Dontnod Entertainment established in 2015 that Life Is Strange was unlike any other episodic title that had come before it. Deeply embedded at the heart of the title was a core mechanic that impacted the choice-and-consequence scenarios found in each episode and the French studio delivered a remarkable, poignant coming-of-age story. It would always be a difficult challenge to lift the bar on the high standard that had been set with the episodic title. Dontnod, however, took an even riskier move by ending the story of Life Is Strange duo Max Caulfield and Chloe Price, as well as leaving behind the rich and colorful cast of characters from the first title for Life Is Strange 2. Not many developers would have dared to make such a bold choice, but not all developers are like Dontnod. While there were many fans worried about what the future would hold in a post-Max and Chloe era — and understandably so — those worries are put firmly to bed in Episode 1: Roads.
Players are now transported to Seattle and follow the story of brothers Sean and Daniel Diaz, who are forced to leave their home after a certain incident takes place. Finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, the two brothers hit the road with the intention of returning to their family’s hometown of Puerto Lobos, Mexico. Players are in full control of Sean, with a fantastic opening segment showing the transition from his ordinary life where his main worry is his love interest, Jenn Murphy, to being a fugitive and Daniel’s protector. Episode 1: Roads is a well-balanced episode in terms of pacing, primarily focusing on its ability to build an important story foundation for the two brothers. Dontnod entices players with Daniel’s supernatural power with absolute precision, which juxtaposes with how Max’s time-bending ability could be used in the opening episode of Life Is Strange. The developer has full control over how much of the supernatural element it wants to show off in the episode, effortlessly building a player’s interest in what Daniel will be capable of when he can tap into the full extent of his power.
Just like Life Is Strange, Dontnod has put meticulous detail into the development of a wide-ranging cast of characters. Sean’s close friend, Lyla, has shades of Chloe Price written all over her, yet that doesn’t sacrifice this particular character from standing out of her shadow. She has that natural charm about her that will instantly capture players’ attention, as well as giving them a reason to feel invested with her story arc and the role she will play over the next four episodes. Dontnod’s biggest accomplishment in Life Is Strange 2 is an improvement in lip-synching, which is an area that the first title often found itself the subject of fierce criticism. In fact, the improvements even extend to the writing side of the sequel, with Dontnod putting behind the days of questionable dialogue and an over-reliance on outdated slang that teenagers would never say. It is all reinforced in the high-quality voice-acting performances, each one bringing out a unique personality in a character and a natural chemistry shared between all of the actors in the episode.
Gameplay has been slightly tweaked from the established formula in Life Is Strange, but it was vital for Dontnod to execute it exactly the way it has been in Episode 1: Roads. With the core rewind mechanic no longer there, choices are even more important than ever before, especially as players don’t have that luxury of changing their initial decision after they’ve picked it. It’s highlighted by the fact that Sean’s decisions have an impact on both Daniel and the world around them. It’s early days to know the full brunt of the consequences, sure, but there are a vast amount of choices that players are able to make over the course of Episode 1: Roads. It adds another layer of replay value to the title, too, especially when players can either be the morally upstanding big brother to Daniel or the polar opposite. Even before players start the episode, they will be asked about a major decision they had to make in Life Is Strange and it provides a nice throwback to the title in the story. Players will be able to complete the episode in a two to three-hour playthrough, with an excellent ending that will leave them yearning for more Life Is Strange 2.
It cannot be overlooked that Daniel is an important factor when it comes to the selection of a certain choice, but he also has a significant impact when it comes to roaming different areas of the universe. Players are able to call out to the younger sibling and focus in on him with the use of a single button. This feature was added because there are certain actions that can only be made when Daniel is near an item that he can interact with. It can result in a few different outcomes, whether it’s triggering a cutscene, the two brothers talking about some form of topic or an opportunity for players to build a stronger bond between Sean and Daniel through an activity.
Players will find that the menu screen has been slightly tweaked, mainly for how Life Is Strange used Max’s journal to feature different collectibles, biographies and entries from the protagonist. Dontnod has kept with the journal idea, but it has also continued to put meticulous attention into this aspect for Life Is Strange 2. It helps to support the main narrative, specifically for how text messages between Sean and a certain character will be much longer in some cases while others can be quite short. One of the most interesting features in the title is the use of cash. Players are able to accumulate money over the course of their adventure through different means, with Episode 1: Roads showcasing what can be purchased and how important it is to budget carefully.
Life Is Strange 2 introduces a sketching mechanic that is essentially a replacement for the photographs that players would take as Max. Players are able to sit in different locations throughout the episode and draw what they are looking at, in which they need to focus on their subject first and then push the left analog stick in the right direction in order to put pencil to paper. It is easily the weakest area of the title, though, mainly for how the controls don’t seem to match up with what players are doing. It will leave most players frustrated and randomly mashing the stick in a certain direction in the hopes that Sean will actually draw something.
Life Is Strange 2 could not — and would not — be the true successor in the series if Dontnod didn’t spotlight different themes. With Life Is Strange focusing on subject matters like sexual assault, social media and bullying, Episode 1: Roads contextualizes real-life issues and embeds them within the main narrative. For example, the Diaz brothers are racially abused on account of their Latino heritage, with a character even supporting the idea of a wall being built across the U.S.-Mexico border (sound familiar?). Just as Dontnod showed strong spirit with tackling issues in Life Is Strange 2’s demo, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, the opening episode is no different in addressing different subjects with considerable success. Dontnod should be commended for how it doesn’t force these topics into the main narrative with no real purpose or care for how they are depicted. Instead, it reiterates how successful the developer has been in carefully crafting scenes that best utilize different subject matters and how they can naturally flourish when they are executed correctly.
The art direction has withstood the test of time. It’s that simple, with Episode 1: Roads able to make any Life Is Strange fan feel nostalgic. Okay, it’s no longer Arcadia Bay that players will be looking at or exploring, but the title boasts some impressive visuals that bring out the characters and different environments with the same aesthetic impact as its predecessors. Life Is Strange composer Jonathan Morali has returned to do the score for the sequel, which is immediately noticeable from the minute that the music starts playing. Dontnod has achieved the right music balance for the episode, using the composer’s original sound for the hard-hitting scenes and the licensed tracks sparingly.
Episode 1: Roads is a shining example of a developer that has built on the success of the first title and only continued to improve with the experience it has under its belt in episodic gaming. The developer has stayed true to its roots with Life Is Strange 2, revisiting its tried-and-tested formula and adjusting it in a way that perfectly works with the new set of wonderful characters in the universe. The studio’s willingness to integrate social commentary on topics such as police misconduct, racism and gun violence is a resounding statement of a developer bold enough to play its hand in topical areas of discussion and pull it off with complete success. Despite the absence of Max and Chloe, Sean and Daniel rise to the occasion and create a lasting impression by the end of the opener. Players will feel invested in their relationship and experience a touching narrative that will captivate them from start to finish. Episode 1: Roads is undoubtedly the best opener in episodic gaming to date and also Dontnod’s finest hour with the Life Is Strange series so far.