They say lightning doesn’t strike twice. Except sometimes it does; sometimes more than twice; sometimes even in the same place. The odds of it happening are rare of course, and become increasingly so when said lightning is in a bottle. Life is Strange was that rare thing; an indie game that went the full distance, eschewing expectations and selling upwards of 3 million copies. An indie game that, if it were a movie (and some may argue it almost is), would be a fitting scheduled movie at Sundance. An ‘indie darling’, widely loved and revered by the public and press alike. No one could have really expected that it would become the cultural zeitgeist it has (Where were you when that person was revealed as Rachel Amber’s killer? Everyone who played it or even watched it remembers that moment and who they were with, and in this socially-connected world of Retweets and Reaction Videos, our shock was shared and re-shared within seconds around the world). It has defined the past 2 years of millions of fan’s lives and spawned a plethora of fan content that continues to be created and shared daily, not to mention a host of merchandise and a forthcoming digital TV series. Its fandom is so passionate that it would be easy for Square Enix to boldly expect another 3 million sales of Before the Storm and then some, but that same fandom has the power to destroy as well grow a franchise. Get it wrong, and a hundred thousand Retweets later, the world and its grandmother will know about it. So how exactly does one top or even equal Season 1? And who would dare attempt to do so?
That double-edged blessing and curse has fallen to newly-formed studio Deck Nine Games (formerly Idol Minds) – who were handpicked by publisher Square Enix – landing the gig primarily for impressing with an in-house narrative game toolkit dubbed StoryForge, but not before passing a practical exam of sorts that tasked them with recreating keys scenes from the first game. Self-confessed fans of the first game, who must already be tired of wheeling out the phrase ‘made by fans for fans’ during every promotional interview, you would be forgiven for thinking that Deck Nine were in the questionable position of churning out a very expensive piece of interactive fan fiction.
Thankfully, based on having played Episode 1: Awake, that’s not the case at all. While there are undoubtedly plenty of references to the first game and many returning characters, Before the Storm is being positioned as a largely standalone story, to which even fans won’t know the ending of. This is achieved by setting the game a full 3 years before Season 1. Yes, Before the Storm is a prequel to DONTNOD Entertainment’s episodic hit, rather than a sequel or follow-up (that honour lies with DONTNOD themselves, who are already confirmed to be working on a fully-fledged Season 2 – though that’s expected to feature an entirely new story and cast of characters).
The first game followed main character Max (Maxine) Caulfield, a shy teenage girl who has recently returned to the fictional seaside town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to study Photography at the prestigious art school, Blackwell Academy. She reconnects with her childhood friend Chloe Price, and together they get tangled up in all manner of things; from missing girls to suicide attempts to apocalyptic weather. Yes, heavy stuff, the game having much more in common with Twin Peaks than High School Musical. (Lynch’s seminal TV work is even referenced in both games).
Before the Storm places fan-favourite Chloe Price as the main character this time around, setting its story within the timeframe that Max was away from Arcadia Bay and bigging it up (or not) in Seattle. Fans of the first game will be presented with a very different Chloe than the one they know and love – the one that the more creative fans could sketch with their eyes closed. Gone is her elaborate sleeve tattoo, along with her blue hair and punk clothing. This 16-year-old version of Chloe not only looks different – trapped somewhere between a Nirvana-loving grunge phase and a latte-sipping hoodie-wearing half-punk – she is also stripped of much of the confidence and swagger she so eloquently displayed in Season 1 too. This is a girl still trying to find her identity, and that theme is represented in some wonderful ways throughout Before the Storm.
The game begins with Chloe inviting herself to a gig at an old logging mill, where fictional indie rock band Firewalk (there’s Lynch again) are playing. Chloe, decked out in a grey hoodie, lights up a cigarette, then turns to face an oncoming train in a shot that’s sure to become as iconic as the railroad scene in Season 1. It’s a bold way to introduce the game and indeed, our main character, Chloe. It directly juxtaposes the train scene from the original game, in which Chloe was trapped as a train approached her and was frantically trying to avoid it with Max’s help. Here, as the train screams its way towards her, Chloe just casually steps off the track just in time, so that it only narrowly misses her.
