I liked a lot about Life is Strange
when it debuted in 2015. I liked the episodic release schedule because it made it feel like appointment gaming. I liked the setting of Arcadia Bay because it somewhat mirrored my own Pacific Northwest living. I liked the story's way of interweaving a hipster indie mood with a time travel plot. I especially liked how the writers of the game seemed to reference everything else I loved, from Ray Bradbury, to The X Files, to The Twilight Zone, and many more pop cultural icons.
What I didn't like was the dialogue. Dontnod took a lot of feedback and criticism after the first game's dialogue was hella
annoying at times, and to this day I still look at people funny when they ask if that's really how we talk up here in the PNW. Over the five-episode arc, Dontnod tried to scale back on that lingo, but the damage was sort of already done. They had to keep some of it no matter what, or else it would seem pretty strange for these characters to speak that way in only one episode. So it stuck around to some extent, and really any extent was too far in my opinion.
I recently got to play about 30 minutes of the sequel and witness a special behind the scenes walkthrough of another 15 minutes and I came away really impressed with several aspects of the game. Chief among the improvements I saw was much-improved dialogue, and that, on top of the returning Life is Strange
formula, made me excited to play more.
My hands-on time with the game at PAX was the same as that which some of you may have seen at Gamescom. I got to play as Sean, the 16-year-old brother to Daniel, 9, and explore their house in Seattle, prepare for a party that night, video-chat with a friend online, find a way to ask my dad for money, deny that it may be spent on booze — you know, typical teenager stuff. The house was littered with objects to interact with, to an extent that even outnumbered the original series, which already had a lot to toy with. I think that's a good subtle improvement because in a game so heavily built around characters, it's worth taking as much time as the game allows to flesh out those characters and explore their relationships.
I went in deliberately knowing nothing about the game's plot, and because I'm sensitive to others who want to play the same way when it debuts later this month, I won't detail here what I saw in terms of major catalytic moments that set the brothers in motion on a road trip headed south to Mexico. Suffice it to say, the story pulls from real life in some uncomfortable ways. Life is Strange
became a hit partly because of the way it grappled with topics that have been somewhat taboo in games or even society to some extent, and the sequel picks up where the original left off in that regard, not pulling any punches.
As for the dialogue, it shined in the demo I saw in a hands-off presentation. As Sean and Daniel took a break from their tiring excursion, they happened into a picnic area in a forest just off the road. It was here the boys had a few minutes to soak in the world, catch their breath, and just speak to one another as brothers. Whereas earlier in my time with the game, Sean was annoyed by his little brother and, at times, outright rude to him, in the forest scene, he was different. With their lives irreversibly and dramatically changed in the demo I played, these slower moments were a change of pace. Gone were the cringe-inducing slang words from Max and Chloe's friendship, and because their journey is initiated by tragedy, unlike Max's, I found myself more interested in playing as Sean. There are certain moments, like in the first game, where you can just sit and soak in the music or the setting, and in the sequel one such moment surprisingly made for the highlight of my demo, when the brothers sat on the edge of the rock, overlooking the vast forest ahead of them, and just chatted as brothers, albeit now with the weight of the suddenly intimidating world on their shoulders.
As Sean, you'll get to choose what kind of older brother you'll be. Most objects with which you could interact had two options: one to interact with it yourself and one to do so with Daniel. I found that to be an unexpected but interesting mechanic. A few devs from Dontnod spoke of how your actions will shape who Daniel becomes. It sounds quite derivative of Lee and Clem from The Walking Dead
, but the settings really couldn't be more different, so it's a dynamic I'm looking forward to seeing again. In The Walking Dead
, it was Clem's coming of age story that was being told, but in Life is Strange 2
, it's both brothers who need to come of age. Sean is the sudden guardian of Daniel, but he's only 16 himself and that's a difference well worth exploring.
As someone with a little brother about the same number of years apart from me as Daniel is from Sean, I found them authentic, which is a tribute to the improved writing above all else. That means even someone like me, who really wanted to love Life is Strange
but could never quite get there, is feeling like this sequel will be what has me joining the masses of passionate fans this series has garnered for itself over the past three-plus years. If the five-episode sequel can improve on those problem areas while still delivering tough choices, thoughtful social commentary, and fun sci-fi moments, there's no reason to think this sequel won't be bigger and more successful than the original game, and I'm certainly hopeful all of that will happen. Despite my criticisms for the first game, I've always contended that we need more games like Life is Strange
, and this sequel looks like it's hitting all the right notes.