"This is more than a love letter — it's a brewing tempest of adolescent insight."
When I heard that a continuation of Life is Strange was coming, I instantly sat up straight and narrowed my vision on the source of information. Immediately, I felt the rush of emotions and reminders of the deep, real characters of the hit series' cast. Then I heard it was going to be a prequel without Max, and I was struck with a jolt of apprehension that eventually became open-minded curiosity. A story that focuses on Chloe Price and Rachel Amber's friendship before the events of Life is Strange — my imagination wandered, wondering what this could mean. Further insight into the root of Max's power? An answer to the storm and dying animals? More than anything else, I just wanted to meet Rachel. Life is Strange built her up to be some incredible person who positively touched everyone's lives. By the end of the game, I felt as if she was the thing of legends.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm opens with a three-and-a-half to four-hour episode focusing on the blue-haired, confidently rebellious Chloe before she met Max. And hair dye. While Chloe was certainly a highlight and multi-layered character in Life is Strange, experiencing and seeing the world through Chloe's eyes is remarkable. I had wondered if the new developer, Deck Nine, could take on the monumental task that DONTNOD left for it. Wonder no more — Before the Storm postures itself to excel beyond the emotional tale the original series boasted.
A common trope of adventure titles is those moments in which the player can walk around and make observations about objects. This was a joy in Life is Strange, as each aside was flush with Max's personality. Chloe's bitter, yet lively way of viewing the world makes clicking objects just to hear her voice a pleasure. In such games, I will typically listen to everything out of a compulsive need to hear everything, even if I know 90% of what I hear is probably uninspired and tepid. Not so here — if anything, I wish Before the Storm offered more objects for Chloe to remark on sarcastically. Rather than serving as filler, these moments help to characterize her and truly bring her to life. By the end of this first episode, I had felt as if I got to spend some quality time one-on-one with someone I had been curious about from afar. I had a good sense for who Chloe is, but this takes it to another level while remaining authentic to who she is in the original series.
Before I get too carried away with accolades, Before the Storm follows Chloe after her father had passed and before she runs into Max again. She attends Blackwell Academy and meets Rachel Amber at some point, a girl bound to be valedictorian. Chloe still has difficulty accepting the loss of her father, which is exacerbated further by the introduction of her mom's new boyfriend. As is often the case with prequels, the overarching story won't offer any grand surprises in the timeline of this universe; instead, it's all about the details and writing.
Fortunately, despite the Screen Actors Guild strike, Ashly Burch was able to work as a writer for Before the Storm. One of Life is Strange's crowning achievements is its sense of atmosphere, place, and authentic insight into these teenagers' lives. For someone to capture this and earn praise from many who likely belong to or have some relatability to this same demographic is a boast-worthy feat. Before the Storm cranks this up a few notches by diving even deeper and shamelessly. Even just reading through Chloe's journal can feel like a raw, genuine insight into what a troubled teenage girl is going through. Burch and the rest of the writers tap into some heavy topics tastefully without seeming like they're preaching. The writing never feels like it's pandering, and always feels like something a teenage girl might write in a personal journal to a dearly missed friend.
You name the adolescent issue, Before the Storm has a take. Drugs, guilt, rebelliousness, angst, pride, admiration, bitterness, desire, loneliness, loss, desperation — all are represented here, again, without seeming like the writers are pandering. Rather than feeling like a script playing out, the experience instead feels like one's tagging along quietly with a friend in real-time. I dare say that this might even be a worthwhile game for a parent of a troubled teen or a high school teacher.
Where Before the Storm heads off the rails a bit is in some of the decision-making and the talking back conversation mechanic. Mind, these are minor grievances and hardly impact the immersion. First, while one's decisions (and attire) definitely have a short-term impact on how others react to Chloe, sometimes the writers' intent is clear, and bucking the horse creates some noticeable inconsistency. For instance, Chloe is clearly intended to be a rebellious teenager who defiantly does drugs and mouths off when she feels appropriate. However, the game offers a few moments in which players can decide to be understanding, pleasant, and even grateful to those she appears to hate. What follows is scripted dialogue without player interaction that returns to Chloe's typical temperament. These moments are a little more obscured than I'm letting on, and didn't take me entirely out of the story, but they're worth noting.
Before the Storm introduces a talking back mechanic that seems to be an attempt to replace the rewind time mechanic of Life is Strange. During these moments, Chloe can "persuade" characters to take her side or back off by arguing with them using clues previously discovered in the environment or within the argument itself. Chloe's comebacks are fun, but the whole thing feels pretty silly and tacked on, as if the developers were trying to game-ify an otherwise dialogue- and story-heavy game. In fact, in terms of "gameplay," Before the Storm feels almost entirely story-driven aside from the occasional dialogue choice and roaming for objects sequences. The game-ier parts of Before the Storm don't obstruct the joy and, as suggested earlier, can actually enhance Chloe's characterization as she explores the world and voices her thoughts.
The ending and some other parts of Before the Storm may seem rushed and unbelievable to some players — I certainly had knee-jerk reactions at some points — but the truth is that Life is Strange follows teenagers. Similar to how characters in The Walking Dead may do stupid things that make us wonder, "Really?!" Before the Storm creates some highly emotional moments in a short amount of time. When one considers that our protagonist and her peers are hormone-driven, similarly-troubled teenagers who may very much act on impulse, the events that play out and the speed with which some things occur is more than forgivable — they're expected and enhance
the storytelling in their authenticity.
In terms of visuals, screenshots are not how one should judge Before the Storm. The game looks sub-par by today's standards if viewed in stills, but the animation and flow of the game matches the artistic style. Frankly, I couldn't imagine Life is Strange looking any other way. Of course, the game isn't state-of-the-art or mind-shatteringly fantastic in its style, but it is fitting and complements the vibes. One aspect I particularly noted was tears on faces. Yes, I'm serious about this. Most video games have difficulty effectively showing tears on someone's face and making them feel like tears. In several cases, including in high-end titles, they're either gelatin-esque globs of water or way too glossy on the cheeks. The graphical designers killed it in Before the Storm, though. Okay, enough about that.
While Burch not returning to her role as Chloe in Before the Storm is an incredible disappointment, the new voice actress, Rhianna DeVries, does a fantastic job. Not only does she sound like the Chloe we're used to, but she excels in a variety of emotional moments. Brutal sarcasm? Check. Bitter defiance? Check. Tortured loss and grief? Check check. And what would a Life is Strange series be without moody and rockin' tunes? Not only does Before the Storm rival the original series' soundtrack thus far, some songs might even exceed it.
I really couldn't be happier with what we've been given. Deck Nine gets Life is Strange, but more than that, it capitalizes on the material to make it even better. By the end of this first episode, I was not only awe-struck, but a little misty. Completely blown away by the sheer quantity (four hours!) and quality of this first episode, I absolutely cannot wait for the next two installments in this three-episode series. I may know what's going to happen, but it's all about the details. This is more than a love letter — it's a brewing tempest of adolescent insight.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.