The first episode of Life is Strange 2 set up an emotionally devastating premise with a lot of potential for an interesting and heartbreaking story. It was the job of that first episode to hook its audience, and I think it did so successfully. Now, with the second episode, the game doesn’t have to worry about gaining its audience’s attention so much as it has to retain it.
The premise of Life is Strange 2‘s second episode felt interesting enough when it was laid out in the episode’s trailer earlier this week. Some plot points we were promised included Sean trying to teach Daniel how to control his telekinetic powers, the brothers staying with their estranged grandparents in lieu of a permanent, safe place to stay, and the return of Chris from The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. The second episode did in fact deliver on each of these fronts, but didn’t explore any quite as much as I would have liked.
The ever-changing relationship between Daniel and Sean remains the most interesting part of the game.
The exploration of Daniel’s powers doesn’t go too far beyond Sean telling him to keep them a secret. There are several times when Daniel may use his powers anyway, sometimes with Sean’s permission and sometimes without. As the player, there are times when you can scold Daniel for using his powers or encourage him to use them. However, it never really feels like a very important part of the game. In the original Life is Strange, Max’s rewind power is an extremely important function, both narratively and mechanically. Here, it kind of just feels like Daniel has powers because someone has to, since this is a Life is Strange game. Giving a nine-year-old telekinetic powers that he doesn’t really know how to control is a plot point that definitely has some potential for future episodes, but in “Rules,” it doesn’t play a big enough part in the narrative to feel as important as it could. And whereas Max’s Rewind ability put an interesting twist on the narrative adventure game formula that helped the first Life is Strange stand out among similar games of the genre, Daniel’s telekinesis doesn’t do anything in terms of mechanics, since the player is controlling Sean and can therefore only suggest to Daniel that he use or not use his powers.
Although the narrative use of Daniel’s powers has been somewhat disappointing so far, there is something interesting about them. Although it does sometimes feel limiting playing through a game about super powers but not being able to wield those powers yourself, it can be a cool dynamic having Daniel act as his own agent. One of the interesting facets of Life is Strange 2 is how the person Daniel grows up to be is steadily being shaped by how Sean treats him and the observations he makes regarding Sean’s decisions. Depending on what kind of a brother the player is to Daniel, the relationship between the two brothers will be different. This may sometimes result in Daniel using his powers, even if he knows Sean doesn’t want him to, because Daniel has learned that his brother isn’t always right. Or maybe Daniel wants to use his powers but restrains himself, because he respects Sean’s opinion on the matter. Though it’s obviously not specific to this episode, the ever-changing relationship between Daniel and Sean remains the most interesting part of the game, and the fact that Daniel also has powers is just makes that dynamic slightly more interesting.
As far as how Sean and Daniel’s interactions with their grandparents goes, they tend to play out relatively predictably without a whole lot of depth. Since these grandparents are from a side of the family that Sean and Daniel don’t have much history with, we do get some more interesting insight into the backstory of this family. But ultimately, it doesn’t feel like the brothers’ interactions with their grandparents adds up to a whole lot. I don’t want to say too much so that any of you reading this can avoid spoilers, but I think it’s pretty accurate to say that the brothers’ stay at their grandparents’ house in this episode isn’t exactly the most thrilling subplot. The first episode was full of tension and by comparison, a lot of this episode ended up feeling a bit bland.
As someone who loved The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, I was excited to see Chris return in Life is Strange 2, but this aspect of the episode was also disappointing. After learning so much about Chris and his story from Captain Spirit, as well as growing an emotional attachment to him, I was hoping he’d play a bigger role than he ended up playing. In fact, if I hadn’t played Captain Spirit, I probably wouldn’t care much about Chris or his family or backstory just from what was presented in “Rules.” From a narrative standpoint, there almost wasn’t a reason for Chris to even exist in this episode (aside from one plot point, which was more about Chris getting the brothers where they needed to be to make the story work, rather than Chris himself actually playing any kind of a significant role). It was nice to see Chris again, but he ultimately felt so unimportant that I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. And if you’re someone who goes into Life is Strange 2 without playing Captain Spirit first, Chris probably won’t matter to you almost at all.
The first episode was full of tension and by comparison, a lot of this episode ended up feeling a bit bland.
