Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 20/12/2017
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
I love Life is Strange. Everything about it just resonates with me, be it through the touching yet catastrophic story, the way you could genuinely influence the relationships characters share with one another, or just how it all felt like this real believable experience… well… outside of the time-bending stuff, of course. Throw in the fantastic art style and soundtrack though and it really made for something special.
Naturally then, when Life is Strange: Before the Storm was announced I was excited. Chloe was one of my favourite characters the first time around, so getting to see how she developed into the person she is intrigued me. However, the change of developer and the low episode count did raise a few concerns as to whether or not the game was going to reach the same quality players had grown accustomed to, or whether it’s something that had been hastily produced to pick up on the buzz from the first game.
Thankfully, none of those concerns came to be – Life is Strange: Before the Storm is instead a highly enjoyable and refreshing re-visit to Arcadia Bay that meaningfully dips into the history of its characters and lore leading up to the events of the original game.
Set three years before the first game, Life is Strange: Before the Storm puts you in the shoes of series favourite Chloe who’s struggling to deal with the death of her father and the growing friction between herself and her Mother’s new boyfriend. Add to that the fact that she’s skipping a lot of school and she’s having a hard time making friends since her bestie Max moved away, and it’s left her in a really lonely and vulnerable state. All that changes though after she attends a wild gig and befriends Rachel Amber – the popular and academically gifted girl who had gone missing in the first game.
You learn that Chloe and Rachel were close in Life is Strange, but Before the Storm shows how strong of a bond they really had. Whilst the game covers a lot of the events of their life, the main focus is on exploring their relationship and how they managed to grow so close. It’s clear that Rachel wasn’t just a friend, but actually someone who influenced the person Chloe had grown to be; it’s easy to see how the death of her father greatly affected her academic and personal life, but so many traits of her personality seem to have been strengthened by spending time with Rachel. It’s interesting to see, though it does make some of the tragic events of the first game all the more heart wrenching.
Speaking of heart wrenching, the scenes in which Chloe interacts with her deceased father in Before the Storm are also particularly depressing, with it clearly conveyed that she is suffering to cope with the emotional hurt of a lost parent. The game handles this perfectly though by showing off their relationship in a series of poignant and tasteful scenes that manage to show both how heartbroken Chloe is to have lost him but also how brutal the accident was. One scene in particular in the first episode manages to capture both perfectly – no spoilers here, but you’ll know it when you see it.
Whilst there are plenty of pre-existing factors that can affect who Chloe is and what happens throughout the game, the most influential one is the player. You’re given the freedom to make events and conversations transpire how you please, so besides Rachel, you’ll also be able to shift Chloe’s personality and actions too.
Your choices truly affect the story and the fate of each character. Whilst some of your choices may seem insignificant to begin with, nearly all of them end up forming into a big arc that can take a severe turn at any moment. Sure, some of them might not end up making a huge difference, but when you’re so invested in the world of Life is Strange, seeing a particular character end up in grave situation could be quite daunting. It certainly makes a second or even third playthrough worthwhile, even if the finale itself is broken down into just two major decisions.
The only character I never really felt anything towards was Elliot (who has a huge thing for Chloe), with his scenes in the final episode in particular feeling a little off. I don’t know if it was the pacing of the game alone or the fact that he never had too big a role to play throughout the other episodes, but having this one scene in particular which seemed to completely shift his personality felt a little off. You can see what the developers were aiming for with it, but I don’t think Elliot really had the screen-time to fully develop his character enough to properly portray it.
Despite this, for the most part everything about Life is Strange: Before the Storm’s narrative is great. The final scene of the game in particular had a lasting effect on me, especially after getting so absorbed into the first game. Deck Nine have truly embraced the Life is Strange story and fan-base with this game and it’s something that’s perfectly represented in its final moments.
Once again, most of the gameplay in Life is Strange: Before the Storm is based around making your own choices throughout each situation you find yourself in. There are plenty of different scenarios that you’ll find yourself in; it could be the case of choosing whether or not to stand up to a bully, your role in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, a showdown with your soon to be Stepfather, a dispute over stolen cash, or even your performance in the School’s theatrical production of The Tempest. There’s a lot of different things to see and do throughout the entirety of the game and each scenario can play out in a completely different way – the one consistency between them all is they’re always entertaining for the player. I’ve already mentioned it, but the game needs more than one playthrough if you want to see everything.
Given the omission of Max, there’s no time-rewinding this time around. Instead, the ‘unique hook’ is a backtalk system that sees Chloe arguing with others by carefully picking the right (and often more sarcastic or cutting response) to everything they say to her. It generally works quite well, but for the most part it could be a bit too obvious. It’s certainly not as interesting as time travel, but it is a bit more fitting for Before the Storm’s more human and believable vibe.
The audio design of the game is absolutely on point, with some fantastic voice work on show throughout the entirety of it. Naturally, Chloe and Rachel are the stars of the show, and it shows with their performances in particular managing to perfectly nail each and every emotional scene they’re a part of. Of course, the supporting case are of the same quality too, but it’s the scenes with the two girls in particular that left a lasting impression on me.
The soundtrack is superb too, with it offering a blend of licenced tracks as well as those unique to the game from British indie band Daughter. Again, referring to the game’s emotional tale, each song perfectly represents the tone of each scene, be it an all-out rock song, a soothing yet upbeat melody, or the depressing chimes of a tune that signifies the ominous situation Chloe and Rachel might find themselves in.
Whether it’s in the voice acting or the soundtrack itself, the first game prided itself on its audio design and it’s great to see that the incredibly high quality carries on in Before the Storm.
After loving Life is Strange when it originally released, I’d been intrigued to see where they would go with Before the Storm. Prequels haven’t always been successful after all, so I didn’t know if it’d still manage to offer the same emotionally-driven experience that I’d loved so much back in 2015.
Thankfully, Deck Nine have managed to deliver something that might not have as grand a stage set, but somehow manages to feel a lot more human and, at times, more enjoyable than its predecessor in the process.
There’s no huge looming disaster in Life is Strange: Before the Storm; instead, it’s a tale of two girls, their blossoming relationship, and the believable trials and tribulations they face as part of growing up. Whilst anyone who has played the first game knows that it can all end tragically, you don’t have to think about any of that here and it makes for a truly poignant experience.
The choices you make, the situations you find yourself in, the ways you interact with the world – everything comes together perfectly to make Life is Strange: Before the Storm a very enjoyable and worthy prequel to the original game.