What’s immediately evident is that, despite a move from Unreal Engine to Unity, Deck Nine have nailed the look and feel of the first game. Start engaging in conversation and it soon becomes clear that they went one further. Character animation, and especially lip-synching (almost non-existent in Season 1), are vastly improved.
Talk to the would-be bouncer barring your entry into the makeshift music venue, and you’ll be presented with the first of Before the Storm’s new gameplay additions to the franchise; a feature dubbed ‘Backtalk’. This conversational minigame is an interesting substitute for Max’s time-bending power in the first game. Chloe doesn’t have an equivalent supernatural power, but what she does have is a bayload of wit and sass, which she can use to steer a conversation or situation in her favour. A brief tutorial makes your first Backtalk session impossible to fail, highlighting the correct answers in a larger font, but essentially it involves listening for keywords as characters talk to you, and selecting the appropriate answer containing the keyword from a few different choices. It’s an interesting mechanic, forcing you to listen carefully to the conversations in order to progress. A timer adds extra pressure so it doesn’t become too easy. After all, Before the Storm is about being reactive and instinctive, as Chloe would be, with no option to rewind time and make a different choice. When you commit to a choice here, you’re committed for good. I didn’t actually fail any of my Backtalk sessions so I don’t know what the consequences are there, but presumably it impedes or slows your progress.
There is one other aspect to the Backtalk feature. As with the first game, explore the environment enough or talk to enough people, and you’ll get additional knowledge which will then become a new dialogue option. In Before the Storm’s case, these options are like shortcuts to winning the Backtalk sessions. For example, clocking that the surly bouncer has floral patterns on his motorbike parked nearby gives you the option to tease him about it. Rather than be overtly offended, he digs your ‘tude and allows you to pass.
This is the first real chance you get to see the script, the animation and the voice acting in action. All three are on-point and reflect, or exceed, the quality of Season 1. Though there is one major change, namely in the voice actors. Due to an ongoing union strike, none of the voice cast of returning characters could take part. While not really a problem for the minor characters, having a different voice actress for Chloe, who is the main character after all and centre-stage throughout, will be a little hard to swallow for some fans. Rhianna DeVries, who takes over from Ashly Burch, does sound different, but she does a great job of capturing the spirit and attitude of Chloe, and even if was a happy accident, the different voice actually fits nicely with the fact that she is 3 years younger here.
Once inside the old mill, you can interact with a whole host of items and talk to quite a few characters, including returning beans-aficionado Frank Bowers. You can pet a dog (Game of the Ever), steal a Firewalk t-shirt as well as 200 bucks, and even tag certain areas with graffiti – a feature which essentially replaces the collectible Polaroid photos from Season 1. One of the ways in which Before the Storm extends the replay value of a game that does away with its predecessor’s core Rewind feature, is having multiple variations of scenes, depending on people you’ve spoken to, things you’ve seen or objects you’re acquired. If you happen to have picked up a sneaky beer as you make your way through the venue, the bottle can become a weapon later when you’re jumped by two ‘Skeevy Guys’ (as the game labels them). Choose to ‘Fight’ when presented with a classic ‘Oh shit’ moment that, in this case, asks you to either ‘Fight’ or ‘Run’, and you’ll be sucker-punched by one of those guys. This results in Chloe waking up with a nice shiner the next day, which multiple characters, including her mother Joyce, will question her about. Decide to wear that snazzy new Firewalk t-shirt when you go downstairs for breakfast the next day and expect Joyce to quiz you about that too. Every choice, big or small, matters in Before the Storm and that’s the kind of thing other narrative games could learn a thing or two from as well.
