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Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 verdict-o-chat

If you go down to the woods today

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Brendan: Hello, Alice. I’ve just been dandering along a quiet highway in Life Is Strange 2. There’s no time-travelling gal pals in this one (at least, none so far) but there is a sad psychic pre-teen and his hoody-wearing brother. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, you just played through it too, and we’re gonna have a chat about each episode as it comes along – what we liked, what we thought was dumb, who we think is secretly a murderer – rather than wait until the whole game is out to review it. I guess I’m explaining all this for our stinking readers. Hey readers. SPOILERS AHEAD.

Alice B: I have to say, my “who is secretly a murderer” sense was off in this episode. I thought the Seth Rogen-esque dude looking at nude photos in a petrol station was a baddie, but he turned out to be a blogger who gave our heroes a rucksack and said “Everything is political!” almost directly into camera. So what do I know?

Brendan: Yeah, it really was not tip-toeing around its political stuff. More like, stamping around angrily. The first hour is the most homely, pleasant teenage life sim you can imagine. Sean (the older brother and main character) comes home from school, his best mate scribbles on his hand, you can rifle through text messages to the girl he fancies, his wee brother annoys him and doesn’t knock the bedroom door. Then it flips completely. Your unarmed latino father is shot by a policeman, you go on the run, and next thing you know you are being held captive by a racist petrol station owner who says: “You’re the reason we need to build that wall.” Do you think… are they… overdoing it?

Alice B: Maybe a little. I think more because of how awkward the transition is than anything. They don’t gradually ramp it up from imagineering a forest base with your brother, to getting kicked in the face. It goes nought to racist abuse so fast. And it also undercut the choices you made around that section, I thought. Because you go into this couple’s gas station and you can choose to pay for things you can afford, or half inch loads of stuff. And I did the right thing! I did the good thing and put back hot dogs I didn’t have enough for! But was still immediately accused of shoplifting and then zip tied to a pipe. Which seemed very unfair. I might as well have snarfed the hot dogs. Maybe that’s the point? But at least my boy Daniel would have had enough to eat.

Brendan: I think the pacing is definitely a bit wild. It never put me off totally, but some jumps felt a bit “buh?” In the first Life Is Strange, Max comes to terms with her time travel superpower fairly quickly. In this one, Sean Diaz seems to forget about his dad’s brutal murder (plus the psychic mindblast that accompanies it) in a very short time. Like, it says “2 days later” and you’re walking down the highway and big bro is somehow not bursting into tears every time little Daniel says: “I wish Dad was here”.

Alice B: I actually got quite a lot of dad feels from my Sean. I did a lot of the voluntary pauses where his internal monologue starts going on about how fucked up everything is in a trembly voice.

Brendan: Oh see, you used your real feelings to empathise. I don’t have any of those. I need the game to do that for me.

Alice B: I actually did have a smidge of trouble empathising with the Diaz boys because their faces seem just a teeny bit more mask-like than the girls of Life is Strange. I think because their eyes are much darker, so the computer just makes them look like olives pinballing around in their sockets.

Brendan: I’m so glad you saw this too. Little Danny Diaz has much bigger eyes than his brother, and it makes him look like a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s odd.

Alice B: How did you get on with Danny Boy? I liked his voice actor a lot, but the AI they were on about in previews was a bit… absent in my playthrough. He didn’t actually wander around exploring at any great speed or with any purpose, and I found myself hanging around next to stuff I needed him to look at to get a unique interaction.

Brendan: He once pinned me against a picnic table and rendered me unable to move, if that answers your AI question. But aside from that weird bug, I liked his character. I find the writers create better 9-year-olds than they do 17-year-olds. The language of these games is very hit-and-miss for me. Every time the teens of the first hour said or texted the word “thirsty”, I just cringed up into a little ball. I also refuse to believe that Sean Diaz likes The Streets.

Alice B: I’m so glad you said that! Sean, and by extension the game, has the musical taste of an English teen circa 2005.

