Adventure Gamers Awards
Life Is Strange is one of my favorite games in recent memory. Developed by French studio Dontnod and published by Square Enix, the five-episode series with a YA (young adult) slant is primarily the story of friendship between two teen girls, quiet Max Caufield and brash, emotionally-battered Chloe Price, set against the backdrop of an elite private school in the Pacific Northwest. I was far from alone in my appreciation for this sleeper hit: three years after its debut, the game has exceeded three million copies sold with a sequel in the works.
In spite of my fondness for the series—or maybe because of it—I had misgivings when Square Enix announced that a three-part miniseries was also under development, this time with fan favorite Chloe as the protagonist. Made by an entirely different studio, Colorado-based Deck Nine, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm promised to tell the origin story of Chloe and her best friend Rachel Amber, whose mysterious disappearance was one of the original story’s central mysteries. As eager as I am to see female friendships represented in video games, the surprise prequel seemed like an attempt to quickly cash in on the series’ popularity. I sincerely hoped I would be proven wrong.
From Before the Storm’s opening scene, there’s no question that you’re playing a Life Is Strange game. The controls are the same, allowing you to freely navigate with either the keyboard/mouse or a gamepad. As you approach interactive objects, the active hotspot (usually the one you’re facing or standing closest to) is identified by a white outline, with the display showing which keys or buttons you need to push. In an added feature, you can see your current objective by looking at the palm of Chloe’s hand, where she has it written down. This is a clever and true-to-life touch for a teenager, but in a game with a fairly linear route and no puzzles to get stuck on, I rarely needed to use it.
The prequel’s aesthetic is at the same high level as its predecessor, with stylish graphics, fluid and realistic character animation, and artistic camera angles and lighting that make almost every frame look like a carefully composed screenshot. The choices you make—some major, some minor—are again listed at the end of each episode, with headings that may tip you off to optional content worthy of a replay. Three save slots give you the opportunity to try out different story paths, but this isn’t immediately obvious from the main menu (you’ll find them in Settings). Like Max in the first game, Chloe carries a journal that you can refer to for backstory, as well as a cell phone where text messages to and from other characters shed light on their relationships and Chloe’s frame of mind. In two small but nevertheless fun additions, Chloe can draw graffiti in certain areas (similar to Max’s ability to snap photos) and she can change outfits near the beginning of each episode. All of the voice actors for recurring characters have been recast, but I honestly didn’t notice. Rhianna DeVries does a great job as Chloe.
Because Before the Storm is also set in the small town of Arcadia Bay, several locations and characters are familiar. Such asset reuse is common in episodic games, but even the recycled locations bring something new. This game is set more than three years before the events of Life Is Strange and two years after the death of Chloe’s father, whose absence is highlighted by dark squares on the walls where his pictures used to hang. Meanwhile, Chloe’s room (free of graffiti) and the garage (not yet cluttered up with her stepfather-to-be’s things) emphasize the backward passage of time. Walking around the Blackwell school grounds reveals younger versions of characters we’ve met before, while Chloe’s interaction with her classmates shows how poorly she fits in. Chloe’s hair is brown instead of blue. Drug dealer Frank’s pitbull mix, Pompidou, is a rambunctious little puppy. And an incredibly powerful scene in the junkyard, which Chloe will later describe to Max as a place special to her and Rachel, gives the location new meaning that changed my perspective on certain scenes in the first game. There are also new locations to explore, such as an abandoned mill where Chloe attends a punk rock concert, a lush state park that provides a powerfully scenic backdrop to Chloe and Rachel’s developing friendship, new corners of the Blackwell campus, and Rachel Amber’s fancy Craftsman-style house.
For all their similarities, the two games do have a significant difference. Life Is Strange had two distinct narrative threads: a supernatural plot, in which Max discovers she has the power to rewind time, and the true-to-life story involving her friendship with Chloe. Before the Storm lacks the supernatural slant and time-rewind mechanic, focusing solely on Chloe and Rachel’s friendship. I grew weary of the time gimmick pretty quickly, so this is no big loss in my opinion, but people who enjoyed it may be disappointed by the prequel’s quieter premise. The gameplay is more streamlined without the time-related puzzles, leaving only the story and a few lite dialogue and inventory puzzles that, due to how easy they are, tend not to get in the way of narrative progress.
Even without the supernatural subplot, though, Before the Storm has some hints of the surreality and symbolism that were central to its predecessor, including playable recurring dreams involving Chloe’s dead father, a significant weather event that foreshadows elements of the upcoming story, and the titular storm itself. This storm is a double entendre, referring both to the tornado we know is coming and to The Tempest, the Shakespeare play put on at Blackwell during the game in which Rachel is (of course) the star.
Max’s time-rewind gift is sort of replaced by Chloe’s “backtalk” ability, with which you’re supposed to “use arguments and insults to get someone to do what you want” according to an on-screen prompt. The backtalk option appears during certain conversations, with a #[email protected] icon indicating that it’s time for Chloe to run her mouth. In these sequences you’re expected to pick up verbal clues in the other character’s lines in order to craft the best comeback, but rather than sounding like clever wordplay, such exchanges are stilted and forced, portraying Chloe more as a bratty adolescent than the smooth talker she’s supposed to be. You can skip most of these word battles simply by choosing a different dialogue option when the backtalk icon appears, but be aware that the story may branch off differently if you decide not to engage.
While my reaction to the first episode was positive overall, I did notice it trying very hard to assert itself as a prequel. As characters from the previous game are introduced, the writers go out of their way to remind you what the first game already established. (In case you forgot: David’s a war vet and Chloe hates that he’s dating her mom! Nathan’s a rich poser who no one at school likes! Frank’s a sketchy drug dealer!) Even for series newcomers, rather than having these points emerge naturally in the context of a new story, Chloe spends the first part of episode one bouncing from one familiar face to the next with dialogue that self-consciously emphasizes details that are either already quite obvious or not all that relevant to the new narrative.
The pace picks up when attention shifts to Chloe and Rachel. After a harrowing encounter at the concert at the Mill, the girls ditch school together and start getting to know each other. At points the friendship’s early development is sweet, such as when Chloe takes out her phone to listen to music and offers Rachel one of her earbuds (a choice 98% of players had opted for, the first time I played it); at other points it’s teen-appropriately dramatic, such as when Rachel’s mood goes dark and she pushes Chloe away for no apparent reason. I enjoyed the second half of the episode, which culminates in a strong closing that seems to raise the stakes on the girls’ relationship and had me excited to see what would happen next.Continued on the next page...