After being rescued by the mysterious Rachel Amber (the missing girl that was an integral part of the plot of Season 1), and flipping the skeevy guys off in a cute animation that has already been immortalised in GIF form across the Tumblrverse, you both get to do what teenagers do best: rock out and dance like no one’s watching. Chloe’s childlike enthusiasm throughout this whole sequence, exemplified through great voice work by DeVries, is infectious and helps to further sell the idea that this is not the Chloe we know from Season 1. Not yet.
The loud and grungy din of the old mill gig is juxtaposed in the next scene with something far more familiar; Chloe smoking on her bed in her iconic bedroom in a trademark golden hour lighting setup, while listening to music. The music this time around is more indie rock than indie folk, which fits Chloe’s character, even in this earlier phase of her life. So, expect a little more grunge and use of electric guitars over the more acoustic tones of Season 1. That said, the score itself is composed by British indie band, Daughter, who also lend two of their existing tracks to the licenced songs among the soundtrack. From what I’ve heard, the score is every bit as memorable as Jonathan Morali’s, but with a distinctly different feel. This ‘same, but different’ adage extends beyond the music to every aspect of the game. Fans will feel like they’re in familiar territory – quite literally in some locations – but everything from the style of Chloe’s journal, the use of graffiti tagging instead of Polaroid taking, and the array of salty, touchy and witty dialogue options, keeps reminding us that we are not playing as Max Caulfield anymore.
We may not quite be playing as the Chloe Price from Season 1 either, and that’s unlikely to change over the 3 episodes, as the game has been confirmed to take place over just 3 days, but this is a good thing. Giving us full control over the Chloe we already knew would be total fan service. Instead, showing us what we don’t know, besides the obvious – how Chloe became the way she is in Season 1 – is far more interesting, for both fans and newcomers alike. Square Enix and Deck Nine couldn’t resist dropping in plenty of callbacks to the first game however. Chloe’s old pirate hat from the iconic picture of Max and Chloe as pirates, rests on top of her standing mirror. The wooden board they painted together that rests discarded against the backyard fence in Season 1, is similarly placed like a forgotten relic here, but in the garage instead.
We even get to define Chloe’s style and mould her identity somewhat by picking out what clothes she will wear. These range from trendy printed t-shirts to the more fan-servicing inclusions such as Hawt Dawg Man and ‘Punk Doe’ tees – the latter being a more punk, black and neon-pink version of Max’s ‘Jane Doe’ tee from Season 1. Besides Joyce’s disapproval of your Firewalk merch, other characters may comment on your fashion choices too. There it is again. Every choice is underlined by additional characterisation; it’s not just aesthetic eye-candy.
The rest of Chloe’s morning is taken up by performing some fairly menial tasks; find your phone, which in classic modern teen style is haphazardly discarded next to the toilet in the bathroom; fetch your Mom’s purse from her own bedroom, grimacing at the chick-lit on one bedside table and poorly-concealed condoms in the other; and most embarrassingly of all, hand soon-to-be stepdouche David his car keys outside so he can take you the last place you want to go right now: school. This is all really just a way to encourage you to explore the house and absorb the environmental storytelling. DONTNOD were masters of this craft in the first game, and Deck Nine step up to the challenge, infusing the world, oft familiar yet equally refreshing, with morsels of narrative goodness to digest in every corner. Overdue scholarship payments, displaced photos tucked away in drawers, a valuation slip for Joyce’s engagement ring. Old narrative hints return too where appropriate: Bongo the cat’s grave is marked with a solitary stone in one corner of the backyard, and you can’t miss the stubborn wine stain on the living room carpet that Max and Chloe caused as kids. Perhaps we’ll get to live out that very moment in the ‘Farewell’ Episode, a bonus 4th Episode that will only be available to those who purchased the Deluxe Edition of the game. There are easter eggs abound this first episode and fans will no doubt find them all as they scramble to secure the award for coming up with most outlandish theory. And there are already a few notable contenders. No time-travelling Homeless Lady’s this time around, but Rachel is a Level 10 Dovahkiin with some serious ‘Fus Ro Dah’ skills if you believe one particular theory.