Brendan: He also watches Top Gear! This is a flaw the first game had as well, I found. The tastes of the creators bleed through all the time. Even here, we get Daddy Diaz talking about Kurt Vonnegut while he’s fixing up a car. We get it, folks, you read.

Alice B: I’ve done that thing again where I basically talk about all the things I didn’t like. I did really enjoy the section in the woods – you kind of get to choose between scaring Daniel, and making it into a game and teaching him. But I was always sort of like “Isn’t it better for him to learn now that the world is a cruel and unforgiving place? No Daniel, you can’t have a chocolate bar!” So I like that tension. And I liked that basically every adult in this game had abdicated their responsibility as caregivers. The policeman immediately pulled a gun on them. The gas station owners imprison Sean in a back office and chase Daniel into the night. Even Brody, the aforementioned blogger who is nice to them, TELLS A TEENAGER AND A CHILD THAT GOING ON THE RUN TO MEXICO IS FINE. So it makes sense that they think looking after themselves is a better plan anyway.

Brendan: You make a good point. And “learning to be a grown-up” is definitely the trajectory Sean is on. I did like it when the game forced you to make parental decisions, like you say. But that in many places it also lets you be the untempered teen you still are. I told Daniel off for stealing a little dashboard toy from Beardy Brody, for example. But the only reason he did that was because I kicked Racist Petrol Pete in the face and stole a tent from the gas station as we ran away. I think Sean explained the difference well enough though. When people are good, don’t steal their little Hawaiian souvenirs. But when they start going on about “the wall”, feel free to put the boot in. That’s the message here? Right?

Alice B: Except it isn’t! Because the game can’t be nuanced enough for Daniel to get “Stealing is usually bad but if you do it to terrible violent racists who kick you in the face it’s probably a moral washout.” My Daniel didn’t steal from Brody because I set an excellent example earlier in the episode.

Brendan: Swot. What did you think about the sketching stuff? Those moments where your character can sit down and draw the landscape or another character into his sketchbook. Which is really just you twiddling the left stick or flicking the mouse around a lot.

Alice B: I kinda liked it, but because I liked the sense of Sean putting down bits of their journey, and because he liked drawing, not because of the twiddling.

Brendan: The twiddling needs to be nerfed, I agree.

Alice B: Yeah, it felt almost like a way to force players who can’t be arsed to just sit and look at the river in the game to get some of Sean’s introspective voiceover. Like, “Look, it’s not character development! It’s a mechanic!” They could get the same effect with just a one button interaction, though.

Brendan: Spot on. It’s also weird that the options include a “hold button instead of tap” for quicktime events (an increasingly common accessibility option) but nothing to make the sketchbook drawing twiddling less cumbersome. I always rely on those options to make quicktime events less annoying, because I’m lazy. But some folks probably need a better “do a drawing” option.

Alice B: So does Sean, to be fair. Are you looking forward to the next episode?

Brendan: For all the minor moans I’ve listed here, I’m definitely more up for this adventure than I was for Max’s time travelling. I really like the big map you’re given. And it clearly shows this long journey ahead. I love games about going on big voyages and road trips, and even with the wobbly (?) dialogue I want to see how the lads get on. They could almost get rid of the psychic power stuff completely, because apart from adding an extra layer of “We can’t go back because they’ll never believe us!” to the story, it’s one of the least interesting things happening. It’s basically an X-men subplot in a game that doesn’t really need one.

Alice B: Yeah, me too. Episode one was a good road movie, and even has loads of montages of leaves and stuff whenever they’re travelling. I want to make sure those boys keep getting hot showers and good meals, y’know? I only had enough money for one sleeping bag.

Brendan: You got a sleeping bag! Lah dee dah. I have to make do with a racoon hoody. Also, the bread in this game costs $5.90 per loaf. Which is something I think we need to address.

Alice B: Two hot dogs were $6. That’s a pretty inflated meat-to-grain exchange rate.

Brendan: Stop reading Vonnegut, Dontnod, and go down the shops, for heaven’s sake.

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