Often, sequels can feel like a tired re-tread. Where once ideas were fresh, they feel stale, more a repeat than a continuation, lacking in the same level of creativity and impact. This is not the case at all with DONTNOD’s Life Is Strange 2, more of a sequel in spirit and feeling to the massively successful original.
This is not to say that this follow-up does not do the same things well. The world is just as lovingly fleshed out, from the gorgeous art style to the engaging and interesting characters and their shifting, changing dynamics. The series balances tension and tranquillity in the same way, as intense, life-threatening moments are weighed against the game’s trademark opportunities for quiet contemplation and reflection. The difference is that in this case, while the focus remains on two main characters, the central dynamics of both their relationship and their relationship with the world around them is completely new and places emphasis on different aspects of their lives.
Sean and Daniel Diaz are the game’s focus: Mexican American brothers who live in Seattle with their single father Esteban. They enjoy a normal life. Sean, a 16-year-old at high school, hangs out with his best friend and discusses attending a party with her and all the drama that might ensue. Daniel, his 9-year-old brother, has entirely different worries. He is lost in his own world of art, games, and fun, eager to enjoy them all with his reluctant brother. The setting is familiar to a lot of people, and these early stages of the game bear a feeling of warmth and love, as we come to know these people and what makes them tick.
What the game does so well from here, where no doubt an entirely different possible game could have explored the world of the American high school (as in the first game), is break that feeling of familiarity and take the narrative in a different direction. The story is one that explores the brothers’ identities, both in relation to each other and in relation to their country. Both are complex: filled with love, animosity, and reconciliation, but each is striking in his own ways.
First, the brotherly dynamic. As Sean and Daniel are forced to explore the world on their own, the way in which they interact with each other is an encapsulation of a familial bond. As the older brother, Sean feels an obligation to take care of his sibling, and yet that sibling rivalry always remains. It is an innate tension mixed in with the love that both of them know means that theirs is not a parent-child relationship, but one more fraught with ambiguity. As that relationship ebbs and flows, through many environments and scenarios, the game always feels real—to its massive credit. Their relationship is the glue that holds the game together.
Also vital to the narrative is the way in which the brothers are treated both as Americans and immigrants. This is not a simplistic game where every encounter with a white person means a barrage of racism; it recognises that the real situation is more complex than that. The brothers come across a variety of people, all of whom are fleshed out in their own way and view them differently as a result. When it does discuss racism, the game does not shy away from just how demeaning and harrowing the experience is, which is something that only serves to increase the impact of its central story, its understanding of that plight for immigrants forming a crucial piece of the puzzle, especially in the finale, which pulls no punches. Life is Strange 2 feels especially timely in relation to the real world, where dehumanisation of immigrants has become all the more prevalent, but that tension also forms a crucial part of Sean and Daniel’s bond, and the way they see the world.
Another aspect handled really well is setting. Unlike the first game, which framed itself in a particular location for pretty much its entirety, the environments that the brothers experience on their journey are almost another character each time. They provide the framework for the exploration of the brothers’ relationship and also offer an insight into their experience of the world around them. Each environment brings its own challenges, but also forces the pair to come to terms with what it means to be on this journey with each other and how they are going to get through it together. The episodic nature of the game helps to place bookmarks between each of these moments, and they all form a crucial part of the whole, especially the quieter, more subtle moments that delve deeper into that familial bond than any grand gesture ever could. The game makes sure to allow plenty of those, regularly matching exploration of an area with brotherly bonding.
That central theme of family is the crux of Life Is Strange 2, and what makes it a special game. A lot of familiar elements are present, and the gut punches come with the same regularity that they did the first time, but they mean something different. Each emotional moment is a result of the exploration of these characters, what they mean to each other, and how they come to understand family: what that word means to them. They are also the result of the way the player handles that central theme and what they mould the brothers’ relationship into.
A criticism levelled at a lot of choice-based episodic games of this nature is that player choice does not matter at the end of the day, but here that is not true, as the endings prove. Each ending is a result of how the player has explored that central theme of family and the choices they have made to either nurture and strengthen it or distance themselves from it. It also takes into account the way they interacted with the world around them and the place in it that they manage to find for the brothers amidst plenty of adversity. There is joy and sadness, frustration, anger, and hope, reminiscent of the first Life Is Strange, but for entirely different reasons. A good sequel retains the flavour of the original while taking it in a new, rich, and interesting direction, and that is exactly what Life Is Strange 2 does.