Life is Strange: Before the Storm | Principal Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One | Developer: Deck Nine | Publisher: Square Enix | Genre: Adventure | Year: 2017
Since reviewing the original Life is Strange, I’ve come to understand the privileged position of those playing the game now as opposed to 2015 when its first episode was released. Being late to the party allowed me to consume the complete season without having to wait months in between each instalment — imagine that! I also had the luxury of fielding detailed opinions on the various endings the moment I finished playing — lucky me! And I could immediately start the official 2017 prequel without going through the painful “rehab” period that almost everyone goes through after completing one of these — bonus!
With the entirety of Life is Strange: Before the Storm looming ahead of me, another thing I quickly understood is how worried the fans must have been about it. Whereas I rocked up with solid review scores and positive recommendations already in mind, long-time fans had to contend with some scary truths. A different studio was attached to develop; the game engine was changing; and the original voice cast would be absent due to the (then ongoing) strike by the Screen Actors Guild of America. These are big changes for any series, let alone one whose entire impact relies on consistent storytelling.
It must have been a relief then that Before the Storm turned out so well. All of those aforementioned concerns melt away once you get stuck into the first episode, whereupon it becomes apparent that the changes behind the scenes haven’t hurt anything. This is a very faithful production; a rare prequel that’s blessed with the same atmosphere that made its predecessor so riveting.
Set three years before the events of Life is Strange, this prequel focuses on the returning Chloe Price as she embarks on a journey into adulthood with her new best friend, Rachel Amber. Whereas the previous game developed alongside an overarching mystery, Before the Storm begins as a more personal affair, as we see the relationship between the two girls grow in the previously unseen time leading up to Rachel’s disappearance at the beginning of Life is Strange.
The word “rare” might just become the theme of this review because there are a lot of good things about Before the Storm that even I’m not accustomed to seeing. A common, sometimes tiresome trick with prequels, for instance, is to show how something in the future ‘became that way’. Yet here that sort of thing isn’t so distracting. Little callbacks like why Chloe dyed her hair; how she rescued her beaten-up truck from being scrapped, or the moment she started saying “hella”; these elements could easily have felt like desperate nods to what came before, but instead they feel like genuine expansions of the lore rather than just regurgitated story beats.
I’m honestly not sure how the game pulls that off. The callbacks to Life is Strange are frequent, but they rarely prey on the audience’s nostalgia. Perhaps it’s just down to the believable depiction of Chloe as a young woman. She’s still wild and rebellious, and yet we see her behaving far less confidently here; a different Chloe with low self esteem and uncertain notions about her own sexuality.
Another angle for expanding character concepts is found in the game’s Backtalk conversation mode that allows Chloe to verbally “attack” NPCs in an attempt to satisfy optional objectives. It’s a fairly cool feature that suits Chloe’s fiery personality, though there are a few gripes with the implementation that might stop players from getting too enthusiastic.
For one, the uncommon Backtalks are always optional. Their overall effect on the plot is therefore quite minimal, which makes looking for tells and selecting the correct retort seem fairly superfluous when compared to the game-changing gimmicks seen previously in the series. My biggest concern over Backtalk though is how it leads the player.
When the option to Backtalk appears in conversation, my attention is immediately drawn to it lest I give up the chance to engage in a fun gameplay feature. For a series that prides itself on letting players make their own decisions, I find it odd how they’re being led towards a specific choice like that. The game also kind of forgets about it towards the end, with the final Backtalk having all the impact of an inflatable hammer.
Whenever the presentation falters in that regard though, Chloe always rescues it. Chloe’s new voice actor sounds perfect in the role, and Chloe herself makes a fantastic antagonist; the sort of person you can adore one moment, get angry at the next. To that point: her angsty demeanour can seem overly combative at times, but this is incredibly realistic for a girl her age; especially one who must live with broken home anxiety. There are moments where Chloe being sarcastic with her mother reminded me of real life arguments I’ve had with my own parent. Whilst it’s presented in a melodramatic way, it doesn’t always want for realism.
Speaking of which, the writing feels more grounded because it doesn’t split focus between character drama and supernatural surrealism. Chloe does undergo several expository dream sequences featuring her dead father, but even these weird moments achieve a sort of authenticity; me speaking again from experience on how the grieving mind behaves.
At its heart though, the main thing that Before the Storm is concerned with is the relationship between its two main characters. Players will make many gripping choices to help define this connection, with the most involving option being the romantic one.
Seeing a lesbian romance become a primary story thread in a video game is unprecedented enough, let alone to see it done so well. Compared to similar story beats in Life is Strange, the romance is brought to the forefront of the narrative here, to the point where I don’t feel that players will enjoy themselves as much if they choose to downplay it.
That can be a problem for those players (like me) who prefer their fictional love stories to blossom at a less “thirsty” pace than usual. Before the Storm only runs for three episodes (instead of five), so you do have to forgive certain moments where the romantic stuff feels hurried. Still, what Deck Nine has achieved here is incredibly well-realised and has set a very high standard for the future.
My only wish is that the wider narrative could have survived the familiar final act curse. As was the case in the last game, the concluding episode of Before the Storm is where things fall apart, with the immersive character development being sidelined for a dumb mystery involving weak villains and unconvincing melodrama.
And whereas Life is Strange at least found some inventive weirdness during its concluding descent into madness, Before the Storm barely even tries. The global statistics may suggest otherwise, but I didn’t think the key decisions in Episode 3 were all that hard to make, and I found myself caring less and less about the plot as it awkwardly trundled to an end.
Opinions will differ on which game forms the ideal starting point for new players. Whilst Before the Storm performs incredibly well as a spoiler free introduction to the series, I’d recommend newbies play it first just because Life is Strange comes with a better ending and a better sense of closure.
Owners of the deluxe edition get access to a bonus episode set several years before the events of either game. This “Farewell” episode — that sees Ashly Burch reprising her role as a young Chloe Price — hits surprisingly hard for something so short. Seeing Chloe make her transition from being a child to a young adult adds more layers to her already significant story.
I didn’t realize how much this coda was needed until I played it, as those somewhat twee youth scenes from Life is Strange take on a new dimension when they’re given a fighting chance to connect. In fact, I find it odd that Square Enix retained this episode as DLC, considering how well it acts as a stopping point when compared to the core game’s limp finale.
What you’re left with then is an experience that’s both incredibly easy as well as incredibly hard to recommend. It’s emotional, it’s immersive, and even if it does overextend by juggling so many different themes and responsibilities, it does right by the series. I may have escaped the rehab period following the original game, but I certainly wasn’t so lucky the second time around!
And that will probably be the most fitting (and conflicting) compliment I can pay to Life is Strange: Before the Storm. It’s a worthwhile experience that fans will cherish, even if it does make them feel a bit shitty afterwards.