next.
If you just want to know whether you should buy this game, and want zero spoilers, even minor ones, then yes, you should buy this game. The art style maintains its dreamy, water color quality. The voice acting is still excellent, and the dialogue has gotten far crisper. There aren’t any 18-year olds exclaiming “Wowser!” though you do get a 9-year old saying “Awesome, Possum!” which felt cute rather than cringey. While the story doesn’t seem to address queerness in the way that the previous season did, the writing remains top notch. Pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.
While Season 2 takes place in the same world, it centers around two brothers, Sean and Daniel Diaz, living in Seattle with their dad, Esteban. It’s October 2016 and the American presidential race is drawing to a close. While his name is never mentioned, Donald Trump and his divisive politics exist as a subtle background radiation that affects this middle class Mexican-American family.
The next door neighbor is penning racist letters to Esteban about Sean and Daniel, demanding that he put up a fence between their properties. The neighbor’s son feels the need to tell Sean to “Go back to his own country.” Esteban sees all this - he says the country is “getting scary” and tells Sean to make sure to take care of Daniel. He has no idea how right he is.
You play as Sean, thinking this game’s going to be about his teenage problems. He likes to sketch, smoke weed, and run track. He has a cute best friend named Lyla but is crushing on Jenn, another girl from school. Lyla is helping you to impress Jenn, but is also worried that you guys won’t be friends forever, especially if you end up at different colleges.
I detected a love triangle, and I was here for it. But the LIS team isn’t interested in repeating themselves. Season 2 doesn’t pull the rug out from beneath you so much as blow you into the next county. The Diaz boys lives are about to change.
After that major shift happens, Daniel is watching your every move and learning from you. Dontnod promises that your actions in one episode will greatly affect future episodes. For those of you who are already missing Telltale and the Clementine/AJ relationship, you may be able to get your parent sim fix here.
I’m glad that Dontnod was brave enough to comment on the struggles of people of color in America. This is the first post-Trump game that I’ve seen substantially deal with these issues. I’m not Mexican-American, but this game does make me feel seen. For that, I am thankful.
Dontnod’s writers were also smart enough to make Sean and Daniel fully fleshed out. They aren’t only Mexican. Sean thinks baseball is boring and loves English rappers. He doesn’t like to party, but he does like hanging out with his best friend, who teases him about how bad he is with girls. He is deep in a crush with Jenn, a girl who helps him with his math homework. He gets annoyed at his much younger brother, but has a deep love for his family. You can scroll back into his text messages and get a sense of what his life is like.
Daniel has a big heart and assumes the best about people. He can be a bit of a brat, but in an endearing way. He likes to storm into his big brother’s room when he gets excited. And he loves Hawt Dawg Man (yes, he’s back from Season 1). The boys endure racism, but they don’t exist merely for Dontnod’s writers to make a ham-handed political point (looking at you, Quantic Dream).
These are boys that you knew, that you grew up with. And that’s the point. Dontnod is trying to evoke sympathy for their struggles, and you can’t do that without great characters. I’m already carving out a place in my heart for Sean and Daniel beside Chloe and Max.
LIS Season 2 appears to be built on the same engine as the original LIS. I’m torn on this. On the one hand, I’m not here for the graphics. I’m here for the story. But it looks a tad dated in 2018, and it’s undeniable that slightly better character animations would help the dialogue delivery land just a bit better.
But it seems that the LIS artists realized this limitation and leaned into one of the things they did best last season, which was gorgeous landscapes and environments. The world feels wonderfully lived in and real, and provides immersion where facial animations don’t.
It seems like the LIS team has veered away from unnecessary gamification this time around, for which I am thankful. In the original LIS, there was an absurd and ridiculous section where you had to find five empty beer bottles in a sprawling mess of a junkyard before you could advance the plot.
My friends and I nicknamed this sequence “Bottlefinder 3000” and it became short hand for unnecessary gameplay elements in story games. This happened throughout LIS Season 1, but didn’t happen at all in Season 2.
Instead, the gameplay mainly consisted of exploration and dialogue. Talk to everyone. Look at and touch everything (which is clearly labeled and easy to find!!). Explore every nook and cranny. This is what we story gamers show up for, and that’s the bulk of the gameplay here. I didn’t have to find a single bottle. And for that, I’m thankful.
Occasionally, hotspots to touch / look at items were a little close together, but that’s a minor niggle at worst and did little to detract from the experience.
The licensed indie music soundtrack is back, and thank goodness, no one is claiming to be into punk rock while playing delicate folk music. I loved the original soundtrack, but it was clear to me that Dontnod didn’t know much about American punk. I’m a bit of a music snob, so this was immersion-breaker, albeit an amusing one. Season 2 dodges this issue by not making Sean an adherent to any musical subculture.
The budget is bigger this season, with tracks from well-known bands like Bloc Party and Phoenix. The original LIS soundtrack has a permanent place in my streaming rotation, and I’m willing to bet that Season 2 will find its way in there too.