At the beginning of the game, if you look around the old mill exterior you’ll notice that, as with the first game, vehicle licence plates are pop culture references. It was TV shows such as The X Files and Twin Peaks in Season 1. Here, it’s classic movies. I spotted Spartacus and Bonnie and Clyde, and was told that these are not just throwaway references but tied to the game’s plot or themes. I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll see Chloe and Rachel traversing across America on the run, killing people in cold blood as they go, but perhaps a road trip of sorts is on the cards and, if you chose to play it this way, a rebellious romantic partnership. There’s also no signs of a scene of characters stepping forward one by one and proudly declaring “I’m Chloe Price!” a la Stanley Kubrick’s Kirk Douglas-starring roman epic, but that statement does ring true for many fans who identified with her in Season 1.
I’m Chloe Price. She’s just like me when I was growing up. I understand her.
Even for those players that didn’t identify with Chloe in Season 1, Before the Storm may go some way in helping those people understand her at least. Not everyone is an angry teen who wants to torch their hometown, but everyone has experienced grief in some way. Focusing on Chloe’s loss of her father William, and the feeling of abandonment from everyone else in her life including Max, makes it easy for us to finally see first-hand how, unchecked and untethered, grief can manifest itself as rage.
Before you leave in David’s car, you have to engage in a little fetch quest, securing his socket wrench set from the open garage so he can fix it. This alone would be too easy, so you also have to verbally spar with him as Chloe tries to comprehend the possibility of him one day becoming her stepdad. The script is a little off-base here and David’s new voice actor undercooks some of his lines, but overall it does the job of providing us a window into Chloe’s disdain for him and authority figures in general. Once again, it’s hard not to allow Season 1 knowledge to inform our decisions here. Fans will know that David essentially redeems himself, even if he still has flaws and his methods are questionable. The question is whether you play with that future knowledge tucked away like a reserve card in a role-playing game, or you play it as you think Chloe would in that particular moment in time. During the car journey, Chloe drifts off and we suddenly find ourselves in her dad William’s car, on the day of his fatal accident. What appears to initially be a flashback soon turns into an unnerving dream/nightmare sequence. Chloe speaks to William but he remains stoic and almost robotic. When you regain control of the game, you can look around the car and everything feels off, in a very deliberate way. This scene and the car’s contents will also vary somewhat depending on choices you made or objects you interacted with previously. Joyce’s purse is there, overflowing with bills – representing anxiety over financial woes – or unused condoms if you found them earlier – representing, well… you get the picture.
The next location we get to explore is another familiar one: the exterior of Blackwell Academy. While much of the environment is the same, except for a large stage set up on the west side of the courtyard, it’s the characters you meet that reminds you yet again that things are different. You’ll get to meet new character Elliott, who is possibly being positioned as a potential love interest, though in a ‘trying too hard’ context much like Warren in the first game. Elliott is a little more confident than cult movie enthusiast Warren G, but when he asks Chloe to come to an amateur production of a Shakespeare play of all things, you know his chances are uncomfortably slim.
Then there’s Steph and Mikey, two geeks who, on the face of it, are more likely to be friends with Max than Chloe. One of your first objectives is to get your Blade Runner DVD (another nice nod to Season 1) from Steph. Steph and Mikey can be found at the far east corner of the courtyard and after picking up your DVD, you’re given the option to take part in one of my favourite sections of the game: a tabletop RPG. Don’t expect a complex UI overlay, invisible 10-sided dice rolls, or colourful stats floating above Chloe’s head. This game-within-a-game is purely driven by dialogue options, but has a surprising amount of depth nonetheless. You can choose everything from your character’s name, to their primary skills and how they might attack the endgame boss. As with everything else in Before the Storm, there are multiple variations and outcomes and it’s a lot of fun to play around with the options. You can tell from playing the scene that there are some tabletop RPG fans at Deck Nine and the enthusiasm of sharing their love of that hobby shines through.
