Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC
Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
MSRP: $5.99 per episode, $16.99 for full season.
Most games invite players into a world that puts you in a position of power, where realism is thrown out of the window or you’re put in extraordinary circumstances. Call of Duty puts players into the shoes of an elite soldier capable of winning a war almost single-handedly, Grand Theft Auto allows you to live the life of a criminal mastermind without facing any real world repercussions, and superhero games like the Batman Arkham series make you the hero who can overcome any obstacle no matter how difficult it is.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm says “Screw that! We can make a compelling game that’s completely grounded in reality and could be happening right now without question.” Despite being a prequel to a game that has a supernatural element and has larger than life plot moments even though it has a “real” feel to it, Before the Storm is just a very normal human story with heart-wrenching drama and incredible writing.
This game could’ve been a very easy cash grab after the great success of Life is Strange in 2015 but it’s not. It takes a world and characters we know and care about and fleshes it out in an incredibly satisfying way. If you had told me this was made by Dontnod, I’d believe you because there’s almost no thematic disconnect between this and the original Life is Strange despite being developed and even voiced by completely different parties.
For those out of the loop, Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a prequel to the original game. Players take on the role of Chloe Price, a friend of the former protagonist, Max Caulfield, and an edgy, rebellious teenager native to Arcadia Bay. Chloe is alone and feels betrayed by her mother who is now dating a man named Frank despite Mr. Price only having died just a couple years prior. On top of that, Max has moved away from Arcadia Bay and has strayed away from Chloe due to the long distance.
Chloe has all this pent up anger inside of her and she doesn’t like to show it. She takes on a life of mischief, underage drinking, and alcohol, basically anything that can get her away from her troubled home life and in another state of mind. During one of her nights out, she goes to a concert and meets a girl named Rachel Amber, one of the most popular girls at her school, Blackwell Academy. Despite only exchanging a few words, their connection is electric and they have immense amounts of chemistry.
At the time of this review, only the first episode is available and it takes place over the course of about 24 hours or so. After the night of the concert, you wake up and get ready for school. As you explore the Price house, you realize how much this family is struggling to pay bills and maintain a close connection. They’re clearly a shell of what they once were due to the death of Mr. Price and while not the exact same circumstances, it hit me on a very personal level. Before the Storm manages to get under your skin and make you emotional without doing anything drastic. It doesn’t need to kill off a major character you spent hours investing yourself, it just has these incredible subtle touches throughout the game that can deeply impact the player without trying to force cliches. The writers know the “normal”, everyday things that can affect people and it uses that to its strength.
As Chloe’s day progresses, we see her go through so many highs and lows. I’m intentionally being vague as to not give any spoilers but Chloe goes from sad to happy to sad to angry and it successfully transfers those emotions into the player as well in a variety of ways. It might resonate with you in a way because it brings up personal experiences or simply because you hate to see Chloe struggle and understand her frustration.
There are also moments where the game makes you feel really responsible for your actions without having any huge consequences that impact the game’s overall story. One particular instance of this was when I happened to come across a large sum of money and I used it to buy weed. Not too long after, I noticed that Chloe’s mom was having a difficult time paying the bills and I had the chance to hide some money in her purse for her. Sadly, I had no money because I spent it on dope. This obviously doesn’t have any major effect on the plot since we know that they are still living in the same house in the original Life is Strange which takes place several years later but morally, I felt terrible. The game manages to make every single action have some sort of impactful consequence and even when it ends up making the player feel awful, that’s something that should be applauded.
From a gameplay perspective, Life is Strange: Before the Storm is pretty much the same as the original game minus the time travel element. That is replaced with an… interesting mechanic. During certain conversations, you may need to convince someone to let you in somewhere or do something for you or just to simply stop being cruel to you, so Chloe does what’s only natural for her. She hurls swears and insults at them via a verbal fight until she gets her way. You’re only given a few chances to successfully get under your opponent’s skin before you fail and you must attempt to use their own words against them in a way. It’s a really strange mechanic but it fits the character. It feels like they didn’t really have a “defining” mechanic for Before the Storm so they came up with this. Although it fits for Chloe, it does at times just feel a bit forced and unnatural.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm manages to capture the emotional heartache that the first game gave you and amplifies it to create a masterfully crafted story that is bursting at the seams with realistic human drama and remarkable characters. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait long for episode two and it can continue this tale of friendship, loss, and consequences in a satisfying way.