When Life is Strange: Before the Storm was announced, I was skeptical. Not for a dislike of the series, mind you. Life is Strange was actually one of my favorite games of 2015. I think it did things for the TellTale-style cinematic adventure game that desperately needed to be done. No, my issue was that, for the life of me, I couldn’t see why a prequel was a necessary thing. As much as Chloe Price’s friendship with Rachel Amber, and that friends subsequent disappearance, were a huge part of Life is Strange’s story, I couldn’t see what a whole prequel story about their friendship would do for what we already had. Life is Strange felt like a complete package.
But now we have the first of three episodes, and I can color myself both presently surprised and pretty intrigued. Before the Storm’s first episode is not only worth playing; it makes Chloe just as interesting a protagonist as Max Caufield ever was. Maybe moreso.
So, here’s where we’re at in time. Chloe is 16, her hair not yet blue, her dad already several years dead. Her military veteran stepdad is not yet her stepdad, but he is in the picture. There enough so, in fact, that Chloe has a couple moments of alarm at the signs that he may be moving in, and becoming a more permanent part of her life. Chloe is still a student at Blackwell. When we first see her, she’s not at school, though (and apparently seldom is). She’s at a barn in the woods, trying to get in to see the band “Firewalk” perform. Yes, the band name continues the Twin Peaks reference chain started in the first episode of Life is Strange. Inside, in the middle of an altercation, she discovers Rachel Amber. And things, in earnest, commence.
There are some stumbling points here, to be sure. Although never as bad as the infamous bottle collecting in the original Life is Strange’s’s second episode, there comes a point early-ish on into the game where a lot of time is spent looking for a couple objects in Chloe’s room. It didn’t take me long to get worried that the thing was going to be more filler than substance. Luckily, that’s not the case. Neither in story, nor in gameplay. Any worries are quickly made up for.
Chloe obviously lacks the time travel abilities Max received in Life is Strange, but developer Deck Nine wasn’t about to take their own shot at the Blackwell-verse without adding some kind of twist of their own. It naturally follows that Chloe’s abilities are a bit more blunt than Max’s. During conversations with characters, there are several points in Before the Storm where Chloe has the option to enter a proper argument, as Chloes are one to do. The first is with a bouncer outside the “Firewalk” concert. Here, the player has to choose the correct responses to gain traction in the altercation. This comes in the form of context clues in what the other person says. Sometimes you can turn a word or phrase against the other person from right out of their mouth. Other times, it’s a bit more subtle. Maybe something a character says connects back to something tangentially related, but close enough that Chloe can use it to push her point home.
These segments are a ton of fun. Episode 1 houses several, and they all require a good amount of wit and reason to succeed at. They don’t break the story flow, either. If you fail, things move on; just with a different outcome. Not only did the new development team create a new system to make Before the Storm feel fresh; they did so with one that feels uniquely Chloe.
Speaking of feeling ‘uniquely Chloe,’ the character herself has certainly gotten something of a new light cast on her in Before the Storm. Voice actor Ashly Burch does not reprise her role as the teen rebel, due to conflictions related to her involvement in SAG. Instead, actress Rhianna DeVries takes on the role, and, well…she’s okay. She takes on Chloe’s inflection and tone, and creates a slightly younger and less assertive version of it pretty well. But for anyone who played through the original Life is Strange, the change will be pretty inevitably jarring. Her actual dialogue is good, though. I actually found a lot of pleasant surprises in her internal commentary and the way she talks to people. Chloe is both the same and different from how she was back in Life is Strange.
Now, here’s something I’m including in this review not as a point of critique so much as a personal observation. There was some Chloe dialogue back in Life is Strange that I always took as written the way it was because it was directed at Max. Ever talk to someone at a concert who is way, way more into the music and culture around it than you are? You might notice them talk to you in a way that’s different than they would talk to a fellow dedicated fan; especially if they want to get you deeper into that world. That’s how I felt Chloe was written at times in Life is Strange. It’s a bit uncanny, then, to hear some of those same ways of talking be directed at other characters and situations in Before the Storm. I’m not trying to call it a flaw in the writing. More that it caused me to rethink some of my assumptions and perceptions about Chloe as a character.
What I really dig the most about this first episode is the extent to which we get to see Chloe as a full part of her world. In Life is Strange, that world consisted of Max, Chloe’s mom and stepdad, and a few other vague ideas. We know that she smokes pot, and we know thats he likes loud music. Before the Storm is really refreshing, in that we get to see her as a flunking-out student of Blackwell Academy. I forgot she had ever even been a student there, honestly. We see her in moments of pause and respite, and in moments of introspection. I got more out of her in the first episode of Before the Storm than I ever did from Max in the first episode of Life is Strange. You have the option to participate in a chunk of a friend’s D&D campaign, can tag random objects in the world with graffiti, and can load a whole lot of your observations away for use in conversation later. Chloe works as a lone protagonist, where I had feared she wouldn’t on her own.
And it almost always works, too. There’s some really stumbley dialogue with her mom, and the actual starting arc of her friendship with Rachel Amber has points that feel a bit forced. At first, it seemed like Rachel Amber had been introduced as some sort of manic pixie dream girl, here to whisk Chloe into a whole new world without having any real problems of her own. By episode’s end, though, that’s not the case. By episode’s end, too, I was completely on board for whatever comes next.
Opening act of an opening act
Before the Storm caused me to do a complete 180. I came curious, but unconvinced that this was a game that needed to exist. I depart episode 1 excited for more. It’s a bit of a slow start. Once it finds its footing, Life is Strange: Before the Storm sets up a hopefully wild ride to come. If it manages to follow through on this first act’s promises, Before the Storm has every chance of becoming just as great an adventure as Life is Strange was at its best.
Final verdict: 4/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Square Enix ; Developer: Deck Nine ; Players: 1 ; Released: August 31, 2017 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $16.99 (full season), $24.82 (deluxe edition), $4.99 (single episode)
Full disclosure: this review is based on a full retail download for Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Deluxe Edition purchased by Hey Poor Player.