You also get to meet a few returning characters from Season 1, some of which we’ve never seen Chloe interact with before. Skateboarding pothead Justin is around, but we’ve already seen Chloe interact with him in Season 1. Speak to him early enough though and he does give Chloe some spray to hide the potent smell of weed clinging to her clothes. You can also meet Principal Wells, who will give you crap for the aforementioned aroma of Arcadia Bay’s finest herb if you didn’t speak to Justin first, but you can wriggle your way out of that with another Backtalk showdown. Miss Grant provides some interesting setup for Blackwell Academy’s changes to come, academically speaking. And then there’s Victoria and Nathan, and here’s where things get interesting. Much like Chloe, neither of them are quite the same characters we know from Season 1. Victoria still has bitch mode engaged but hasn’t turned it all the way up to 11 just yet. She’s clearly clinging to the bottom rungs of the social ladder here, and makes her jealousy of Rachel Amber a little more than obvious. Nathan on the other hand, is almost completely different. Far from the cocky ‘I own you’ ticking bomb of Season 1, this Nathan is clumsy, lacking confidence and even seemingly bullied by another jock character. Season 1 was subtle in getting us to sympathise with Nathan, much of our understanding of his situation discovered through a final voicemail left on Max’s phone after we discover his fate. It does feel a little on the nose here because he’s so drastically different and it will be hard for Deck Nine’s writers to explain that transition over a 3-day period, but they do have a chance to at least suggest what might have triggered that change in character, so it’ll be interesting to see where they go with that.
You do have a chance to stick up for Nathan and it’s hard not to allow Season 1 knowledge bias to filter your choice. New character Sam even jumps in to encourage you to do so and considering she’s the soft-voiced ‘cinnamon bun’ of Before then Storm, taking up that mantle from Kate Marsh, it’s an interesting way to remind us that expectations can be defied. The bullies were once the bullied, and the wallflowers have a voice, which they will be inspired to use if they witness an injustice that prods at their heart and stirs their soul.
When you’ve explored everything you can outside, you can enter Blackwell Academy proper. You’re met at the door by none other than Rachel Amber herself, who practically runs you down in her enthusiasm, pulling you by the hand for the second time in two days, and whisking you away like an unpredictable wind. Perhaps surprisingly so, it’s not to vandalise the girl’s restroom mirrors with makeup, or ‘medicate’ in the janitor’s cupboard, but something far more scandalous to Chloe Price: an amateur theatre rehearsal session for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Forgetting for a moment about the not-so-subtle storm metaphor, this is a fun scene that marks the moment Chloe (and potentially we) will begin to fall in love with Rachel. The choices we’re asked to make are less about what Chloe thinks about the subject in question, and more about what she thinks of Rachel. Chloe’s awkwardness at being thrust into these uncomfortable situations, all while juggling a concoction of conflicting feelings, is frankly adorable. Her eyes widen, her mouth falters, her voice stumbles and her hand wanders to scratch non-existent itches, as if to distract everyone else in the room form the unrelenting embarrassment she feels at being exposed for the perfectly normal human being she really is. The facial animations in particular here really help sell what Chloe’s feeling more than any words, whether chosen or hard-wired into cutscenes, ever could. Deck Nine’s propriety StoryForge engine includes a tool that allows them to control expressions and emotions through sliders, which means they can turn up, or down, sadness or surprise or blend any combination of emotions together. It’s impressive stuff, and crucially, it never feels like you’re watching the visual results of slider percentages playing an invisible tug-of-war.
