Publisher: Square Enix
More Info: Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a love letter to the original Life is Strange, and Farewell is the developers signing it with a flourish. It’s not a prequel series that really needed to exist, nor is it one that adds a great deal to the world or the original game, but it’s so well done that I’m still glad it was made. I finished it over the weekend, finished Farewell yesterday, and I’m still internalising a lot of it. I think that says something. It also probably says that this’ll be a confused mishmash of thoughts and emotions, because that’s what Life is Strange does to me.
Where Life is Strange focused on Max Caulfield’s return to Arcadia Bay, the rekindling of her friendship with school dropout Chloe Price, and their investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Amber, Before the Storm takes a look at a period several years before this. Chloe is still reeling from the death of her father and the absence of Max while dealing with life at Blackwell Academy… and then the popular, vibrant Rachel Amber steps into her life.
That, really, is the focus here: exploring just who Rachel Amber was, and what she meant to Chloe, as well as investigating Chloe’s own evolution into the person we first met in Life is Strange. It’s also a chance to see some old friends and places in a new light, as this time around our guide isn’t the shy and optimistic Max, but the caustic and angry Chloe. Where Max looked at Arcadia Bay with some degree of fondness and nostalgia, for Chloe, it’s a prison of bitter memories that she’s desperate to escape.
Mechanically, things are largely the same as in Life is Strange‘s initial season. All the basic mechanics of walking, talking, examining, solving very rare puzzles, and making really uncomfortable decisions are in place. Max’s photography – the little bonus collectibles – have been replaced with Chloe’s trusty graffiti pen. The biggest change is that Chloe doesn’t have Max’s time-warping powers.
Instead, Chloe has a “Backtalk” ability, which lets her enrage/confuse/bluff/generally argue with people by talking shit at them. It functions similarly to Monkey Island‘s Insult Swordfighting in that you have to listen to what your opponent says and pick a response that plays off their words, rather than just whatever might seem the most logical. It’s fun, though minor, and it doesn’t really play into the game’s story or plot at all. A neat gimmick mechanic, but one that works with Chloe’s nature.
Still, mechanics aren’t the reason you’re likely to play Before the Storm. You’re going to play it because of the story, the characters, and the little moments that jerk your heartstrings or bring a big sloppy grin to your face. And – while it focuses on a much more small-scale story than Life is Strange did – Before the Storm still manages to excel at doing this stuff.
Pretty much every episode (each clocking in at around three hours, assuming you investigate and interact with everything) has at least one moment I’d love to talk about in detail, but I’ll resist as hard as I can because half of the joy is seeing this stuff unfold by itself. The only one I’ll briefly mention is the entirely optional D&D-esque game you can get Chloe to play in the first episode, as I think I’ve mentioned that before. Purely through conversation, you roleplay your way through a camp of enemies… and, as with pretty much everything else, this wonderful little excerpt both foreshadows future events, and is called back to in later episodes. This is the sort of game where tiny little segments like this can wind up having a bigger impact than you’d expect.
Before the Storm made me smile. I wasn’t smiling at it, as with so many games; I wasn’t smiling at the jokes or the snark or the little continuity nods. I was smiling with it, because it’s an experience that – even in its darkest moments – makes you feel like a part of it. And while it never gets as dark or as powerful Life is Strange, it has some moments of truly staggering emotional sway nonetheless.
I’m skirting around a lot of issues simply because I don’t want to spoil the game, but there are a few specifics I really should give. Where Life is Strange lays its focus on a missing person and Max’s supernatural powers, Before the Storm focuses more on families from different ends of the spectrum. Chloe is poor, has a deceased father, and loathes her mother’s boyfriend. But Rachel’s seemingly perfect family – wealthy, affluent, upper-class – also has its share of dark secrets, and the way the two bond is entirely believable. (Both games also share a seemingly supernatural disaster that ties into the game’s events, although in Before the Storm it’s more a background event than a portent of impending doom.)
One of my favourite things about the series is the way that Life is Strange has always allowed for alternative character interpretations, and this is one of the few things I think Before the Storm actually does better than its predecessor, at least with regards to Rachel. Life is Strange showed tender and caring sides to almost all of its more hateful and snobbish characters, and excelled at making you despise someone and then gradually helping you understand them and see another side to them.
