Help an unlikely friend confront her inner demons.
PC Release: August 31, 2017
By Ian Coppock
Ohhhhh boy, another Life is Strange game. Another one of those games that shatters hearts into a million pieces and squeezes every last drop of moisture out of the ole tear ducts. The main reason this review has been put off for so long is that the last Life is Strange: Before the Storm episode released only last month. That said, it’s also intimidating to revisit a series that puts players on such vicious emotional roller-coasters. Nevertheless, it’s time to get started.
Set three years before the events of Life is Strange, Before the Storm is, like its predecessor, an episodic adventure game that runs on player choice and densely-branched dialogue trees. Before the Storm casts players as Chloe Price, the punk-rock deuteragonist of Life is Strange, in an all-new adventure in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. The game portrays a Chloe whose emotional wounds are rawer than they’ll eventually be in Life is Strange, and boy does that show in her character.
Before the Storm opens with Chloe struggling with the death of her father, whose passing in a car accident led her to bury her pain beneath tattoos, cigarettes, and perpetual rebellion against her mother. Friendless and deeply depressed, Chloe strikes up an unthinkable friendship with Rachel Amber, a vibrant young woman and the most popular student at the local Blackwell Academy.
Even though Chloe’s apathetic, cynical worldview couldn’t contrast more with Rachel’s optimistic self-confidence, the two teens bond over a shared fondness for breaking the law. If Life is Strange: Before the Storm is any indication, hopping trains and vandalizing park viewfinders are both tickets to an instant friendship. Rachel is drawn to Chloe’s fiery thirst for rebellion, while Chloe is in turn impressed that the most popular kid in school is a genuine, down-to-earth person.
Though the teens’ friendship starts off well, things take a turn when Rachel discovers a dark secret in her family and turns to Chloe for help sleuthing it out. Desperate to hold onto the only friend she’s made in years, Chloe agrees to help Rachel uncover yet another of Arcadia Bay’s many, many secrets. Who knew that picturesque northwest towns could be so damn depressing?
As in the original Life is Strange, players advance Before the Storm‘s narrative by talking to characters and making critical story decisions. Even something as seemingly inconsequential as being nice to Chloe’s mother can be very consequential later in the story. Before the Storm shares its predecessor’s knack for making those consequences hard to spot right way; players oftentimes won’t see their decisions fully shake out until an episode or two down the road.
The dialogue linking all of these choices together is as about as well-written as that of Life is Strange, which is quite an achievement considering that Before the Storm was made by another dev. That’s right; indie darling Deck Nine took on development duties while Life is Strange OG Dontnod Entertainment finishes up Vampyr and Life is Strange 2. Deck Nine was a fervent study of Life is Strange‘s dialogue, infusing its writing with witticisms and character development worthy of the original game.
While on the subject of writing… Chloe is f***ing hilarious. Make no mistake, Life is Strange: Before the Storm has plenty of dark moments, but Chloe’s minute-by-minute observations of her surroundings comprise some of adventure gaming’s funniest writing. Whether she’s swearing at a D&D boss or inferring the size of her stepfather’s penis from the type of car he drives, Chloe’s inner monologues are always worth listening to. Click all the clickable things to commence the belly laughs.
Just as Deck Nine does a great job bringing Chloe’s comedy to the forefront, the studio was also quick to display the character’s pain. Chloe has recurring nightmares about her father’s death and deeply resents eventual Life is Strange protagonist Max Caulfield for abandoning their friendship. Before the Storm finds other, more overt ways to push Chloe’s trauma to the front of the story, and these moments can be difficult to get through without shedding a tear. Before the Storm aptly juggles both facets of the character without overwhelming the player in emotional anguish.
Deck Nine also did well bringing Rachel Amber to life (no small task considering how much her reputation was built up in Life is Strange). Like Chloe, Rachel is a study in contrasts, concealing pain beneath a bold, bright-side persona. Even though the two characters have little in common on the surface, the chemistry between them grows believably as the game progresses. This makes Before the Storm one of those rare prequels that makes replaying the original game better, as players finally get to see the roots of Chloe and Rachel’s friendship firsthand.
Because Before the Storm is so heavily focused on Chloe and Rachel, the game’s other characters only get so much screen time. The title reintroduces a few familiar faces from the original game, including that big-hearted drug dealer and those insufferable brats in the Vortex Club. Before the Storm also brings in a few entirely new characters, like a pre-Max wallflower who unexpectedly stands up to jocks. These supporting characters benefit from decent writing and voice acting, but are otherwise relegated to the background of Before the Storm.
Before the Storm‘s minute-by-minute gameplay is similar to that of Life is Strange, with one tiny exception… unlike Max, Chloe can’t manipulate time. Before the Storm swaps Max’s rewind power out for Chloe’s own ability to insult people until they give her what she wants. No joke: the backtalk system challenges players to turn NPCs’ insults against them, something that Chloe is exceptionally skilled at (even for a teenage girl). Chloe engages in these verbal bouts only on occasion, but much of the game’s narrative hinges on their outcomes.
The backtalk system is an interesting way to give Chloe her own “power”, but it’s an easy system to use and abuse. All players have to do is select a phrase that has one or more of the same words as the phrase the NPC just uttered. That’s really about it. Even the minigame’s timer only does so much to make backtalk difficult. What’s more, these confrontations don’t get harder as the game progresses. Once Chloe’s talked her way past the bouncer at the Firewalk show, she can give guff to anyone she wants.
Deck Nine might be uneven when it comes to minigames, but the studio is an absolute pro at sharpening up visuals. Before the Storm‘s graphics are substantially better than Life is Strange‘s, with much sharper textures and better use of volumetric lighting. With the exception of Chloe’s walk animation, Before the Storm‘s character movements are also much less robotic than those of Life is Strange. Before the Storm‘s graphical overhaul brings Arcadia Bay to life in new and wonderful ways.
Before the Storm‘s sound design is also a re”sounding” (ba dum tsss) success. The game packs a soundtrack of light folk music that is both relaxing and somber. The characters’ voice acting is also excellent even though most of Life is Strange‘s main cast didn’t return for Before the Storm. Even Ashly Burch, Chloe’s original voice actress, couldn’t participate due to a voice actors’ strike and was replaced by Rhianna DeVries. Though she occasionally sounds more like Max than Chloe, DeVries closely studied Chloe’s mannerisms and Burch’s voice work to replicate the character’s mannerisms. She did a damn good job of it, too.
Finally, players can rest assured that Life is Strange: Before the Storm runs well on PC. The title is free of several of the bugs that plagued Life is Strange (including that conspicuous lip-sync error). The options menu isn’t too in-depth, but it does give players enough recourse to deal with any problems they may come across. While Before the Storm‘s graphics are substantially better than Life is Strange‘s, they’re not so much better that it won’t run on older machines.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Life is Strange games are emotional roller coasters. Before the Storm is no exception. Even though the title was made by a different studio and features a roster of different voice actors, the production is faithful to Life is Strange and sheds more light on Chloe, who is arguably the series’ most important character. The game seems a bit more afraid of letting players control the narrative than Life is Strange, but it still has plenty of its own deep choices. It certainly provokes laughter and tears as only a Life is Strange game can. That’s why everyone should play it.
You can buy Life is Strange: Before the Storm here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.