Not content with stealing glances at you and (potentially) stealing your heart, Rachel then steals you away from school too for an impromptu session of afternoon hooky – that’s a very dated American way of saying they’re ditching school by the way, not a thinly-disguised euphemism. The scene cuts to the two girls racing a train along a familiar railroad. Not just an excuse for Deck Nine to throw in another callback to Season 1, this time you actually get to ride the train. Aside from taking in the nice Oregonian scenery as it rolls by, this scene becomes yet another mini-game of character-building, as we get to know Rachel Amber a little bit better. She suggests you play a game of ‘Two Truths and a Lie’; a veritable recipe for excruciating embarrassment, trust gauging and inevitable flirting that’s just short of a bottle to spin. Ah, bottles. The true unspoken villain of Season 1. Don’t worry, you get to exact your revenge on at least one of them later. Interestingly, you not only get to choose from a selection of truths and lies, but you also get to choose whether you cheat at the game or not. It’s a brilliant way to build characterisation, and is filled with funny (“Nice Rachel we’re having”), touching and fan-pleasing moments – the latter hinting at the origin of Chloe’s use of the word ‘hella’ in a way that’s a lot less cringey than you might expect.
You eventually arrive at one of the new locations in Before the Storm: a park/lookout spot. After a little playfulness or flirting depending on how you choose to play things, Rachel insists you play a new game; one that involves using a viewfinder telescope to spy on the park’s residents below, and improvising what they might be saying to each other or thinking to themselves. Once again, you’re in control of what Chloe decides to say, and the responses are usually very different from one another, some of them teetering on the edge of cruel but never tipping fully over into the blackest recesses of dark humour. The whole scene has a feeling of childlike wonder, the girls giggling and acting perhaps a few years younger than they actually are. As if to counterbalance this, Rachel suddenly suggests getting wasted on cheap wine, but not before stealing it from two parkgoers nearby. Her sudden shift is as confusing to Chloe as it might be for the player – although it’s fairly easy for most to guess that she saw something she didn’t like in the viewfinder during their improv game.
Her mood carries over to the next scene, as they arrive in the last familiar location of the episode: American Rust, the iconic junkyard from Season 1. How you approach Rachel’s bizarre shutting out of Chloe is again up to you. Do you let her brood a little longer, while you try your best to act cool and casual, scuffing the ground with your worn-out sneakers and glancing over at the forlorn Rachel, who is clasping the almost empty wine bottle like it’s the only thing that matters? Or do you call her out, and challenge her, demanding answers as to why she suddenly went cold on you? Either choice makes Rachel bristle like a startled animal and she goes on the defensive, shutting Chloe out even more. I think this is something a lot of people can identify with. When you’re trying to get a friend to open up and your persistence – however well-intentioned – causes them to close up instead, it can be as upsetting as it is frustrating. Chloe makes one final attempt to connect with Rachel by suggesting something she most likely does when she feels down: smash the living shit out of something. Whether you choose to ‘give Rachel a show’ or offer her the bat, she tosses it aside and tells you to leave her alone.
As she attempts to leave herself, Chloe begs her not to. When questioned why she should stay, you can choose to tell her that what you have is a ‘Friendship’ or ‘Something More’. She leaves regardless, but by committing to either choice, you are helping to define a crucial turning point in Chloe’s life, whether that’s realising how much she needs a friend, or whether it’s coming to terms with her sexuality. The fact Before the Storm is a prequel and we already know Rachel’s fate might be a sticking point for some fans, rendering the whole game redundant in their eyes, but the foreknowledge actually adds a twinge of sadness to the preceding events. Whether as friends or romantic partners, we know their relationship is doomed. This feeling of impending tragedy, of shattered dreams, not only adds pathos to Before the Storm, but also has the potential to enrich Season 1 on subsequent playthroughs, without sacrificing canon.