Before the Storm is… different, especially because if you’ve played Life is Strange (and you should have done so), then you’ve already discovered a lot about Rachel. When playing Before the Storm, it’s possible to see Rachel as a free spirit who has a legitimate love for and kinship with Chloe, but maybe doesn’t entirely think things through. It’s also entirely possible to see her as a manipulative and skilled liar with a darker side, prone to sudden outbursts and irrational behaviour – especially when you bear in mind some of the revelations about her from the original series. There’s no “right answer” given. I have my own opinion on who she “really” is, deep down. You might disagree, and you’d be quite justified in doing so.
Its prequel nature works against it as often as it works for it, though. There are some things that are destined to happen, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. As an example, Before the Storm has Joyce and David Madsen (Chloe’s mother and stepfather) getting closer. Depending on your choices, you can actually have Chloe and David resolve some of their issues and find common ground… but come Life is Strange, they’re still going to be estranged. It doesn’t make these moments less emotionally impactful, but it does lend a sense of futility to things.
Mind you, I always thought that Life is Strange‘s overriding theme was of fatalism against free will. Without Max’s time-changing powers being in play, here, I suppose the fact that some things are “set” is entirely appropriate.
While fatalism etc. isn’t really the theme here, there is an overriding analogy to The Tempest, particularly with regards to some of the characters and situations. It’s alluded to regularly (every episode title, for one thing) and one of the big events that surrounds the entire series is Blackwell Academy’s production of that very play. I still kinda think that having the play in the game is a little on-the-nose, but that particular moment is so fantastically well done that I’m more than willing to forgive it for a lack of subtlety.
Alas, having certain things set in stone because of Life is Strange leads to a few continuity snarls, especially when it comes to returning characters. As a minor example, Life is Strange shows Chloe meeting numerous characters for what is heavily implied to be the first time, while Before the Storm establishes that she already knew them beforehand. These are unlikely to bother anyone other than the most ardent fans, though, and a fair few of them can be plausibly hand-waved away.
And then… well, the other bits. A fair few lines of dialogue are either weakly written or delivered in a rather stilted manner, although Rhianna DeVries does a largely stellar job of stepping into Ashly Burch’s gargantuan clown shoes as the replacement voice for Chloe. There are some animation issues, particularly when it comes to sudden camera changes (a possible side-effect of this running at 300FPS on my computer). There are little glitches and problems here and there which do detract from the experience as a whole, and that’s a shame, because “experience” is the best way to sum up this series.
Then there’s Farewell, the bonus episode. If this feels like an addendum to the rest of the review, that’s entirely fitting, because Farewell is pretty much an addendum to the entire Arcadia Bay arc.
It’ll take about 90 minutes to play through, and the entirety of it is set in and around Chloe’s house, with a younger Max trying to work out how to tell a younger Chloe that she and her family are moving to Seattle in a matter of days. It’s a wonderfully bittersweet little vignette that explores their friendship and their childhood, and I’m not going to lie: I silently shed two entirely manly tears at one point. It’s not “essential” to the Life is Strange experience, but if you have a fondness for Max and Chloe, then it’s something you really should play. If Life is Strange‘s eventual sequel does indeed focus on new characters, then this is a beautiful capstone and final farewell to our two heroines.
Which, now that I think about it, is how I feel about Before the Storm in general. My initial concerns for the prequel series were that it might feel completely unnecessary, or that it might actually detract from the marvellous Life is Strange. I still feel that this is “unnecessary” – it doesn’t greatly add much to Life is Strange, nor is its stand-alone narrative particularly earth-shaking – but it certainly doesn’t detract from its predecessor.
And really, “necessary” isn’t the point, is it? The point is that it’s an extraordinarily well done return to Arcadia Bay, proving that Deck Nine have the chops to tackle a series with a serious following, and do it proper justice. “Necessary?” No. Life is Strange would’ve felt complete without this. But that doesn’t lessen Before the Storm – or its superb characters, or its heart-rending moments, or its moments of triumph, or the sheer joy of being back here and seeing these characters again – in any way, and nor does it lessen Life is Strange.
Did you like Life is Strange? Then, whether or not a prequel was strictly necessary, you should absolutely play this.
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