This Review Contains Major Spoilers for Life is Strange (2015).
The Price is Right
There were plenty of questions left unanswered at the end of 2015’s Life is Strange. Where did Max’s powers come from? Why was she given them? Did Mr. Jefferson know about Max’s powers? And what exactly was up with that doe running all over the place?
None of these questions are answered in Life is Strange: Before the Storm— at least certainly not in the first episode. The narrative doesn’t seem to be heading that direction anytime soon either. Instead, Before the Storm visits familiar characters and locations through a new pair of eyes and, by the end of the first episode, asks plenty of new questions. Developed by Deck Nine Games and distributed by Square Enix, Before the Storm takes place three years before the first game, and stars LiS protagonist Max Caulfield’s angsty best friend, Chloe Price. The gameplay is similar to the choice-heavy point-and-click adventure style of the first game, with a few minor changes. Episode 1: Awake is the first of three episodes that show Chloe’s unlikely friendship with classmate Rachel Amber, and their lives and struggles in the town of Arcadia Bay.
Arcadia Bay is incredibly different when seen through the eyes of Chloe. Although Chloe visits locations returning players will be familiar with, like Blackwell Academy, and deals with plot points players have seen before, like the death of her father, seeing it all through Chloe’s eyes keeps it from feeling repetitive. The game doesn’t struggle at all with the regular difficulties of a prequel story either. Even though we know where some these characters end up, we don’t know how most of them get there. And when something recognizable does rear its head, it’s often as gut-wrenching as it is familiar. There are plenty of new experiences too: as Max, we never bargained for weed, or played tabletop games before school. As Chloe, we do.
The game is also dripping with style; Before the Storm looks and feels like Chloe Price. The title and loading screens are decorated with graffiti and the current objective is always scrawled in marker on Chloe’s hand. In place of the optional photographs from Life is Strange, Chloe has optional graffiti locations to tag. The design of the game itself is centered around Chloe’s personality, and it helps in differentiating Before the Storm from the original Life is Strange. Chloe’s running monologue is sharp and witty, filled with both funny and genuinely poignant moments. At times, however, the quality of this writing is sadly below average.
Some conversations between Chloe and those around her feel stilted and uncomfortable. This was a flaw of the original game as well, and there are too many lines of dialogue that feel just a little too over-the-top or clichéd. Sometimes in Before the Storm, the content of the conversation doesn’t even matter. The game occasionally pauses too long between lines, and the camera lingers on an unmoving face for a couple of seconds before the next line is delivered. It’s also easy to tell when the dialogue option from a player choice ends and the “unavoidable” dialogue begins. Characters often switch moods between sentences, going from joking to shouting or from crying to comforting, and it’s jarring. It breaks immersion in the story, making a number of scenes tonally confusing.
This is the biggest problem with Awake. It feels all over the place. There are a handful of the touching, powerful moments that we’ve come to expect from the series, but there are blundering, awkward moments where there shouldn’t be. There’s a bit too much crammed into this first episode (the play time is around three hours) and it asks the player to believe in relationships it hasn’t taken enough time to build up.
However, one area in which the game really shines is the soundtrack. The songs that Chloe plays in her room or on her phone are good, but, more importantly, they’re believable. The songs feel like something that Chloe would actually listen to or put on a mixtape. The ambient music is very well designed too, much like the original game.
Another high point for Before the Storm are Backtalk Challenges. In place of Max’s rewind powers, Backtalk Challenges are a new mechanic in which Chloe uses arguments and insults to get what she wants. The player must pay attention to what Chloe’s opponent says and choose the correct witty retort before the timer runs out. For example, if a bouncer at a punk rock show calls Chloe a kid, one correct response would be to say the venue looks like a playground. Chloe must successfully deliver a set number verbal jabs to win. If Chloe slips up or doesn’t answer, she doesn’t get her way. Problematically, the background of the scene is too bright to read the choices in a Backtalk Challenge, and time occasionally runs out before all the options can be read. These are the only choices in the game that are timed, and it’s frustrating when the story goes a way you would not have chosen by no fault of your own. However, these challenges have some of the best-written dialogue in the game, and Chloe truly is at her best when she’s chewing someone out. Although that uniquely satisfying feeling of making someone talk, rewinding time, then using that information against them is gone, the Backtalk Challenges are fun and engaging. They feel distinct and unique to Chloe, and the time-travel, surprisingly, isn’t missed that much.
The original Life is Strange always felt like it was trying a bit too hard, but as the episodes went on it was easier and easier to look past the “hellas” and appreciate the dramatic and thoughtful story that was unfolding. It’s likely this will be the case for Before the Storm too, despite it being two episodes shorter. Opening the game at a punk concert at an abandoned mill is about as stereotypical as it gets, but there’s something about drinking beer and getting into bar fights as Chloe that just feels badass. The choices are still hard — there’s almost always merit to either option, and a number of the decisions elicit that familiar put-the-controller-down-and-scratch you-head feeling. There’s plenty more to love for players that fell in love with Chloe, this world, and the rest of these characters two years ago.
That, perhaps, is the most important thing. As such, I suspect that players who liked Life is Strange will like Before the Storm. Much of the game is fan service and, despite a few flaws in its first episode, it’s very well-made fan service. But this is not a game made for anyone who didn’t like or didn’t play the original. The fans who wanted more Life is Strange now have it, and with two episodes to go, the future (or maybe the past?) looks bright.