The burgeoning relationship between Chloe and Rachel can’t escape the sense of feeling a little rushed. It’s definitely true that infatuation and crushes can happen rapidly, but with only three days to explore of the course of the three episodes, there’s a danger that there won’t be enough breathing room to sell how integral this period in both girl’s lives was. With that said, perhaps realism is not the point of Life is Strange. Let’s not forget Season 1 included an array of apocalyptic weather and freak occurrences, but the tornado was always acknowledged by directors Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet as a metaphor. The question is whether we would rather have pure realism or something that sacrifices some realism for a scattershot of thematically-heavy scenes, in order to get its point across effectively. Catherine Hardwicke’s movie, Thirteen, which also deals with one young girl leading another astray and causing her to alter her whole identity to fit in, utilises a similar technique. Though taking place over a few months as opposed to days, it throws every possible worst-case scenario into the movie and in close proximity. It shows all the terrible things that could possibly happen to teenage girls going off the rails, except it shows them all happening to a single girl. That in itself isn’t necessarily believable, but it does this in order to prove a point, and loses none of its power for sacrificing a little realism. Chloe’s sudden infatuation with Rachel isn’t unfounded either. She’s obviously aware of who Rachel is even before Rachel barrels her way into her life – she’s the most popular girl at Blackwell by all accounts – so of course when that person starts to notice her when no one else bothers to give her a second glance or attacks her for the way she looks or for every little thing she does, she’s going to feel an attachment to that person, and she’s not going to let go of that new and exciting feeling easily.
Once Rachel leaves and Chloe is standing alone, the episode trades teen drama for powerful melancholy. In a highlight of the whole franchise for me, Chloe boils over with rage, the bass picking up on the soundtrack, as if thumping in sync with her increased heartrate. She takes her anger out on a variety of items scattered around the junkyard; paint cans, a toolbox, an old sign, and even the aforementioned villainous beer bottle. In a stroke of genius, the four options you’re presented with when approaching said objects are all the same: ‘Smash’. It’s a brilliant visual representation of Chloe’s current mindset, her brain whirring like a clockwork bomb, begging for the next thing to dare light her fuse. Smash everything in sight, it taunts. And you will. Her rage is yours in that moment and it genuinely feels like a euphoric release to unleash that rage. She glares at a mannequin, calling out its falseness and comparing it to Rachel before she takes its head clean off. She smashes an old camera to pieces, as she lambasts the friend who left her behind to pick up the pieces of her own broken life.
Chloe finally stops short when she catches sight of something off screen. The first notes of the powerful ‘Dreams of William’ theme begin to play. She drops the bat, swaying as the realisation defeats her. She approaches what turns out to be the wreck of William’s car. This time your target is the crumpled bonnet of the car and more ‘Smash’ prompts appear to encourage Chloe to thump it with her fists in a final pitiful display of anger, before she crumbles to the ground, sobbing uncontrollably.
We cut to a second dream sequence, once again taking place in William’s car, pre-accident. You get more time to look around this time, and the car is littered with remnants of your recent bout of rage, including the dislodged mannequin head. A raven rests on the dashboard. The scene flickers and glitches purposefully, like the jarring cuts in a horror movie trailer. Things take a darker turn as the car pulls up to a decidedly creepy-looking Rachel. She presses her hand against the window, and Chloe lines hers up on the other side. Rachel suddenly bursts into flames, in a sequence that has a spectacularly eerie Twin Peaks/Silent Hill vibe. It’s a classic case of foreshadowing and part of it is followed up almost immediately after in the final scene of the game.
After waking up in the dark, having spent all day curled up in the wreck of her dad’s car, Chloe follows in Rachel’s departed footsteps, eventually finding her standing alone by an equally lonely tree. Instead of sending Chloe away, Rachel seems almost glad to see her, time having bridged some of the emotional distance between them. Rachel finally confesses that she knew one of the people they spotted during their improv game back at the lookout; none other than her own father. And that the woman he was seen kissing was not her mother. Confirmation of her father’s affair, one she already suspected, has damaged Rachel beyond repair, tarnishing the picture-perfect father-daughter relationship encapsulated in the photo she had been carrying around in her backpack. But telling someone about it isn’t enough, she needs a bigger release. More closure. More finality. She holds up the picture of her and her dad and in a single act of defiance, lights it on fire, watching it smoulder, as if burning away her innocence. She tosses the still-burning photo into a nearby bin, then kicks it over and lets out a harrowing scream. A rush of wind magnifies the scream and spreads the fire, from the dry grass, to the whole tree and eventually nearby trees too. Chloe watches by helplessly until soon, the whole forest is in flames.
