[Disclosure: A review copy was provided for the contents of this article]
The original Life is Strange certainly surprised a few people when it came out in 2015, offering a mix of unique time-bending mechanics, deep character development and an interesting, human story. The question facing Life is Strange: Before the Storm is therefore more about whether or not it can live up to the lofty expectations that has been set for it. Thankfully, it does a very good job, and as a prequel, it neither features previous main character Max, nor any of her special abilities. Instead, the game focuses on Max’s best friend Chloe, and her own unlikely relationship with the popular Rachel, who is only referred to during the original game.
Chloe has a well established and crowd pleasing persona as a hard-ass, independent young woman with a Devil-may-care attitude and a sharp tongue, but Before the Storm goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate why that may be the case. The game opens with Chloe sneaking into a secret midnight gig in an abandoned mill. The player has numerous options to test their own moral limits and align them to Chloe’s; will she tag an RV with graffiti art? Will she steal a T-Shirt from a rip-off artist? Will she steal his money to score some weed to enhance her evening?
Unlike the choices in most point and click adventures, even these small decisions feel surprisingly impactful, so you can only imagine what the material choices feel like. Another example is the mundane but real relationship between Chloe and her mother. As a struggling single parent, Joyce just wants what is best for Chloe, and despite her child sneaking out the night before and failing to return texts, she approaches the situation calmly, with the offer of a discussion over a truce of bacon and eggs. During some of these early scenes, I struggled to find the right response among those on offer because I couldn’t relate to Chloe’s behaviour, but as the episode continues, the reasons for her behaviour become more apparent.
Rachel acts as the anchor point for Chloe, offering dialogue that is both more rounded and more approachable. She is the popular girl at school, and because countless high-school movies have taught us that she must be intolerable, she immediately surprises us with her humanity. Following an initial snap decision that brings Chloe and Rachel together, their relationship develops rapidly, and the two embark upon a journey together that brings mixed and welcome emotions to the surface for both of them, although for different reasons.
In lacking a mechanic that actually affects the game world like Max’s did in the original, Before the Storm focuses even more on character development, communication and dialogue, and it is fitting that the unique feature is related to the way Chloe communicates. This system is called Backtalk, and it is basically a series of interlinked dialogue options not unlike a modern take on those in the original Monkey Island. Effectively, through reading the kind of responses that will be most effective, the player must manipulate, insult or otherwise cajole their way through various situations using this system. It is possible to fail these conversations entirely, and in doing so, you’ll need to either find another way forwards or simply lose access to the thing you might have been rewarded with. It’s not revolutionary, but it is a neat system and it feels right for Chloe’s story.
By the end, despite having seen almost nothing out of the ordinary, the first episode of Before the Storm will have taken you on an emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs like almost nothing else you’ll play. Rachel and Chloe are a perfect partnership, and depending on how you look at videogames, you will be able to treat their story as relatable catharsis or pure, role playing escapism. In any event, it is a promising start for a prequel that was always going to be placed directly under the microscope, and personally, I can’t wait to see what the next two episodes bring. You should: