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Life Is Strange: Before the Storm (Game Review)


Life is Strange: Before the Storm is an interactive story that lacks the unique selling point of the original Life is Strange (having the power to rewind time) and instead focuses on being a character piece for this instalment's protagonist in the same coming-of-age, indie theme. To make Before the Storm, original developer, Dontnod Entertainment gave the reigns over to Deck Nine.
Whilst the intention for this game's creation does shine like a golden nugget in a stream, it has its share of faults that act as murky waters, lessening the glimmer. Nevertheless, its emotional theme of finding hope in a self-viewed life of tragedy still succeeds to pull you in.


A prequel set three years before the original 2015 game, Life is Strange: Before the Storm tells the earlier years of Chloe Price, the rebel best friend of the previous protagonist, Max Caulfied. Set again in Arcadia Bay, it's been two years since the death of Chloe's dad and Max moving away. With the wounds of grief barely healing over; we journey with Chloe as she resists her world crashing down further than it already has, only finding solace in her new friend, Rachael Amber. This is all whilst she develops into the human embodiment of the middle finger we know her as.


The Price of no powers

Without Max Caulfield's time powers to use in helping you get from point A to point B, the alternative is that of a well-thought out utilisation of Chloe's character. Being an angst-fueled teenager, the tools available to you in Chloe's arsenal come down to her resourcefulness and love for talking back to unliked authority figures. That's literally the name of her unique gameplay ability: BackTalk. A Backtalk challenge is a time sensitive sequence where you have to choose the right responses to win an argument in order to either progress through the story or get the best outcome. Just like in real life. Great. It's a unique gameplay element that stands out which makes it a shame that it's not used nearly enough. Scenes often laced with cringey dialogue could have been remedied with more of what is the game's best feature, also allowing you to connect further with the character.



Emphasis on needing to interact with the environment to progress through the game is a double edged sword. Having to sometimes explore the whole of areas in search-and-retrieve objectives can get repetitive but is often rewarding when finding things that unlock extra branching dialogue options. Although, that can also be a hit and miss, as sometimes they don't have any interesting impact. Being able to talk to your mom about how she's hiding a photo of your dead dad from her boyfriend? Yes. Let's talk about that. Questioning mum over her audacity in cooking a pot roast? No, we don't need that.


Before the Storm excels in integrating Chloe's personality into the game's aesthetics, immersing you further into the theme of an indie-rock teen chick adventure. There's the little things like Chloe's diary, illustrated with quirky doodles and unsent letters to Max where she vents her frustrations towards feeling like her friend has abandoned her. Additionally, there's a Dress-Up where you can choose from a variety of outfits for Chloe to wear each episode, allowing you to choose a look which you think captures your take on what you want Chloe Price to be. Whilst not really a design aspect, the collectable opportunities for graffiti are also fun little bits of charm that offer normal, eccentric insights into her creative talent.


Most importantly, there's the music: a brilliant playlist of tracks, that fully drench you in the two different sides to Chloe: Fast-paced rock tracks such as "Are You Ready For Me" by Pretty Vicious is an illustration of Chloe's new take on rebellion that she uses as a getaway. Then there are tracks originally written for the game by Daughter; an English Indie folk band, that are slower and soulful, capturing the delicate vulnerability Chloe still harbours even though she does her best to put a wall around it.


Selling Chloe

Talking about vulnerability is a good segue into what's actually more likeable about this version of Chloe Price: the opportunity to not be a dick. In the original Life Is Strange; love and hate for Chloe is split 50-50: whilst her fiery spirit can be lovable despite what she's been through, it's also easy to be critical of her: saying her difficult experiences don't justify her being so obnoxious, rude and rash to those around her, especially her widowed mother.


Before the Storm achieves two feats for Chloe as a character. One is showcasing her softer side, giving you as a player the opportunities to show empathy and kindness that's still flavoured in her sense of humour so it doesn't seem out of character. Secondly, there's the justification for her brash personality by delving deeper into her biggest issues. Before the Storm submerges you into Chloe's psyche, presenting the full scale of both the psychological damage her grief's left her with and being constantly having to fight back against the prejudice continuously thrown at her, shown as a chain reaction that was initially out of her control. The fact she's also only a teenager dealing with all of this makes you understand why Chloe acts the way she does, followed by actually encouraging you to support it.
Unlikability can still be an issue for Chloe. Even though getting to make her show understanding and empathy to mother Joyce is a nice change, being followed with unavoidable moments of unjustified rudeness and pushing her away in the next scene is a noticeable conflict of writing depending on your choices.



Rachel

For the character surrounded by mystery in the original Life is Strange, Chloe's relationship with Rachel is the strongest of winds blowing in Before the Storm. Despite becoming incredibly close friends literally over the course of a day, it's not that big of an issue given that's a common thing with emotional teenagers.


If there's a singular reason to play this game, it's the relationship between these two friends and the showing of what it means to each of them. Rachel has her own arc of drama alongside Chloe's that becomes equally if not more significant to Chloe's overall story in the series. When it feels like their individual lives are falling apart, each falls back into the other as an escape, further justifying the quick escalation of their friendship. This peaks in episode 2, the best of this 3-episode game, where their chemistry is at it's sweetest, most charming and is a demonstration of what a good friend (or more) can mean when you're going through a tough time in your life.
Before the Storm does a wonderful job in pitching its story to the player but regrettably stumbles in the  final swings. In episode 3, certain elements of the plot are rushed over in order to get the ball rolling towards the finale, feeling uneven and leaving you with several moments of "wait, how did we get here?". Choices you make between several plot lines only seem to fully matter in terms of one of the minor story elements. Being a prequel, the game also suffers due to the story it's meant to precede. Going with the nice-Chloe style of decision-making ends parts of her story that create confusion towards the state of how things are in the original Life is Strange.


The closing of Rachel's story especially feels clunky. Whilst Before the Storm is at its best when focusing on hers and Chloe's friendship, contributing to the character development of the latter, the bulk of episode 3 is honed on deciding a monumental aspect of Rachel's life. Given how her story eventually ends, part of the journey as a whole almost seems pointless, no matter how well events are able to draw you in whilst they're happening onscreen. Seeing different endings for the game, I found that there's a secret ending which is the one that actually makes Chloe and Rachel's story together feel fully worthwhile. After learning that the only way to earn this ending is by sacrificing a key moment of character development for Chloe, I felt both conflicted and cheated in a way, being deprived of the opportunity to give the conclusions of Chloe's and Rachel's stories that much more meaningful weight.


Final Thoughts

Missteps are common throughout Before the Storm but Deck Nine's love and passion for the Life Is Strange series still remains clear throughout. If being an entrance into the series, Before the Storm is a memorable gateway to this franchise's episodic, indie-drama storytelling: powerfully delving into coping with grief, prejudice, family drama and how love and friendship can make all of that at least slightly more bearable. It's easy to imagine this game being a decent three-part drama that would stand well on it's own. Returning fans of the original Life Is Strange will be frustrated with the uneven narrative connections between the two games if your choices go a certain way. Nevertheless, it's impossible to not be delighted with the added context of what Rachael meant to Chloe, giving the events of the original game's story twice as much impact.


7/10

 
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