The game ends with a final montage that’s reminiscent of the Obstacles-accompanied finale in the first episode of Season 1, showing what various characters are doing at one particular moment and that they are all connected by one thing: in this case, the now-enormous wildfire they can see in the distance, framed by billowing towers of thick black smoke.
All in all, Before the Storm’s first episode is a strong addition to the franchise, effortlessly blending the old with the new. Deck Nine have proven themselves worthy of carrying the torch while we await DONTNOD’s Season 2, and may very well help the franchise discover new fans who were on the fence first time around. Hardcore fans will naturally be upset at the initially jarring change in voice actors, but once they actually play the game, like this reviewer, they will be so engrossed in the story and the warm nostalgia of returning to Arcadia Bay with new insights, that they will quickly forget about that. Besides a few iffy side characters, the new voice actors are brilliant, rightfully making the performances their own, instead of resorting to half-baked imitations – something which would have undoubtedly made fans far more vocal. Special mention must go to Rhianna DeVries as Chloe and Kylie Brown as Rachel. They both turn in performances that are equal parts funny, endearing and moving.
The score by Daughter is beautiful, but in a very different way to Season 1. It is absolutely tailor-made from the ground up for Chloe’s character, perfectly reflecting her varying states of mind. From the dreamy pondering of ‘Glass’ to the angrier grunge of ‘Burn It Down’, to the hopeful ethereal tones of ‘Voices’ and the quietly devastating melancholy of ‘Dreams of William’.
On a technical level the game is very well made. Modelling, textures and lighting are consistently good. As explained earlier, there’s some great work on the facial animations and lip synching in particular. There are a few awkward animation quirks, particularly in the way Chloe walks, especially when traversing stairs, but they’re not significant enough to take you out of the game. Playing on Xbox One, I did encounter a few visual and audio glitches. There was some stutter in cutscenes, with characters juddering as if their animations were interrupted, and some lines of dialogue were cut short at the end as it transitioned to the next scene. It helped that I always have Subtitles on anyway, but it could be very annoying for those who don’t, if they miss out on a potentially crucial word. There are also a few unusually long pauses between some lines of dialogue which can make some scenes feel a little stilted when they should have a greater sense of urgency and immediacy. But again, not game-breaking, just mildly frustrating in the very few instances it happens.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm has so far defied expectations. Those expectations were rightfully full of scepticism, from both the community and the press. Is it perfect? Certainly not. But how many games are? It may have some inconsistences, it may have notes of awkward dialogue and a few technical glitches, but it also has tons of heart. It has clearly been made by a passionate team – not just passionate about the series they have briefly inherited, but passionate about its commitment to strong thematical material that the average audience isn’t used to seeing in video games. Directors Chris Floyd and Webb Pickersgill and the game’s writers, led by Zak Garriss, wisely chose to focus heavily on character. While the plot itself will no doubt pick up over the next two episodes with some inevitable twists and turns, everything in the game so far is driven by the characters: where they go, what they do, and how they do it. Every awkward situation and every sideways glance means something. Life is strange, and it’s not the supernatural or the unusual that makes it so, it’s the everyday. The chance encounters, the impromptu train rides, the crushing grief of losing someone close to you so suddenly. These are the things that connect us all, that define us, that change us. And change is a theme at the heart of Before the Storm. It is a coming-of-age story, about a young girl going through a dramatic transitional period in her life. Deck Nine had a lot to prove in showing everyone that they understood this, and in my opinion, they knocked it out of the bay. Hella home run.
I cannot recommend Life is Strange: Before the Storm enough. Newcomers will be as intrigued as everyone else was when Season 1 quietly nudged the industry almost three years ago, snowballing into one of the most important new IP’s of the decade. Fans will be in for a treat too if they can focus less on what this game isn’t and more on what it is. And what it is, is a heartfelt and powerful tribute to grief and the unbridled chaos of teenage life. And we need more games like it.