Life is Strange: Before the Storm has a weird premise. The game places you in the shoes of Chloe, one of the previous game’s most controversial characters, and it strengthens her character flaws, sometimes to the point of annoyance. Calling it a teen angst simulator is not far from the truth, but as you explore the game, Before the Storm quickly shows itself to be a poignant exploration of adolescence that’s heartfelt and engrossing, pulling you deeper into its world and narrative with each scene.
The announcement of a sequel to Life is Strange definitely came as a bit of a surprise. The much-beloved time-twisting story game, after its five chapters, had reached its culmination in a beautifully balanced way that felt equally cataclysmic and meaningful. Continuing the story of the first game’s protagonist, Max, would be daunting and seemingly unnecessary, especially for a narrative that was bookended so nicely. Approaching the sequel as a prequel though could help to help better flesh out the world of Arcadia Bay and give more insight to characters like Rachel Amber, who haunts the first game but never in more than a name. It seemed logical to make Max the protagonist again, but Deck 9 had other ideas, instead placing Chloe Price, Max’s reunited-punk-rocking-bestie, as the focus of Before the Storm.
Teen Angst Done Right
As the game starts, Chloe is ditching curfew to go to an abandoned barn where she plans to headbang to her favorite band. The new gameplay mechanics are quickly introduced as you explore, allowing Chloe to graffiti one liners on the side of an RV (the new version of snap shot collectibles) or berate the doorman into allowing her into the club. From there, the narrative starts in true Life is Strange fashion, juxtaposing the seedy, townie underside of Arcadia Bay with the teen drama and prep school society of Blackwell Academy. Playing as Chloe, you exist in both worlds and navigate them while dealing with issues like the hopeless tar pit that is Chloe’s adolescence, the specter of her recently deceased father, the abandonment of her life-long best friend, and a number of other tricky situations.
Fleshing Out Arcadia Bay
Before the Storm’s biggest achievement is how well it’s able to flesh out the character of Chloe. Before, when she was just Max’s smart-talking partner in crime, she often felt more like the idea of an at-risk teen lashing out than an actual living, breathing character in the game’s universe. And sure, Before the Storm starts with a broody Chloe standing on train tracks in the middle of the night, smoking a cigarette and taunting death, but it merely starts there, almost like a reference to the Chloe everyone expected rather than the Chloe you end up getting. Through Chloe’s relationships, whether it’s her time with Rachel Amber, exploring her mom’s room, or her constant flashbacks/day dreams of her father, Deck 9 artfully builds the caricature into a character. She now has tangible motivations for the things she does and says, she has social anxieties and issues with depression that feel all too real and create an empathic connection with the player, she has complicated feelings towards Rachel that you get to help her explore—and all of this is within the short 2-3 hour playtime of Episode 1.
The story itself fits comfortably within the Life is Strange universe and does a nice job of helping to fill in the blanks on Rachel as well, and not just in the ways she factors in to Chloe’s story. Rachel is her own character who, much like Chloe, is working through her own issues. Her background has mystery, conflict, and a whole swath of teenage emotions that help her play a strong counterpart to Chloe and leave you wanting to know more. External characters and the moments you share with them, much like in the first Life is Strange, also help to flesh out the universe and make for a much more enjoyable ‘walk-around-and-talk-to-people’ game. Small things like listening to the janitor’s demo tape, helping your jerk step dad fix the car, or the super awesome, ad hoc role playing game session all make for unique and memorable vignettes that greatly contribute to the feel and experience of Before the Storm. This is the same sort of Life is Strange you fell in love with initially and it does all the same things well.
Beautiful and Familiar
Most notably, the soundtrack is stunning. One of the major highlights of the first game was the collection of wistful indie songs that peppered the soundtrack and helped drive the emotional tone of the game. For Before the Storm, Deck 9 recruited English mope folk band, Daughter, to do both the score and the soundtrack, resulting in what is easily one of the most stunning video game soundtracks of the year. The music is simultaneously hopeful and melancholic, feeling like sun breaking on an early winter morning. Daughter has a knack for writing heart wrenching folk songs that draw you in with their earnestness, and for Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, they’ve managed to make that sound into an atmosphere.
The only real major change between the two games is the introduction of the new conflict system. Since Max isn’t around to do her whole time magician business, Deck 9 felt the need to add some variety to the gameplay with a new mechanic. This system features Chloe having to come up with the right insults as quickly as possible to twist the conversation to her benefit. There are usually clues in the dialogue that help you make the right choice and achieve the verbal beatdown that any hot headed teenager would hope for. Unfortunately, the addition of this system is probably the game’s biggest downside. At it’s best it’s an odd mechanic that takes you out of the moment for ‘fun fun mini game time’, and at it’s worst it’s just forcing you to be a digital ass hole. Berating a stranger is never really a fun thing to do, even when they’re seemingly deserving of it, and it’s really un-fun when the story has already made you feel sympathetic for whichever character Chloe is arguing with. With the game doing so much work to build out the more positive aspects of Chloe’s character amidst her snark, this system only forces you back into old patterns that don’t feel congruous with the narrative. Luckily, it’s only something you encounter 3-4 times throughout the episode so it’s limited enough to not drag the rest of the game down.
While you can’t accurately judge an episodic game off just the first episode, Life is Strange: Before the Storm is shaping up to be an excellent experience. It shares many of the best characteristics of its predecessor but tells its own story in a way that feels honest and earned. As the game takes Chloe’s situation and invites you into her story, you quickly come to understand her motivations and anger in a completely tangible way. Even the dated look and animations of the game, with characters moving like bobbleheads can’t detract from the writing in this game, and the writing is exceptional. The conflict system is an unnecessary inclusion that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but it’s quickly forgiven once the narrative grabs you back in. Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1 leaves us excited to continue Chloe’s story.