Life is Strange is back with the goal of showing us more layers of Chloe Price and shedding light on the mysterious Rachel Amber. Does it deliver?
This review contains SPOILERS for Life is Strange Season 1 and Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Read at your own discretion.
Before playing Life is Strange: Before the Storm, I decided to dedicate some time to go through all the information available since its E3 2017 reveal and at the time, I could list a number of concerns I had, originating from iffy elements within its equation. I will address those as I touch on said elements but, all in all, my fears have turned out to be unfounded, as Life is Strange: Before the Storm’s first episode offers a promisingly meaningful, fleshed out and captivating look into one of the series’ most beloved characters: the always charismatic, hella awesome Chloe Price. Before the Storm is set 3 years before the events of LiS Season 1, with a focus on the relationship between Chloe and Rachel Amber, who was all over the first season without ever really showing up (for very unfortunate reasons).
My first concern involved the fact that the studio at the helm was not LiS Season 1 creator Dontnod Entertainment, but Deck Nine Games. I instantly feared that the essence of LiS could be lost over such a shift. However, Before the Storm feels as Life is Strange as it possibly could, bringing similar emotions and though-provoking situations to the first season.
The gameplay mechanics are essentially a carbon copy of the ones in the first season: walking around while interacting with different objects and people who will make Chloe talk to herself (and by extension to us) or have a conversation with someone. Some of those interactions are necessary, some are there for the sake of player immersion or to flesh out Chloe’s mindset. There is, though, one logically absent gameplay mechanic: Chloe Price is not a time traveller like LiS Season 1 main character Max Caulfield, so rewinding is a no-go in Before the Storm. This makes decision-making permanent for the first time in the series.
Despite the loss of the rewinding mechanic, Before the Storm brings in a very interesting new gameplay element: backtalk challenges. Throughout the course of Episode 1, you can try to make things go your way through a series of exchanges between characters. They enhance the player’s immersion in the setting by having them pay attention to what the other person says and by making them choose a suitable reply while being timed. Backtalk challenges can obviously be both won or lost and the result is as permanent as every decision in the game. Replayability is thus more encouraged than it was in Season 1, where you could just rewind to see all the options available and then choose. Something that really pleased me was seeing how some 100% optional exchanges are extremely fleshed out in Before the Storm, with a prime example being a completely skippable sequence in which you play a board game with two Blackwell students. Speaking of optional elements, Before the Storm adapts collectables to match Chloe’s interests, scrapping optional photo ops and adding up to 10 optional graffiti per episode. If you miss them, the game has a Collector Mode which allows you to go back to whatever segment you need to in order to find them.
When it comes to storyline, there is a clear focus on two specific aspects of Chloe’s life: her family/academic life after the loss of her father, and Rachel Amber. Episode 1 provides us with the foundation upon which those aspects will be built up in upcoming episodes. What I found most pleasant is how different things look from Chloe’s side. Story events we hear about in LiS Season 1 gather a whole new level of depth now and are explored with a much more personal tone, helping us relate and understand Chloe far better now.
Season 1 characters like Joyce Price (Chloe’s mother), David Madsen (Chloe’s much hated stepfather-to-be) and the students at Blackwell Academy make a return now and they showcase just what a difference 3 years can make – especially Blackwell students like Victoria Chase and Nathan Prescott. The dynamism in the cast makes this entry not only prove its necessity, but also feel both welcome and intriguing enough to keep players engaged.
The biggest element of them all is, without a doubt, Rachel Amber and her friendship with Chloe. While it feels a tad out-of-nowhere at first, it quickly starts to flow naturally between both of them. Last but not least in terms of story, Chloe has a phone with texts you can read and a journal composed of unsent letters to Max, both of which provide to the whole storyline with tidbits and nuances that help shape where Chloe stands emotionally at each given moment. I highly suggest players to take some time to read all of that optional content to get the best out of Before the Storm.
On the visuals department, Before the Storm follows the direction of LiS Season 1, with improvements in elements like facial animations. Performance has also seen a boost, with solid 60 frames per second throughout. Season 1 was released on both PS3 and PS4, which obviously clipped the game’s wings a little. Before the Storm is purely current-gen and it shows, with an overall higher visual fidelity.
One of the game’s strongest aces is its soundtrack, which excels at being immersive, intimate, intense and even channelling when it has to be. The conveyance of feelings of relaxation, vulnerability, anxiety and others are strengthened by the track playing in the background. The game features both instrumental-only and sung tracks. Following on the sound department, there is another element that made me worry unnecessarily: the voice acting. As I previously mentioned, Before the Storm revolves around the character of Chloe Price, masterfully voiced by BAFTA-nominee Ashly Burch……or at least that’s how it was in Season 1. Due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, Burch is out of the voice cast for Before the Storm, with Rhianna DeVries taking over Chloe. Despite the change, it only took me a couple of lines to readjust, as her voice does not sound that different (it could be worse). The rest of the VO cast remains and they have stayed on character.
Despite everything said above, Before the Storm suffers a little in the same department Life is Strange Season 1 struggled sometimes: the writing. There is some whacky dialogue which seems to try too hard to portray the necessary social standards at times.
All in all, Before the Storm starts off proving that it is a substantial addition to the series with the story qualifying as relevant enough, not only to Season 1 but possibly to future seasons.