So most of what I’ve outlined so far are aspects of this second episode that just didn’t live up to what I was expecting. Daniel’s powers have potential to play an interesting role in the narrative, but so far don’t feel as important as they should. Visiting the brothers’ grandparents gave some more backstory to the characters, but overall made for a rather slow story. I liked seeing Chris again, but he didn’t play a very big role. I hate to be the guy who criticizes a game for not being what he expected it to be, rather than judging it for what it is, but what it is, in this case, seems to be just not that much. Most of the major plot points in this episode are covered in the two-minute trailer and, aside from an emotional high point near the beginning of the episode, there isn’t a whole lot more going on here.
What was by far the most disappointing aspect of this new episode, however, is the player’s lack of agency. The first episode of Life is Strange 2 also had this problem to a degree, but I was more willing to look past it because the rest of the episode was pretty great and I figured it was still early enough in the season to excuse the player not having a ton of important choices. But this issue doesn’t just persist in the second episode, rather it seems to get worse. For a choice-based narrative game, there just aren’t a whole lot of choices to make in this episode. You will go for long stretches of time without making any contributions to the narrative, and even when you are presented with a choice, most of the time it feels like the choice won’t matter much to the larger story. You’ll often be given a choice between two lines of dialogue that are mostly the same, or you’ll be forced into making a decision you don’t want to make. There were multiple times in this episode where Sean was asked to participate in an activity that could potentially have negative consequences, but the only choices you have are to 1. agree to go along with the activity, or 2. don’t agree to go along with the activity, but have Sean immediately get talked into doing it anyway, regardless of the choice the player made.
For a choice-based narrative game, there just aren’t a whole lot of choices to make in this episode.
The inability to make real, impactful choices is a problem that a lot of narrative adventure games suffer from, but there are plenty of games in the genre that either do have truly branching stories based on player choices, like Detroit: Become Human, or follow more linear storylines but are still able to successfully present their choices in a manner that makes them feel important and like the player has control over the narrative, regardless of how much control they actually have, like The Walking Dead. But in this second episode of Life is Strange 2, there are so few choices to begin with and so many of the choices you’re eventually given don’t even pretend like they matter that any perception the player can have of having some sort of control over the narrative will be shattered. In previous Life is Strange games, there were often cases of the player having to make important decisions, at least a couple of times per episode, that felt like they were going to have long-lasting effects, so it would be tough to make those choices and really put the player in the shoes of the protagonist. In the first Life is Strange, I felt like I was doing more than just playing as Max; I was Max. I felt like I was making important decisions that would shape who she would become and how her future would unfold. In Life is Strange 2, specifically Episode 2, I didn’t really feel like any of my choices mattered. Sean is going to be who he is and the story will unfold how it unfolds regardless of what I do. It created this strange disconnect where I wasn’t able to identify with Sean in the way a lot of narrative adventure games are able to get players to identify with their playable characters. In games like The Walking Dead or Detroit: Become Human or even the first Life is Strange, a big theme is the player having to deal with the consequences of their actions. In this episode, I never really felt like I had to deal with the consequences of my actions because, most of the time, I didn’t really get to choose how my playable character acted. Watching Sean have to deal with the repercussions of his choices isn’t nearly as personally impactful as watching Max have to deal with the repercussions of my choices.
Like I said earlier, the first episode of Life is Strange 2 wasn’t exactly swarming with important choices either, but in that case, one of the reasons I was able to look the other way a little bit was that the linear story the episode was leading me down was engaging enough on an emotional level that I didn’t mind not having many important choices; I was happy to just go along for the ride. But in this second episode, the story wasn’t as investing, so the lack of real choices was more apparent and ultimately bogged down my experience. The saving grace, once again, is the fact that it seems a lot of my choices, big or small, are making an impact on the way Daniel behaves, and the way that manifests itself is pretty cool and I imagine will only get cooler as the season continues.
The first episode of Life is Strange 2 was a great start to the new game. But whereas the first episode was emotional, tense, and compelling, this second episode kind of feels like it’s just getting itself from point A to point B in the story. It’s not a bad episode, but it feels very underwhelming when compared to the first episode, or when compared to previous entries in the Life is Strange series, or other narrative adventure games in general. I am still interested in Sean and Daniel’s story, so hopefully this episode will eventually prove to be something of a lackluster pitstop in the overall narrative of the game.
- This article was updated on January 31st, 2019