‘Life Is Strange 2: Episode 1 — Roads’ (Xbox One) review: A road dangerously traveled

First episode of ‘Life Is Strange 2’ a slow-burner packed with plenty of intrigue

The opening episode in the first “Life Is Strange” took all of about 15 minutes before the bounds of reality snapped, throwing protagonist Max Caulfield into a deadly situation at her high school during which she discovered she can rewind time. The rest of the five-episode series dealt with complex themes such as friendship, responsibility and sacrifice in increasingly uneven doses, all with Max’s time-travel ability making everything so much more complicated and far-reaching. By the end of that excellent game, an entire town’s survival depends on your choices. The first episode of its sequel, however, doesn’t so much bask in the supernatural as it strives to create a sense of realism (even if there is another supernatural ability hiding just out of sight).

“Episode 1: Roads,” the first in the five-part “Life Is Strange 2,” takes place three years after the first game, but introduces players to a new protagonist in Sean Diaz (voiced by Gonzalo Martin), a 16-year-old Seattle high-schooler of Mexican descent (that distinction plays a role). It’s Oct. 28, 2016, just days before the presidential election. But Sean isn’t thinking about that: He has a party to get ready for and a cute girl to impress.

The 3.5-hour episode spends its first hour establishing a typical slice of American life: Sean not particularly getting along with his little brother, 9-year-old Daniel; asking his father for money for the party (and debating whether to be honest about what the money is for); listening to music in his room and sketching in his notebook — in essence, what a lot of 16-year-old American boys do. It’s a realistic portrayal without coming across as insincere or nostalgic; French developer Dontnod Entertainment continues to impress with its wonderfully authentic world-building. (The fact that your cellphone has previous text message strings with friends and family and even your boss that you can read through is a genius touch, and it works to deepening your immersion.)

But in a moment that could have been ripped right from today’s front page, Sean and Daniel’s world shatters, and by the time the smoke clears, the two brothers are on the run, making their way south through the forests surrounding Mount Rainier and completely mystified about what happened back home. (A bit of a spoiler: By the episode’s conclusion, the boys arrive near Arcadia Bay, Ore., the main locale in the first game and a fictional take on Astoria.)

Much of “Roads” explores the bonds of brotherhood and responsibility, particularly on Sean’s part. The eldest brother finds himself the caretaker of his much younger sibling, and their circumstances are less than ideal. But, much like its predecessor, “Life Is Strange 2” shines brightest when it goes intimate. It’s the small moments — like Sean teaching Daniel about trail blazes or desperately thinking of ways to feed his brother ($30 only goes so far) or making sure his brother uses the restroom when given the opportunity — that form the heart of the episode, building a well of depth to their relationship and reminding all the elder siblings out there that “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t always fly.

But the game isn’t afraid to take a step back from Sean’s immediate plight of deciding if he wants to terrifying Daniel with ghost stories right before bed as they camp outside — and when it does, “Roads” goes heavy with its sadly recognizable political commentary. There’s no subtly here: It seems everywhere the brown-skinned boys go in this rural region is just full of white racists overtly profiling and casually throwing out hateful insults. It’s surprising and admirable that Dontnod isn’t afraid to jump into the deep end of the political pool, but it feels far too heavy-handed, as if nuance were purposefully swapped out for caricature. There’s even a “you’re the reason we need to build the wall” quip. It’s clear the developer was making a point, and adding even more peril to the boys’ journey, but a little subtly would have gone a long way.

As the episode ends, questions abound: What’s Sean’s endgame? How does expect to keep traveling without real shelter or money? But the most pressing: Just what is up with Daniel? Unlike in the first game, the character you control doesn’t have the supernatural gift. Instead, the young, impressionable little brother does, and it makes it all the more worrisome about what may come. By episode’s end, it’s not really clear what Daniel can do (his gift tends to activate during intense emotional trauma), but it’s clear it’s powerful — and obviously destructive. How it plays into the brothers’ current predicament, however, is unknown.

On a technical level, “Roads” runs into some roadblocks, particularly regarding textures and some audio. Textures constantly pop in and out as you progress through the episode, and more than once audio just dips out when it shouldn’t. It’s unclear if it’s the Unreal 4 engine struggling (which seems unlikely, even with the heavy comic-like aesthetic) or a lack of polish, but seeing trees just pop into existence when you’re having a quiet moment with your younger brother is jarring.

On the other hand, though, the original score by Syd Matters is pitch-perfect; and yes, there’s a beautifully played guitar soundtrack, by now a staple of the “LIS” franchise.

And it should be noted for those new to the series: “Life Is Strange” is basically a walking simulator with a lot of dialogue prompts that branch the story’s outcome (by how much is still unknown). There’s no run-and-gun or any particularly immersive gaming mechanics here. Fair warning.

In the end, “Roads,” the first episode in “Life Is Strange 2,” isn’t afraid to go big. It tackles the personal with a quiet charm while attempting to take a swing at broader, more current themes including racism and divisive politics. It doesn’t always hits it mark, but it’s rare for a game these days to even try. Plenty of big questions abound, especially regarding Daniel’s newfound ability, but the game doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to answer them just yet. Fair enough: “Life Is Strange” has always reveled in the slow burn, preferring to weave an engrossing story at its own pace. So you better settle in: If “Roads” is any indication of what’s to come, “Life Is Strange 2” is going to be an interesting ride.

Four “Where’s Max?!” stars out of five.

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