For those that haven’t played Dontnod Entertainment’s original Life Is Strange, I highly recommend giving it a go. It’s one of my favourite episodic games out there (one of the few that has managed to truly evoked an emotional response from me at times) and a breath of fresh air to a genre that is more or less dominated by Telltale Games.
Releasing in 2015, Life Is Strange told the story of teenager Maxine ‘Max’ Caulfield’s return to her home town of Arcadia Bay, and the adventures she has with her estranged childhood friend Chloe Price, as the two girls work together to investigate the recent disappearance of Chloe’s friend Rachel Amber. It was a beautiful melancholy tale of innocence, friendship, young love, high school drama and, despite the original story being completely self-contained, fans have been begging to return to the world ever since.
So much so, that Dontnod are currently working on a sequel to the title, but it is Deck Nine Games (best known for their 2007 ragdoll physics-based game Pain) that have begun to delve deeper into the story of Chloe Price and what happened in the years before Life Is Strange with the release of the first episode of Life Is Strange: Before the Storm.
Set in 2010, three years prior to the original, players are placed in the shoes of a 16 year old Chloe Price, at the lowest point in her life so far. Two years ago, her father was killed in a car crash. Her mother, Joyce, has found herself a new man in the form of ex-army ‘Step-douche’ David, and her best friend in the whole world has jettisoned off to Seattle. Whilst in the original game it was Rachel Amber’s absence which loomed over Max and Chloe’s story, it is Max’s absence that is now occupying Chloe’s mind as the two friends have fallen out of touch, leaving Chloe feeling lost and abandoned.
Chloe is the victim of circumstance, everyone around her is moving on with their lives in ways that have completely cut her off emotionally. She’s totally alone, and those that do care for her are trying to show it in ways she refuses to see. Joyce wants her home before curfew, her teachers want her to attend class, but that’s never been Chloe’s style. Unlike Max, who was a bit of a blank slate, Chloe is a big personality. Her approach to everything is two middle fingers and a ‘Fuck you very much!’, which gets her into a lot of situations that we just wouldn’t have experienced if we were still playing as Max.
The game opens with Chloe standing on the tracks, smoking weed, and playing chicken with the train heading her way. We then make our way to an old mill on the outskirts of town, where a rock band are playing a secret gig, and Chloe has to verbally berate the bouncer until he lets her in. It’s in this task where we are introduced to the new game mechanic as, unlike Max, Chloe cannot rewind time, she must be more creative with her solutions to problems and, given Chloe’s head-on approach to everything, that creativity often takes the form of an argument. Here Chloe has to listen to everything her ‘opponent’ says, and then provide a relevant comeback. It’s not especially complicated, nor is it as fun as rewinding time, but it is in keeping with her persona.
Building a mechanic around an element of Chloe’s character we’re already well acquainted with is a great idea, and the addition of a countdown timer with which to respond helps to make your putdowns feel off-the-cuff and a lot more organic. My only criticism of this mechanic is that, if you pick the ‘wrong’ option, the arguments tend to fly all over the place tonally, being confrontational one moment and then making great effort to be understanding the next, preventing the conversation from flowing naturally. This issue is most notable with Joyce and David. Largely I suspect, as no matter what you say, they still have to come out of the conversation being a bit ticked off with you, otherwise the relationships in the original game would make no sense.
Once again we’re faced with a series of unmissable moral choices that may or may not massively impact the future of the game. Many of these choices worked well and I felt genuinely unsure about which approach to take. And it is in this unsureness where, much like its predecessor, Before The Storm really shines. It keeps Chloe from being just another punk rock stereotype, it gives her a very human, very teenage depth.
Unfortunately these choices are sometime warped by our knowledge of the future events that will play out three years from now. An early encounter gives Chloe the option of protecting Nathan Prescott from being bullied in the school yard. The game feels as if it is pushing you towards protecting Nathan, but anyone that has played Life Is Strange knows that Nathan Prescott is one of the worst people in the whole of Arcadia Bay. Why should we defend him, when we know what he turns into? Even if Life is Strange: Before The Storm presents Nathan as a normal kid, and over the course of the game plans to show his transition into douche-baggery (which I really hope it does, there is a lot of potential and growth in this character), he still ultimately has to turn into the arrogant brat he is in the original game, which makes trying to help him a waste of everyone’s time.
Moments like this are, of course, to be expected. Making a prequel is always a difficult task. Everyone already knows how it ends, and so the challenge is to tell a meaningful story, which the audience can really invest in on an emotional level. Before The Storm looks set to accomplish this through Chloe’s budding ‘friendship’ with Rachel Amber. Having known her as such as integral yet absent character in the previous title, it initially feels a little odd actually being able to interact with her, though it became far less of an issue as the game progressed and I began wanting to learn more and more about Rachel.
She’s a truly interesting character, unlike Chloe who rarely holds back what she’s thinking (to the point of becoming a bit predictable at times). Rachel is a secretive, difficult to read individual, who seems to be harbouring several potentially dark secrets that will no doubt come to light in later episodes. Though I can’t help but feel that their relationship grows at an alarmingly unnatural pace (by the end of episode 1 the two girls are practically inseparable despite having only spoke for the first time that very morning). Which brings me to my biggest concern for Before the Storm….
The pacing. Life Is Strange told the tale of two girls rekindling their already established friendship over 5 episodes. Before the Storm is trying to tell the story of two strangers becoming friends and potentially something more in just 3 episodes. My concern is not only that Deck Nine Entertainment will struggle to develop a relationship between these characters that feels real in that time, but also that 3 episodes just won’t be long enough to satiate fans of the franchise. Whilst I have loved every extra second exploring Arcadia Bay that episode 1 has given me, I am also a little heartbroken by the fact I only have 2 more episodes left.
Before the Storm gets off to a rocky start, and I have many of the same reservations I had with the original to begin with, but that ended up as one my favourite games ever. Some of the options may not always make sense with Chloe at the helm, but this is a minor issue in an otherwise solid episode. Before The Storm is a true spiritual successor to Life Is Strange, even down to all the faults of the original, the characterisation is still wonky, the relationships are just as awkward, but in a loveable, authentically, teenage way. Its honest, and geeky, and sweet, and I can’t wait to see what adventures lay ahead.
Feature image is a screen shot by the author taken during game play of Life Is Strange: Before The Storm Episode 1 ‘Awake’ developed by Deck Nine Entertainment, and published by Square Enix.