With the second episode of Life is Strange 2 out now, it’s time to admit that the second incarnation of the superpower narrative series is just not very good. In fact, it’s edging out of “acceptable” and into “this is kind of poop.”
“Rules” picks up not long after “Roads” left off. The Diaz brothers have run out of money and are now living in an abandoned cabin in the middle of winter. Sean hikes 15 miles through snow to steal supplies from a town. Meanwhile, Daniel practices controlling his telekinesis, but begins to fall ill due to poor nutrition and cold weather. They decide they need to reach their estranged maternal grandparents for help. There, in the small town of Beaver Creek, they meet an imaginative, superhero-obsessed boy named Chris and his alcoholic father, the main characters of the spin-off episode The Adventures of Captain Spirit.
The storyline of Life is Strange 2 is still amazing, and the voice acting is arguably better than even its predecessor. I have absolutely no complaints with the exciting tale of two brothers on the run from an inexplicable tragedy being pitted against a racist world that blames them for the death of the cop who needlessly shot their father. The bones of a great game are there.
The problem is that even two episodes in Life is Strange 2 has utterly failed to be a game. It’s a boring drag to play, and at time it disappears up its own back end on the narrative side to the expense of any effort being put into how you interact with the world.
Games are at their best when the mechanics of interaction perfectly complement the story they are trying to tell, even in games like Life is Strange that some people call “interactive movies” to differentiate them with more skill-based titles. Portal 2 made puzzle solving its narrative conceit and managed to turn a basic premise into a magnificent epic adventure. Beyond: Two Souls made using the djinn-like Aiden both the reason for Jodie’s story and a core part of the action.
Few games do this better than the first Life is Strange. The rewind skill is how you solve the big puzzles of who lives and dies as well as the little puzzles like how to break into an office. Even the hated bottle segment uses rewind, and when Max is trapped in the broken world that her powers have created you’re forced to use rewind to yet again find the stupid bottles in a frustrating but thematically perfect meshing of the story and play. It’s like a chord sequence being resolved.
Life is Strange 2 has none of that. Daniel’s powers are meaningless to the play until the very end of “Rules,” Even then, how you use them is irrelevant to whether you use them at all. There’s no control or interaction.
This could be a neat idea, sort of how like The Last Guardian revolved around guiding your powerful pet titan through puzzles. If Sean had a stat-based system that built how his relationship with Daniel unlocked situational power usage like Max’s time travel ability-fueled interrogations changed dialogue trees then that would be something. How to manage a scared child with fatal abilities like a 21st Century Firestarter is intriguing.
But that barely happens here. Instead, Sean does a minimum of exploration, the primary point of which is mostly to get collectibles with no larger connection to the story. Max took photographs because she was a photographer and the power of images captured in time was a major plot point. Sean finds junk and draws pictures because Life is Strange games have quirky teen protagonists.
What little gameplay there is seems very badly thought-out. There are good moments, as when Sean is handcuffed in the first game, but they are very few and far between. “Rules” has a whole bit where the brothers are trying to break into their mom’s old room by finding a key, but the point of the puzzle is to give up and tell Daniel to use his powers. I get why they did that, but there are no puzzles that require any skill or thought so far to actually beat. When they’re present, it’s like a token inclusion that the designers only bothered with because they thought they had to.
Because the game takes place over so many locations, the storyline suffers quite a bit thanks to the fact you’re never in the same place twice. Blackwell Academy was almost its own character in the first Life is Strange. Here, everything is transitional and constantly being abandoned in the wake of Daniel’s powers manifesting. Even meeting Chris from Captain Spirit feels weird because we’re being shoved from emotional meeting to emotional meeting with no time to catch our feet. Max built relationships throughout her game. Sean and Daniel just pass by.
When Before the Storm came out, a lot of people (including me) felt it was a senseless cash-in on Life is Strange’s success. We didn’t have Ashly Burch as Chloe, there were no powers (or were there?!) and it wasn’t even made by Dontnod. Eventually, fans calmed down and appreciated the game for the supplemental experience it was.
Life is Strange 2 has all the worst aspects of Before the Storm (lack of powers, pointless art mechanic) and none of the benefits of the established world. “Rules” even manages to borrow from Before the Storm badly in two places. A dull dice game replaces the amazing Dungeons and Dragons segments, and the brothers randomly hop a train at the end. Before the Storm can be forgiven its weaker points because it was never intended to be a full Life is Strange game, but Life is Strange 2 is supposed to be this big accomplishment that took years of planning and design. Now Before the Storm looks groundbreaking and clever (if still lacking in an original mechanic) and Life is Strange 2 feels like the knockoff.
And then there’s the pointless emotional damage. Yes, this is a game series that literally thanks you for crying at the end of the first game. You don’t expect a title that opens with a cop killing the main characters’ dad to be unemotional, but… they killed the puppy in this episode. They had him murdered by a wildcat, and for no reason. It showed Daniel could kill with his mind, which is something that we learned long ago.
Kate Marsh’s death meant something. Chloe ending up in a wheelchair meant something. These had narrative and mechanical reasons for happening. When Mushroom dies, it felt like that episode of Friends where Monica’s goal is to give a speech at her parents’ anniversary that makes everyone cry. She didn’t do it because what she had to say was moving, but because it was a competition with her brother to get tears. That’s exactly how I felt about Dontnod over Mushroom’s savaged corpse. They did that because, dammit, the first game made you sad and this will, too!
Life is Strange 2 is halfway through its release if we count Captain Spirit, and we should because Captain Spirit is the best thing about the experience so far if only because Chris’ comic book imagination is the closest to “strange” the game actually has come since leaving Arcadia Bay. While there is a hell of a story that I will see to the end, the game design is lazy and unexceptional. It’s like a Telltale game, but without even quick time events to live the experience up. Nothing feels like a game. Mechanically it has no theme that ties with the story, and the world-building has been let go in favor of shotgunning emotional moments. It’s a terrible disappointment that is just unrewarding to play. As a huge fan of the series this hurts me to say, but Life is Strange 2 is pretty terrible.
Life is Strange 2 Episode 2 is out now.