It feels like LIFE IS STRANGE 2 has been releasing slowly over the course of, excuse the pun, a lifetime. The first installment debuted in September 2018 and each progressive episode has trickled out many months after, killing the pacing and failing to spark a conversation along the way; two key failings of an episodic game. But now the full season is out and while that inherently solves some of the pacing issues, it hasn’t magically fixed the problems baked into the core experience.
Life Is Strange 2, like its predecessor and spin-off, is a narrative-heavy adventure game in the vein of the last generation of Telltale titles. There’s not much traditional gameplay per se as it focuses that energy on its characters and story instead.
Life Is Strange 2 Review | How do you do, fellow kids?
That puts a lot of weight on those elements as there are no gameplay mechanics to cushion the blow. And Life Is Strange 2 isn’t as adeptly written to fully support that unwavering devotion to narrative and all things character. Despite its X-Men-like look at mutant powers, Life Is Strange 2 is rooted in the mundane nature of real life. For the most part, people talk like people in a world that isn’t too far off from ours. But therein lies the problem: average people aren’t always entertaining to listen to.
And this is even more applicable to younger kids and teens — an age range that unfortunately dominates this game’s roster of people. Teenagers are often annoying, lacking wit and relying on tired perceptions of what younger people talk like. Dialogue is rarely clever and characters step right into clichéd pitfalls. Generation-accurate slang is realistic and that accuracy is appreciated in a sense, but it makes a decent portion of the cast a bit annoying or boring to listen to.
Truly great teen films and games step outside of realistic boundaries, dipping into an atypical sort of charm that may be less accurate but infinitely more enjoyable. Not every line needs to be a quip, but a little genuine humor would go a long way in making these people less grating. Supporting characters can elicit groans every now and again with their hip new lingo, yet this mainly hurts Sean and Daniel, the two protagonists, given how they are in every episode.
Sean and Daniel’s performances aren’t bad and they have some genuinely sweet moments with each other, but they still have to work with the script that makes them a moody teen or grating kid, respectively. This ends up watering down the game’s more dramatic beats as the preceding scenes fail in the setup.
Great writing and charming characters do the heavy lifting in getting the audience to care so they feel for those characters when tragedy strikes. Since the game fundamentally stumbles in that area, those heavy moments lose some of their impact, especially when coupled with the inconsistent animation and funky lip syncing. Its writing, while leagues better than the embarrassing script of the first Life Is Strange, has a rippling effect that harms almost every other part of the game.
Life Is Strange 2 Review | A real problem with reality
This realism also doesn’t work out for the antagonists either as most of them are cartoonish, mustache-twirling racists. Life Is Strange 2 boldly attempts to portray Donald Trump’s regressive America where the bigotry that was formerly shamed to hushed tones and dog whistles is now spoken out loud and blared through a bullhorn. Given how most games try to ride the middle as cleanly as possible, Dontnod’s gutsy approach to once again refuse to play it safe is appreciated.
But one-dimensional, Breitbart-reading, Pizzagate-believing villains in fiction aren’t compelling, despite their disturbing and honest parallels to reality. Dontnod didn’t need to paint them as misguided souls but some nuance would help add some humanity and depth. Whereas it could be avoiding the possibility of having the audience overly sympathize with bigots, it mainly comes off as a heavy-handed shortcut that conveniently uses realism as a guise to avoid having more complex characters.
They also do the same exact thing each time: say something racist and then unsubtly allude to Trump’s rhetoric before violently acting out and beating a kid, which happens a ridiculous amount of times. It reinforces how blunt the writing is and how it lacks the care to properly tackle a tough subject like a David Cage game. It’s another avenue where an undying commitment to grounded realism wasn’t the best path to take.
Life Is Strange 2 Review | Playing as your brother’s keeper
Life Is Strange 2 has more than its fair share of narrative mishaps, but isn’t also devoid of merit. The brotherly bond between the two boys is a good fundamental beat to wrap the whole story around as it is something we don’t typically see in the medium. There’s a noticeable arc that your choices help shape and can also influence how Daniel reacts. Seeing characters evolve and grow over a story — especially when you are making most of the choices — is a simple yet effective way to make a more meaningful story. Of course, the ever-present specter of cringe looms over everything, but at least it’s making the right motions of a well-constructed story.
Those right motions are even more literal when concerning the cinematography as Life Is Strange 2 is shot relatively well. Not only does it refuse to recycle the boring “shot and reverse shot” that is in most dialogue-heavy scenes in video games, but it also has plenty of patient, lingering scenes that focus on the game’s lovely vistas. The accompanying indie rock soundtrack also knows when to kick in and hold back, matching the serene wide shots when appropriate and quieting down during scenes with dialogue to let the talking to do the, well, talking. Music and how the camera moves don’t make a story, but they can make a story better as they do in Life Is Strange 2.
Pacing, however, can significantly dampen a story and is the dark shadow hanging over Life Is Strange 2 both in and outside of the game. Its took around 15 months for the story to reach its conclusion; a fact that single-handedly rebukes the idea that this should have been an episodic game in the first place. The sluggish gameplay and relatively slow tempo of the story were already dragging down the pacing of the first three episodes and Dontnod further exacerbated these problems by spacing each episode so far apart. Stories usually need some sort of momentum and Life Is Strange 2 had trouble maintaining it for multiple reasons.
Although the whole season is playable now and the release schedule won’t affect those just starting it, Life Is Strange 2’s various other complications don’t evaporate so easily. Clunky dialogue from a cast of inconsistent, cliché-ridden characters are present whenever you play it and often override the strength of its overall message and presentation. It results in a game with noble intent without the skills to fulfill its potential, showing that sometimes life isn’t strange, but disappointing.
GameRevolution reviewed Life Is Strange 2 on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.