Following up from 2013’s critically mixed reception of Remember Me, Dontnod Entertainment developed the sleeper hit of 2015 and arguably one of the best story driven adventure games of this generation, Life is Strange. Although the sophomore hit uses an episodic structure similar to that of Telltale Games such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, Life is Strange was an original story that didn’t rely on the power of licensed properties, allowing it to establish its own world and characters without limitations. Its success was built off a combination of brilliant story telling that empowered player agency through irreversible narrative choices, pop culture references, a killer indie soundtrack and doing away with traditional adventure game point and click mechanics. With superb voice acting, story and characters that I resonated with, Dontnod’s Life is Strange made a case for beating Telltale at their own game.
When a sequel to one of your favourite games gets announced it’s hard to contain the excitement. Finding out that the sequel will feature a new location and cast of characters makes sense based on the outcomes of the first game but there is still a feeling of disappointment that you won’t revisit the same characters and world you have come to love and cherish. One month after that announcement, publisher Square Enix announced that a three-part episodic prequel to Life is Strange will also be released. So now not only do we get Life is Strange 2, but we also get Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Yes there was a storm in one, clearly). This sums up the emotional roller-coaster that Life is Strange hurls you through.
Cool Boarders alumni Deck Nine take the reins of development in one of 2 major changes for the series. The other is Rhianna DeVries taking on the voice acting role of returning protagonist, Chloe Price, due to original voice actress Ashley Burch being restricted by the current SAG-AFTRA video game voice actor strike. However, her restrictions did not stop her from attaching herself to the project as a writing consultant. Firstly, the game acts as a love letter to those that have played the previous instalment. If this is your first experience with the series I implore you to stop reading and play the first one before experiencing Before the Storm. Nothing will be ruined by playing this one first but so much will go unappreciated. The familiarity of Chloe’s house, the Junkyard or speaking with other characters who tease the type of people they go on to become.
Before the Storm takes place three years before the events of Life is Strange. This time you play as 16 year old Chloe who is dealing with the tragic loss of her father and her one and only friend Max (the first games playable protagonist) moving away from the fictional Arcadia Bay to Seattle. Chloe’s relationship is breaking down with her mother Joyce over her new boyfriend, and her drug use and class skipping is a glimpse into the rebellious Chloe we come to know. She’s just a damaged girl standing in front of the world, asking for someone to give a damn about her. Once again the game centres on exploration, interacting with objects and people and reading the constantly updating Journal, character bios and text messages in the options menu. The biggest change is the lack of supernatural powers. Max’s time travelling mechanic and resulting alternate universes have been replaced by Chloe’s backtalk challenge. Whilst I initially wasn’t a fan, it adds the much needed variety over simple dialogue trees and hasn’t seemed to be overused or overstay its welcome just yet. Arguing or manipulating a result through her quick witted replies and attitude also fits perfectly with her character.
The change in voice actress was noticeable and slightly off putting at the start but I got used to it as DeVries was able to nail Chloe’s cadence and vocal mannerisms. The younger softer voice makes sense as Chloe is vulnerable and still in the midst of finding her identity. I found myself making decisions based on my relationships or experiences with the characters I had in the future game, despite their current role. Being a bitch to a future bully or trying to massage and make things easier for Chloe now knowing some of the decisions you make in the original. This was the part of the game that truly impressed me and make me sit back and think. Are my actions creating that bully? Am I transforming characters into the roles they ultimately become in the original? Although that is impossible Deck Nine makes you feel that this complex time paradox exists.
Although the episode started slow and rehashed a lot from Life is Strange, it ended fantastically and left me wanting more. We finally get to learn more about seasons 1s mysterious missing girl Rachel Amber. Her relationship with Chloe is the cornerstone of Before the Storm and the reason to keep coming back. Unlike most irrelevant prequels Before the Storm seems to be answering the questions we all were asking. No one cares how Leatherface came to be, the origins of the Scorpion King or the exorcism that happened before the Exorcist. We do care about how Chloe became tortured and damaged and her relationship with Rachel Amber and how she ultimately met her mysterious fate.
For the trophy collectors out there it’s another straight forward easy and rewarding platinum. Max’s photograph “collectables” have been replaced by Chloe tagging objects with graffiti. Find all the optional graffiti spots for the platinum. The beauty of the trophy list is it compels you to explore and interact with everything, making sure you don’t miss anything and gives greater context to the story and the world of Arcadia Bay. One trophy was originally only attainable to people who had purchased the deluxe edition of the game which comes with an extra Max chapter. However this will be rectified by the time Episode 2 is released.
With signature storytelling, trademark montages, familiar gameplay, characters, locations and a great ending that leaves you wanting more, Before the Storm Episode 1 is a brilliant love letter to fans of the series. One scene in particular made my eyes water (damn allergies) and I’m intrigued to see how the story of Chloe and Rachel develops.
Review by Buddy Watson