LIFE IS STRANGE was an affecting experience in no small part due to its indelible story. A teenager who gains the ability to travel backwards in time, only to be confronted with the brutal realization that she must let go of the past, resonated with a generation of millennials who’ve experienced unprecedented sensations of nostalgia from growing up in such a rapidly changing era. While the innovative rewind mechanic and entrancing aesthetics could sell the game on their own, it was the melancholy themes of moving on from loss that made it an instant classic.
That’s why, when it was announced that newly-formed studio Deck Nine Games was putting together a prequel miniseries starring Max Caulfield’s partner-in-time Chloe Price and her relationship with the enigmatic Rachel Amber, I had my concerns. After all, how can one let go of the past if it’s being milked for all its worth? Once the initial ecstasy from the E3 reveal subsided, I found myself frantically praying that LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM wouldn’t take a page from ROGUE ONE’s playbook, exploiting a beloved property to tell a story that nobody needed to hear.
Like that Star Wars spinoff, BEFORE THE STORM’s premise hangs on a foregone conclusion. Set three years before Max’s return to her hometown of Arcadia Bay in LIFE IS STRANGE, the story shows how Chloe and Rachel meet, bond, and grow into a force of nature. The original game, on the other hand, introduced Rachel through her mugshot on the dozens of missing persons posters plastered around town, while Chloe’s first appearance saw her shot to death in a high school restroom. Even with Max’s ability to rewind time, it’s only cloudy skies from there on out. No matter which route you take or which events you undo, a “happy” ending just isn’t in the cards for these girls.
On the bright side, the traffic isn’t too bad in Oregon
Surprisingly, even without Max or her ability to manipulate time, BEFORE THE STORM successfully captures the first game’s mix of harsh reality and hopeful escapism. Chloe is 16 and still unable to move past her dad’s death in a car crash several years ago. Rachel, meanwhile, is just discovering that her own beloved father is not the man he says he is. The two meet one fateful night, and over the following weekend hatch a plan to run away from the town where they lost their parents.
Compared to LIFE IS STRANGE, BEFORE THE STORM is lowest concept. There are no deranged killers, apocalyptic cyclones, or existential quandaries to hurdle over. A criminal subplot rears its head halfway through, but mainly as a vehicle to accelerate the story, not distract from it. This time around, the consequences of your actions will ruin lives, not end them, and that’s what makes this entry so engrossing despite the abridged runtime. The stakes are far more relatable than ever, and they feel more dire as a result.
In place of an involved central investigation, the player is able to more thoroughly interact with the various denizens of Arcadia Bay. Neither a wallflower nor an outsider, Chloe finds the townsfolk more willing to talk to her than Max, though her reputation as a rebel conversely leads to some negative preconceptions on their part. There’s a smattering of side activities Chloe can get involved in, from playing tabletop RPGs to acting in the drama club’s production of THE TEMPEST. These interactions offer more nuanced takes on your peers than in the original, which mainly relied on repeating bog-standard conversations for different effects. BEFORE THE STORM’s supporting cast feels far more human than their predecessors, many of whom were more caricature than character. Uncomfortably evading an obsessive ex, influencing the musical career of a burnout security guard, and even protecting eventual school-shooter Nathan Prescott from his abusers could all have been games in their own right. It’s a shame that the need to wrap everything up by episode three causes some of these arcs to resolve offscreen, because I really wouldn’t have minded spending another five-to-six hours with these folks.
All the world may be a stage, but this game only supports one player
Grounded drama is all too rare in video games, so it’s refreshing to see BEFORE THE STORM feature a plot that is (mostly) devoid of the fantastic. My main criticism of NIGHT IN THE WOODS was the superfluous murder mystery that cropped up halfway through the game. It was contrived, said nothing of main character Mae or her relationships, and made it seem as if the developers felt like the day-to-day interactions with her friends and family weren’t strong enough to hold the player’s attention on their own. BEFORE THE STORM’s confidence in its cast is inspiring, and will hopefully motivate more games to tackle mature subjects without sacrificing what makes the interactive format so appealing.
The problem with the realistic approach is that added mechanics greatly elevate the artistic and entertaining qualities of a game, and these usually require larger-than-life justifications. Max’s rewind power not only created interesting wrinkles in the narrative, but also served as a fun toy that deftly played into the replayable nature of branching adventure titles. Instead of superpowers, Chloe’s “gamey” mechanic in BEFORE THE STORM is the Backtalk Challenge. Using timed responses and a tug-of-war style scorecard, Chloe can fast-talk figures of authority into letting her get what she wants. Backtalk is the perfect match for Chloe’s character, but is nowhere near as intriguing or integral to gameplay as rewinding. Additionally, these challenges wane in regularity as the game progresses, making them come across as even more of an afterthought.
Sharp tongue, meet sharp blade
If this makes BEFORE THE STORM sound shallow, rest assured that it is anything but. Yes, there’s a lot less “game” this time, and there are very few decisions Chloe can make that will drastically alter the narrative, but the sheer volume of smaller choices is something truly special for the medium. BEFORE THE STORM isn’t so much concerned with what happens as it is with how it happens. For instance, depending on Chloe’s interactions up to that point, a scene may or may not present her with the option to kiss a character. More than that, however, it will determine the nature in which that kiss turns out. If Chloe has been acting fairly aloof, her request to smooch will be met with surprise, and tendered awkwardly. A more flirtatious or sensitive Chloe, however, won’t even have to say a word to initiate a passionate makeout sesh.
Another standout example early on involves a game of Two Truths and a Lie. Whether each of Chloe’s responses is a truth or a lie is up to the player, so while you can play the game as intended, there are also plenty of ways to cheat, and the combination you decide to go with will dramatically alter your partner’s perception of Chloe. Baring your soul and revealing three truths will earn you understanding and respect, while attempting trickery with two lies and a truth will make you appear untrustworthy. It’s a simple sequence on paper, but in practice it’s among the most intricate in video game dialogue sequences.
Something something three strikes and you’re out
Okay, so BEFORE THE STORM is the furthest thing from a cynical cash grab, but how does it hold up as a supplement to its predecessor? For as earnest and true to format as it is, LIFE IS STRANGE fans might be surprised how little fanservice BEFORE THE STORM offers. The game ends three years before the events of the original, with no obvious tie-in; this was clearly designed as a standalone adventure that informs Chloe’s behavior around Max, not as a grand reveal of everything that happened in town prior to her return. There are plenty of familiar faces and places, cameos and callouts, but they are all naturally implemented in a way that won’t appear jarring to anyone unfamiliar with them. (I would be remiss to not mention one glaring exception to this in the epilogue, which somewhat confuses the tone set in the finale, but to say more would risk serious spoilers.)
In fact, it’s LIFE IS STRANGE veterans that’ll probably feel the most bewildered. The combination of Jonathan Morali’s score, with his licensed tracks under Syd Matters, have been traded out for a largely original soundtrack by British band Daughter. The new music works with the setting, but is notably edgier to match Chloe’s prickly demeanor. Furthermore, the SAG-AFTRA voice actor strike ended in favorable terms for the union earlier this year, but not before recording sessions for BEFORE THE STORM had commenced. The result is that almost every returning character was recast, most notably Chloe herself. With a few minor exceptions, these newcomers knock it out of the park, but it will still take a while for fans of the original to get used to them.
LIFE IS STRANGE will always be remembered as a more significant title for no other reason than it aimed higher, shot first, and hit bullseye. BEFORE THE STORM knows its place as a companion piece, and it plays that role accordingly. That being said, the love and care that went into making sure the game lived up to its namesake is instantly apparent, and the thought of what could have been had it been commissioned as a full series is enough to give me goosebumps. For 12 hours, I felt once more what it was like to lose myself in the world of Arcadia Bay. Absorbing and powerful, BEFORE THE STORM lives up to the pedigree set before it, and even exceeds it in some areas. Whether this is your first time meeting Chloe Price or a fond reunion, the trip is worth your time.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4