HEADS UP! Spoilers surrounding the core Life is Strange series ahead. I will NOT spoil any major plot points about Before the Storm but the original LiS series is fair game, so if you’ve yet to play it, be warned!
Until our very own Chris nonchalantly reminded me that Before the Storm was out, I didn’t realise how hungry I was for another trip to Arcadia Bay, this time through the perspective of moody rebel Chloe Price, set three years before Max’s time-traveling adventure through the perils of teenage life and rapist photography tutors. It’s worth noting, for the purposes of my review, that I loathed Chloe as a character on my first few playthroughs of Life is Strange, finding her obnoxious, impulsive, irrationally confident and massively self involved (funnily enough all the character traits I hate about myself but that’s a rabbit hole for another day). Without the funky time-travel mechanic, is Life is Strange’s warm bundle of teenage nostalgia and autumnal colours enough to stand up by itself?
Yes. Yes it does. DONTNOD have passed the baton over to Deck Nine, and they’ve sprinted into the horizon with it. Arcadia Bay is just as warm and inviting as it was the first time around, and the undertones of tragedy and mystery equally present. Without the supernatural element of Max’s time travelling powers, what we’re left is in an incredibly raw and human tale of loss and the mundanities of day-to-day life. It leans into some of the things that made people groan and cringe (the liberal use of the world hella is almost instantly acknowledged) and in doing so turns them into a wonderful shared joke. Exploring the world is just as much of a joy as it was in Life is Strange, packed with nuanced interactions, kitchsy references and clever, funny dialogue. You can spend a good few minutes playing a tabletop RPG with a couple of classmates outside of Blackwell and for an entirely optional section it’s completely fleshed out. I’m fairly sure I missed a few of those additional moments in my haste to progress the story and that boggles my mind – the tabletop section was so well-rounded that I can’t imagine the game without it.
There are a handful of familiar faces, three years earlier on in their respective timelines, but the real focus is Chloe’s relationship with Rachel Amber, the girl who’s almost become a mythical figure at the beginning of the first game. Rachel is bewitching, confident and a giant mess all at once (much like Chloe three years later) her almost supernatural charisma backed up by animation that has come on leaps and bounds since the mismatched lip-syncing that sometimes ruined the dialogue last time. She lives up to the legend, and seeing Chloe interact with her shines so much light on all of her issues and fears in the main series. Technically, the game has improved so much, whilst maintaining all the things that made it unique and so treasurable. Without the option to rewind time, all of the decisions require much more thought, and those emotional gut-punches are untempered by the niggling doubt that things might have gone better had you made the other choice.
The saddest thing about Before the Storm is how apparent it becomes, that for the entire time we know her, Chloe is haunted. First by the death of her father; and then by the absence of her best friend Max. And then when Max returns, Chloe is torn apart by the loss of Rachel. It really throws a lot of stuff into perspective. In a strange way, Chloe is in exactly the same position in both games – filling the void left by one person with another. Certainly from my perspective, it was always hard to tell if Chloe really cared about Max as much as she thought she did or if she was just wracked by loss and terrified of being alone, but after seeing a bit more of the picture, it becomes blindingly clear which way around it was. You can read letters Chloe has written and never sent to Max, full of anger at their distance, and scroll through her phone to see texts becoming less and less frequent as Max’s painful shyness makes contact harder by the day. Even the little details like timestamps on messages betray a ton of unspoken things, and as much as I’d like to ramble on about them, it’s really better for you to experience them first-hand.
The conversations are superbly written, heavy with teenage sarcasm and glib references, and in place of time travel there’s a sort of dialogue boss battle. It’s like an extremely simplified version of Deus Ex’s debate system married to Monkey Island’s verbal swordfighting, relying on you scoring points against your opponent by listening to their argument and making snappy retorts based on what they’ve said. It’s cool, and does result in some funny moments, but can feel a little forced. The confrontations are also stunningly easy – whether or not they’ll increase the intensity down the line remains to be seen.
Making that decision at the end of the first game was easy for me. Chloe or the town? At that point it had been made obvious that all the natural disasters were caused by Max’s repeated attempts to save Chloe’s life, and to be honest, Chloe seemed like a bit of a bitch. When the ending finally played and we saw life in Arcadia Bay return to normal it just seemed way more genuine than the alternate ending – Max and Chloe driving off into the sunset with little thought about the countless ruined buildings and dead people they drove past. Now I’m not so sure about it. Even after a single episode spent in her shoes, I see things differently. All of Chloe’s angst and misplaced rage is suddenly all my teenage angst and misplaced rage. A replay of Life is Strange is looming over me, and I think this time, when it asks me to choose, I’ll let Arcadia Bay die to give Chloe what she’s wanted all along – a happy ending.
Before the Storm is definitely not just more of the same. Some of the same characters, and the same atmosphere and chilled vibes that were so well established, but this should not be corralled into “prequel/spin-off” territory. It is so much more – the beginning of a brilliant expansion into a well-loved world. If Episode 2 debuted next week, it’d still be a hella long wait.