Title: Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Available On: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Reviewed On: PS4
As a whole, the first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm is underwhelming- a word I didn’t even know could be associated with a Life is Strange title given how deeply season one resonated with so many people, myself included. Episode one, “Awake”, has a point, but somewhere between the lackluster dialogue, the dramatically unearned ending, and a clunky new gameplay mechanic, the episode nearly misses its mark, and ultimately weakens the anticipation for what’s to come in the next two episodes.
Before the Storm is the prequel to Life is Strange and is set three years before the events of the main game; but instead of Max Caulfield this time around, we are following the story of Chloe Price, who is silently grieving the loss of her father. I say “silently”, because even though Chloe has the whole rebel act going on, and is openly disrespectful to her mother and authority, for the most part she keeps quiet about her father’s death. Because of this, navigating Arcadia Bay through Chloe’s perspective has a solemn undertone that is filled with dark humor and a general sense of melancholy.
Seeing the world through Chloe’s perspective is one of the episode’s strongest points, and Deck Nine does a great job developing characteristics of younger Chloe that eventually shape her into the character we saw in season one. From her comments about music, to the nicely incorporated visuals around Chloe’s house that depict her love and talent for science, we have a great sense of who she is and how that person is being suffocated by the grief of her dad’s death.
While this prequel can technically stand on its own, the emotional impact of it (not to mention several references and recurring characters) probably won’t be appreciated by players who haven’t experienced Chloe’s story and the relationships we saw in Life is Strange. Jumping back three years for this prequel puts us in Chloe’s “dark days”, where she not only lost her dad, but where Max essentially abandoned her by moving to Seattle. The text and journal system is back in Before the Storm, and a quick flip through it shows disengaged and, pretty soon, unresponsive texts between Chloe and Max. The lack of communication is on Max’s part, and seeing it just reinforces Chloe’s depression and inability to confide in anyone. All of this is only made more complicated (or more interesting) by the presence of Rachel Amber.
Rachel Amber was one of the biggest characters in Life is Strange, despite the fact we never actually met her. Players were introduced to her through the “Missing Person” flyers that were seen in the halls of Blackwell Academy, and through conversations with a select group of students and townspeople. As a known Vortex Club member and a straight-A student with a bit of a wild side, Rachel was (is?) the golden child of Blackwell; despite her being more in the spotlight in Before the Storm, she is still an enigma that, from a narrative standpoint, is not really doing anything for Chloe…at least for right now.
We’ve heard teachers sing Rachel’s praises and have listened to her peers talk about what a great person she is. However, now that we’ve actually met Rachel, I’m having difficulty reconciling the deep feelings Chloe had for her in Life is Strange with the rude and slightly manipulative person we just met in Before the Storm. Their conversations vary from cringe-y to emotionally heavy, and because of that inconsistency, the episode barrels toward a conclusion that feels dramatically unearned. Chloe’s personal journey in the episode, though, is something I don’t want to spoil, but there comes a moment when Deck Nine perfectly fuses Chloe’s raw emotion with that of the player’s via the gameplay.
Aside from the shift away from Max, Life is Strange: Before the Storm brings some other differences and new gameplay mechanics. One of them is the “Backtalk” system. Confusing at best. Completely unnecessary at worst. The idea is that you listen to what a character is saying and attempt to throw their own words back at them, so they will comply with what Chloe wants to do. The problem with that is, Backtalk (as a gameplay mechanic and just as a legitimate concept) is relative; or at least it should be.
The game helps you out the first time Backtalk occurs, but when I was consistently leaning toward the answers that weren’t recommended, I grew worried about the system as a whole. Thankfully, Backtalk didn’t happen often throughout the episode, and it almost felt like Deck Nine was just testing the waters with it. The outcomes did little, if anything, to change the direction of the narrative, and most of the dialogue responses from Backtalk felt clunky and forced.
However, one of the positives that came out of this, or really with any conversation that Chloe engaged in, is the new emphasis on making your words count. Since this prequel doesn’t have the sci-fi elements from the first game, things are not as simple as rewinding a conversation that didn’t go over well. There’s a much heavier weight to your decisions, many of which have future consequences. This aspect of Before the Storm works great, because it makes players more contemplative and more invested in how the narrative will unfold.
Nothing else has changed in terms of gameplay, as observation and exploration are still one of the primary staples. Chloe’s observation to every day things is either met with indifference or complete nonchalance, but it never feels like a “woe is me” type of trope. If anything, there’s almost a vulnerability to having Chloe navigate the world and interact with every day things without the safety net of being able to rewind time.
This first episode of Before the Storm was a nice shift away from Max and was able to hold its own. The game allows you to easily slip back into the flow of Arcadia Bay, to the point where it feels like the quaint town is welcoming you home. The uniquely designed art style of the game is also back, and it makes every location- from Chloe’s house, to the school grounds, to the junkyard, feel realistic and warm. It’s great to see how it all adds to the overall tone of the narrative, and how the same aesthetics that pulled me into the first season are just as good, if not stronger, in Before the Storm.
One of my favorite parts of Life is Strange has always been the indie-folk music. From Jose Gonzalez’s “Crosses” to Local Natives’ “Mt. Washington”, I listen to at least one of the songs (if not the entire soundtrack) every day and they fit the world of Life is Strange perfectly. In Before the Storm, the talented group Daughter takes over the music with their album “Music from Before the Storm”, and it’s uncanny how well the soundtrack highlights Chloe’s emotional and mental state, while simultaneously being able to fuel the narrative. It’s perfect.
“Awake” was a solid start to this three-part prequel, but it has a lot of aspects in terms of narrative and gameplay that I hope will be smoothed in the next episodes. The good news is that we can only go up from here, and I’m interested to see how Chloe and Rachel’s relationship progresses, whether it’s for better or worse.