Review: Life is Strange: Before The Storm

As a prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm has a certain pedigree to live up to. As the second game to the Bafta Award-winning Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment, it eschews typical sequel tropes by being set prior to the first game, being developed by a different team altogether and, for better or worse, subbing out the main voice actor for someone else.

Life is Strange was critically acclaimed back in 2015, both for its storytelling as well as its music and game-play progression; and while Dontnod work on the true sequel Deck Nine’s Before the Storm could come out smelling a bit like a cash cow. That said, in a year full of great games, Life is Strange continues to excel and, at least in Australia, is the perfect answer to those summer time blues.

Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also Available On: PlayStation 4, PC
Release Date: Available Now

Trading the originals 5 episodes for 3 slightly longer chapters with the last one released just before Christmas makes it a strong contender for a Game of The Year nomination but just missing out. Before the Storm is developed by Deck Nine and published by Square Enix again and takes the story beats and tones from the first game and reinterprets them through the lens of a different character creating narrative parallels but ultimately coming into its own as a much more violent, angrier and moodier pieces over Dontnod’s art house experience.

Once again, Life is Strange has brought a thoughtful, moody, gentle and almost at times, relaxing point & click adventure game that is perfect for a slow weekend afternoon or holiday binge. The original Life is Strange followed Max Caulfield, as she returned to fictional Arcadia Bay in Oregon and dealt with her final year at school, her best friend who had dropped out years earlier and slowly as the story progressed the mystery of best friend Chloe’s mysterious ‘friend’ Rachel Amber. Over the course of 5 episodes it was the narrative themes though that brought the game to the fore. Themes of global warming, social media, anxiety, depression, suicide and repressed memories are all par for the course, culminating in Max’s gameplay mechanic to have seizures, manipulate time and ultimately rewind it at will.

If the first game was an allergy of The Butterfly Effect, then Before the Storm is akin to American Beauty, with contemporary themes of Drug abuse, homosexuality, role playing board games and too many overbearing older male role models. Playing as Chloe this time 3 years prior to where we saw her in the first  game, players are caught up in a whirlwind of emotions and actions surrounding new best friend and love interest Rachel Amber.

Deck Nine have not strayed far from the path that Dontnod set out, and yet are almost banking on the fact that most players will know how this story turns out. It is that bitter sweet angst constantly foreshadowing the characters that makes it a much more interesting story, especially for a prequel that for all intentions is slightly contrived. The impending literal and metaphorical hurricane from the first game, created by Max’s own inner turmoil is replaced with a wild fire, which aptly sits thematically in the back of each episode and at the heart of most of the writing in this game. Similarly where Max’s framework was around art and photography, Chloe and Rachel’s lives are cast in the light of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” which also acts as a large motivation for many of the things you do in the game.

The second of which is the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Chloe and Rachel. What was only hinted at in the original, is handled with a lot of care and contemplation as it is rare and not very often that a player can experience and interact on such an emotional level with a character regarding love and lust. The confusion of feelings between the two girls is well written and paced. From a gameplay perspective it may be possible to ultimately just befriend Rachel, but presenting a true homosexual relationship and the thoughts and feelings behind it are exactly what games in 2017/18 should be doing more of.

The sheer teen ager, abuse, swearing and drug references are much more strongly highlighted in Before the Storm as is the unresolved and sometimes odd decision to surround the main character with a number of overbearing and otherwise creepy older male role models, that as the player you must navigate and struggle with feelings of having them replace your dead father or not, as well as competing with the fact that, you just aren’t that into dudes. Before the Storm is more in-your-face, for the sake of it especially in the first chapter and this alone may turn off certain players or younger fans of Max’s gentler nature.

From a strictly gameplay perspective, not a whole lot has changed. Players move Chloe around a number of set pieces in Arcadia Bay, looking at things, talking to people and sometimes solving rudimentary puzzles. Reading everything on all the signs and responding to incoming text messages and emails is what fleshes out the story with some small highlights. In this regard, Before the Storm is very much more of the same and unless you are wholly invested in the story can become repetitive or boring. Instead of snapping photos, Chloe likes to tag things ironically and instead of manipulating time, a new ‘backtalk’ (or arguing) conversation game is present.

It is actually this lack of time-manipulation mechanic that is the most missing from the game, making it a slower more linear and at times boring game to play. There are less puzzles and the new backtalk mechanic appears maybe once or twice per episode.

This narrative gameplay is a neat addition that allows Chloe 3 chances to basically “win” an argument, by smack talking the other character. To do so, players need to pick the right comeback 3 times though vs the other characters 1 response. If you pick wrong the person being talked to will regain control of the conversation and shut you down.

This has nothing on the second chapter of the first game, where players had to literally talk a student off the edge of a roof from jumping, and the number of times I rewound time and played it out to get it right, is what made the game so memorable. Seeing someone jump and die and knowing you could change the outcome – The stakes are never that high in this game.

Highlights though include Deck Nine fleshing out mini games including a full dungeons and dragons tabletop game where the right dialogue is key to winning and picking the wrong choices have different outcomes and participating in the play of “The Tempest”; having to choose and remember the right dialogue cues on stage.

Graphically, Life is Strange continues to be a polished experience, switching from the Unreal Engine to Unity and stylistically different to other Square Enix game. There is a cartoon edge to the models that is refined in Before the Storm with higher details and resolution. The new engine doesn’t make much differance as the set pieces are simplified and, not unlike many Telltale point & click adventures graphically seem to be on a budget for no other reason than that point & click games are supposed to look this way?

That said, the warm colors and autumn tomes set against the Oregon Mountains and the bay front are instantly relaxing and pleasing to look at.

Deck Nine, have managed to make a name for themselves, borrowing heavily from an established franchise and expanding it and refining it. As an example they have partnered with British Indi rock band Daughter to score the entire game which permeates through the 3 chapters. Once again though, whilst this is a selling point, it acts also as a sneaky cross promotion as well as an excuse to charge players for the soundtrack, without the gameplay seen the in the first games narrative which segued music as Max put on her headphones, or flicked through stations in her bedroom.

A few of these choices – including a bonus episode that costs extra as well as pay-per outfits for Chloe, are unnecessary and sours what is a very good game. Hopefully the sequel game doesn’t try to monetize itself for the sake of it, as Life is Strange has proven that it doesn’t need more funding, bigger budgets or micro transaction to succeed and win awards.

Before the Storm succeeds on the back of everything that fans fell in love with the first game but also manages to separate itself from the glut of recycled point & click adventure games from other developers. Having to swap the original voice actress out due to writers-strikes is annoying, but it’s a nice touch that the actress who motion captures their animation was able to fill in.

Spreading the story out episodically throughout the year works in this case, allowing time to digest the heady material as well as not to become overly repetitive and boring

Captures the beauty of the original concept
Characters are written well
Not afraid to shy away from mature content & themes
Doesn’t quite reach the highs of the first Life is Strange
Hampered development due to writers strike
Monetising – micro-transactions and DLC

Life is Strange: Before the Storm is still an experience worth remembering,a fine example of what Deck Nine are capable of and with writing as good as any television show. If you can’t get enough there is a bonus episode coming out early 2018!

The review copy of this title was purchased by the author.
Official Game Site

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