When it was first announced that there would be a prequel to Life is Strange, I was skeptical. I loved the first game, but as curious as I was to learn more about Chloe’s relationship with Rachel Amber, Life is Strange had already told a perfectly self-contained story to completion – one which didn’t warrant any further expansion. I’ve often felt there’s an unfortunate tendency to turn creative properties into soulless franchises and/or churn out unnecessary additional installments purely to cash in; sure, video game sequels don’t quite carry the same stigma as film sequels (more often than not, video games will use the opportunity to refine the previous work), but from a creative standpoint, interactive story games like Life is Strange generally have a lot more in common with film or television than they do their technical medium.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm never quite feels like something that absolutely had to be made, but it still manages to justify its existence from the get-go. If anything, this game is to Life is Strange what Better Call Saul is to Breaking Bad – it’s a separate story that builds on the audience’s understanding of, and familiarity with, the original work, and ultimately compliments it. Consuming the original product isn’t absolutely necessary to one’s comprehension of the story, though it does add an extra layer of depth, and colours many of the characters and events in a different light accordingly. It’s respectful to the original story and doesn’t try to retcon or recontextualise anything, and is different enough in tone and execution to not just feel like a pointless retreading.
Before the Storm may have two key differences to its predecessor – the lack of a time travel mechanic and a lead character whose temperament and behaviour differs significantly from the previous lead – but it is still very much a Life is Strange game. Meaning, if you didn’t like the original game, you’re not going to care for this one. Life is Strange has always been somewhat divisive, and while it was never going to be for everyone, a big part of this is that its flaws are more obvious to new players and casual observers than its strengths – the dialogue can often be cringe-worthy (especially in its early episodes), the actual gameplay itself leaves a lot to be desired, and as always, there are the standard criticisms of interactive story games and the extent to which the choices even matter. These issues all still apply to Before the Storm.
Thankfully, while this game shares the same flaws as its predecessor, it also shares the same strengths. The characters are all well fleshed-out and possess genuine dimension, the universe feels fully realised and lived-in, and the game packs a serious emotional punch. Life is Strange again manages to blend its unique brand of character drama with gleefully indulgent soapy elements and serious real-world social issues to create another unique and engaging experience for its player. The removal of science fiction elements from this equation hasn’t cost the series any of its essence, and the experience definitely warrant having a box of tissues on-hand. In fact, if we’re judging Before the Storm’s success solely by how it makes the player feel (which isn’t an entirely unreasonable metric for this series), then it is every bit as effective as the original title.
For me, I’ve always found Life is Strange’s greatst strength to be the intimacy it builds between the player and the characters – and the depth and nuance it provides them. There’s an internal logic driving all of the residents of Arcadia Bay, and informing their interactions and motivations. Characters like Nathan Prescott or Victoria Chase (both of whom return here) could have so easily been reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes, but instead, their personalities are intricately layered and informed by what we come to learn of them as the story unfolds. Very few characters in the Life is Strange universe can be described as purely good or bad – its antagonists have redeeming qualities too and are all the product of their environment, just as its strongest protagonists are equally flawed and vulnerable at heart. To that end, the series hasn’t dropped the ball at all when it comes to its character work, and the new additions to Arcadia Bay here (namely the Ambers) are among the most complex characters in the series to date.
Switching to Chloe as the protagonist does see the game dabbling in a few new mechanics. For instance, Max’s time travel antics are replaced by a “backtalk” feature, and while this does provide some amusement, it leaves a lot to be desired (which I think the developers realised, given how sparsely it’s utilised in the last two installments). The real change lies more in the natural differences between Chloe and Max (who is mentioned a few times here but only seen in pictures, though the deluxe edition will be bringing Max back in a “bonus” episode set to be released in early 2018) – those familiar with the character of Chloe will likely allow their knowledge of her personality to inform their choices. I’ve never been one to play through these games repeatedly in order to experience every possible outcome, which I think plays a big part in why I’m not particularly bothered by the extent to how much the choices actually matter – I like the fact that most other players will be largely experiencing the same overarching plot of myself, and it’s simply the minor specifics that differ – though I understand the issues other have with this format. Despite the aforementioned differences, Before the Storm is largely “more of the same,” and I mean that in a good way.
A lot of fans took umbrage at the final decision posed in the original Life is Strange, though I felt it was exactly what the story needed; in a way, the entire game had been about Max trying to achieve both of the outcomes posed at the end, so having to finally pick one or the other made perfect sense from a narrative perspective. Having said that, only one of the two endings really felt like a satisfying conclusion to the story at hand (and many of the sub-plots admittedly amounted to very little), so I can’t say the criticisms are invalid. Thankfully, Before the Storm takes a very different approach to its final decision; it’s a genuinely difficult choice to make, with both options carrying an equal amount of weight AND serving as equally appropriate conclusions in their own right.
Overall, Life is Strange: Before the Storm hits many of the same notes as the original Life is Stange. The series continues its approach of immersing the character in the full teenage girl experience, delivering its angsty teen melodrama with the same amount weight as its more serious and heavy subject matter to excellent effect. The cutscenes once again look and feel like a (very cinematic) indie movie, and the game is scored to a fantastic original post-rock-influenced soundtrack by Daughter (and features a bunch of great cuts from several other indie bands). Whether or not the game will be “your thing” is very much a matter of personal opinion, though as a huge fan of the original, this game was ultimately a satisfying experience for me. I never expected to return to Arcadia Bay for a new adventure, much less do so without feeling disappointed, but I dare say that this tragic story about a doomed relationship stands equally as tall as its original science fiction coming-of-age counterpart, even if it never winds up feeling as essential.
GAME GRADE: A-