(Contains spoilers for the first Life is Strange)
Looking back on the original Life is Strange by DontNod is an odd thing for me. I remember enjoying the game and I remember thinking there were a fair handful of effective moments from it, but also when tasked to actually recall some things about the game what I invariably come up with is that I remember playing as a mousy, impossibly introverted teenage girl who only speaks in super breathy whispers and says super cringey things. And also there were a few absolutely impossible phenomena occurring in the game which absolutely nobody seemed to make a big deal about.
So it’s certainly a strong plus for Deck Nine that they more or less completely captured every aspect of this in their prequel to the game: Before the Storm.
It’s actually also somewhat worth mentioning that Before the Storm is NOT Life is Strange 2 (which thus far I am putting off playing until all episodes are released). BtS is a spin off created by a smaller company (Deck Nine) while the actual flagship game, LiS2, is actually in development separately by the main company (DontNod).
Firstly I think it’s important to provide a little context to this review. In the original LiS you play as Max Caulfield returning from Seattle to the small, seaside town of Arcadia Bay and going to school at Blackwell Academy. It’s the town where she grew up but left at a young age with her parents. In BtS you play as her best friend, and main character from the first game, Chloe Price. It is set in the interim period between Max’s disappearing act from Arcadia Bay and her return.
This is a pretty interesting setting given knowledge of the first game because this is the time when Chloe is struggling to deal with the death of her father, her best friend has disappeared and is no longer contacting her and she ends up becoming very close with a girl called Rachel Amber, who is revealed to be extremely enigmatic but also wonderful and intense. In LiS, Rachel Amber has vanished and is eventually discovered to have been killed but also to have been a deeply manipulative and frankly callous individual, a series of discoveries which breaks Chloe’s heart in a few extremely memorable moments of the game.
So, as a prequel which promises to set all of this up, you can understand that it is a rather exciting period for fans of the series. There is a lot to set up, a lot of potential for interesting and emotional scenes and events.
It also absolutely sets up one issue that in order to get proper enjoyment from Before the Storm you really will need to have played Life is Strange. I think it could be a moderately good stand-alone in its own right, but without a lot of the context from the original an awful lot of the game would definitely not have the same impact. Hence why I feel reasonably comfortable spoiling the original in this review because I really think that only people who have played the original would and should play the prequel.
Beyond this, I think that Deck Nine did a wonderful job of recreating the atmosphere and, more importantly, the characters of LiS (almost perfectly, which is something I’ll get to). They do a great job of writing Chloe and her internal struggles and angst and it’s also worth saying that Rhianna DeVries did an absolutely fantastic job as the voice of Chloe, picking up the slack with the original actress (Ashly Burch) unable to reprise the role due to the voice actors strike.
It’s equally worth noting that initially I did not like Chloe. For the exact same reasons I disliked her in the original. I have absolutely no truck or patience with the whole teenage angst and rebellion schtick. A lot of it doesn’t make sense to me, and never has honestly. So it could be difficult for me to put myself into her shoes because of my struggle to connect and empathise with her. Even towards the end, a lot of Chloe’s internal monologue and the writing in her diary always struck me as completely ridiculous and coming from someone who just needed to have some sense thoroughly talked into them. It’s therefore a mark in Deck Nine’s favour that towards the end of the game I really WAS relating with Chloe and her struggles. I felt for her and it really added a whole new level of depth and complexity to her character, a character and story which is ultimately extremely tragic.
This is a common theme across the recurring characters from the original game. They are broadly written extremely well and, for the most part, seem like they would believably carry on over canonically into the main game. For instance the game provides more context for Chloe’s struggling relationship with her mother, Joyce, and new boyfriend David, an ex-soldier who’s attempts to bring discipline into Chloe’s live only serve to drive her further away (which incidentally, was another part where I personally got infuriated with Chloe for being so bloody unreasonable all the time). It also introduces a small smattering of supporting characters, who you will interact with a few times along the ride. However, given the short nature of the game (clocking in at about 10 hours across three chapters), it’s no surprise that most of the supporting cast are only given cursory screen time.
This is in favour of giving Rachel Amber the vast majority of the focus of the game. She also is, in a way, the one who carries on Life is Strange’s use of the supernatural. Chloe still does not have any powers, where Max had the ability to reverse time in the original game, while gradually it becomes apparent that there is more to Rachel Amber than she lets on.
The development of Rachel’s and Chloe’s relationship is absolutely hands down the best bit of the game. It believably evolves from two girls who come from different walks of life and even have completely outwardly different personalities (the perfect Princess always in the spotlight and amazing at everything, and the punk teenage delinquent who does drugs, fights the man and hates school) into a gradual and tentatively blossoming romance.
And fuck yes, I just used the phrase “tentatively blossoming romance”, that’s just how believable this stuff was. While the internal monologues and occasional aspects of the dialogue retain that cringe-y “this is what a board of execs think teenagers speak like” quality, the dialogue between Rachel and Chloe is absolutely on point. There are a few times where they really begin connecting with each other (a pair of scenes involving a school play and a walk home afterwards are the strongest contenders) which are just extremely effective and make for surprisingly heartfelt and emotional moments. This is on top of some parts of the game which are just quite funny or rage-inducing. Overall the writing of the first two episodes is just pretty top-notch.
There are decisions to be made throughout the game, but for the most part they are woven into the dialogue and only really affect the overall outcome of the game. There are a few things here and there which you can alter, but for the most part it feels like we’re mostly along for the ride. In this case it isn’t necessarily a bad thing though because I say this only with valuable hindsight, as during the game that all-important “illusion of choice” is kept up extremely well.
The primary new mechanic of the game, replacing the rewinding of time from the original, is the “back talk” mechanic in conversations. Here you enter arguments with other characters and have to win the arguments by choosing the responses which directly refer to what the other person is saying. It only requires a little focus to keep up with and is used relatively sparingly, but is also surprisingly engaging as a device.
There is also, of course, an underlying mystery which is in a sense the game’s primary story, but feels more like the B-plot. It surrounds the arrival of a mysterious woman in Rachel Amber’s life, who she and Chloe attempt to discover the identify of, along with the presence of a threatening and vicious drug-lord in the small town who seems overly involved in the whole business as well as in Chloe’s life. This is, however, like I say, merely something used to drive forward the relationship between Rachel and Chloe and so actually despite its overall importance, isn’t quite the main focus.
The actual mystery itself can sometimes be a bit frustrating in its reveal in that from time to time the player will probably figure something out miles in advance of Chloe. But I guess that could just be discounted as meta-knowledge.
You may have noticed now that I said the writing of the first two episodes was good. So, yes, let me break it to you that the game does not have a satisfying ending. And I do not mean that it is an unhappy ending, although this is largely true as well, I mean that the ending is simply NOT good. As previously stated I think that one shouldn’t go into Before the Storm without prior knowledge of the original Life is Strange but even without that, I think that the ending would not be particularly satisfying. Honestly it’s bad enough that I am going to spoil my review right here and say I do not recommend Before the Storm. For such a story-focused game, having the ending being so completely rubbish absolutely overwrote the rest of my enjoyment. I will do my best to convey why with minimal spoilers.
First off is something which ties in with what I said earlier. In the early two chapters it feels like the game is an extremely believable and faithful recreation of the original. However, towards the end there are an awful lot of unanswered questions which start popping up because it feels almost like Deck Nine got so into their own story that they forgot that the whole purpose of the game was as a set up for the original, and not as a stand-alone game.
Primary amongst the issues is in the relationship between Rachel and Chloe, which is so central to both games. In the original game, Rachel is revealed to have been cheating on Chloe with drug-dealer Frank, and to what extent she actually ever cared for Chloe is now overshadowed with doubt. She also is revealed to be an extremely selfish, self-motived and manipulative individual. All of which means that every single “happy” scene in Before the Storm is infused with a sense of tragedy. Rachel and Chloe kissing in the snow? It’s simply Rachel using Chloe’s feelings of loneliness to completely overwhelm her and make her fall in love. It paints everything in this horrible light that poor Chloe is going to end up suffering because of this horrible girl…
Except that it’s… Not? While the canon of Life is Strange is already set, you would be forgiven if at the end of Before the Storm you thought it might be setting up something completely different. Chloe and Rachel seem happy together, there’s absolutely zero implication of manipulation and for all intents and purposes they’re actually happy together. In short, the MAIN thing this prequel was supposed to address is completely washed over.
In fact, the only attempt to address this is done in what might well have been the single worst scene in the whole game, which I cannot help but spoil slightly now. In this scene a boy who was interested in Chloe essentially breaks into her room to “warn her” about Rachel Amber. In the context of the original this is supposed to be the evidence of Rachel’s manipulations, but instead this comes across as a young, jilted and jealous schoolboy just whining at the girl he likes. He comes across as creepy and, frankly, utterly ridiculous, and yet for some reason he gives Chloe pause in-game. Meanwhile I’m staring at my screen wondering when the other shoe will drop.
This sensation that the game is not answering important questions and is glossing over more and more of the important connecting points between games becomes more and more prevalent as you get closer to the ending. Another perfect example is in your interactions with Nathan Prescott. Again, assuming you are familiar with the original then you will know that Nathan is an extremely troubled kid who is at least heavily involved with the plot of kidnapping and murdering girls. But in Before the Storm you seem to, ALMOST, have the option of redeeming and saving him prior to this. Again, it’s very nice in a stand-alone sense, but in terms of holding to the canon it makes absolutely no sense.
This sort of lackadaisical approach carries on right to the very final confrontations where everything comes to a head and the resolution of the story begins. In particular there is a moment where it seems like everything is going bigly wrong when Chloe then passes out and awakes to find out that the bad stuff was resolved while she was unconscious. You are left completely clueless as to how some aspects were resolved and how it reached the point where Chloe is waking up and everything is more or less solved now.
Despite the insistence of the devs that the ending was not a hastily designed patch job, the unfortunate truth is that the whole final episode feels rushed and not just unsatisfying but downright wrong. This isn’t even taking into account the resolution of the story with the mystery woman, which ends up being frustrating but at least makes sense in the context of the game. It felt like they both ran out of money and so could not answer all the questions they intended to, but worse than that it also feels like by the third episode they had lost sight of what the game was supposed to actually do. I.e. the game that was supposed to set up all the conflict and background of the original game ends up doing very little of that. It feels like the writers and devs not only ran out of the resources to answer the questions but that by the end they had practically decided they didn’t want to anyway.
It’s been the case before, with something like Firewatch, that I will argue that a bad ending does not necessarily make for a bad game (sure in a story-focused game, it WILL make the score drop significantly, but it might not completely ruin everything). In the case of Before the Storm, however, I make the case that the ending feels just so absolutely wrong and incomplete that the game is just not worth playing whatsoever. If you feel like you cannot do without knowing more about Rachel Amber and the background of the world, then I can say that the first couple of episodes are definitely eminently enjoyable, but that as a whole the game will likely just leave a bad taste in your mouth.