The hopes I had for this game were almost non-existent, to be honest. When the prequel to one of my favourite games, Life is Strange, was announced, something just felt wrong. The original development team has been hard at work with a new title, so Life is Strange: Before the Storm, has been developed by another company entirely. This sure raises a lot of questions… Is it up-to-par with the original? Does it manage to be a good standalone game? Let’s find out.
Before the Storm is set, once again, in Arcadia Bay, only some years before Life is Strange. Chloe’s life is quite a mess: Max has left, her dad has passed away, she can’t stand her mom’s new boyfriend, has no friends… She’s quite a rebel too, as she skips school and sneaks into concerts. Things are about to change, however, as she’s about to meet Rachel, the most popular girl at school, and become great friends (and then some).
The most obvious flaw with this new episodic title is the lack of time Deck Nine, the development team behind it, had to create it. The constant recycling of environments seems to be a homage at first, but it soon becomes tiresome. Writing is also all over the place, and what used to be subtle and interesting in Life is Strange, has been turned into obvious. Nothing is up for interpretation; every single thing is spoon-fed to the player by being written in big bold letters.
Upon inspecting a motorcycle, Chloe says:
“I’d join a motorcycle gang… if I had any friends.”
Really? Was that the best way to convey she is going through some lonely times? The same thing happens with every theme featured, but probably the one I liked least was the main character’s sexuality. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that we have a lesbian protagonist, but the way this topic is handled is way too bold and uninspired, which is a huge lost opportunity.
Gameplay is much duller than in the original title, too… As Chloe, unlike Max, has no crazy superpowers, everything the players do is walk around and talk to people. This could be good enough if environments were rich and conversations were properly written, but as already stated, none of those can be found anywhere is Before the Storm. The path developers took to turn these features more “gamey” is what they’ve named Backtalk, a “risk/reward conversation mode that allows Chloe to use her barbed tongue to provoke or get her way”. Let’s translate that into actual mechanics: a character says a line, and the player must pick the appropriate answer of the three possibilities shown on-screen in order to get closer to winning the argument. The correct answer is whichever includes a word that the other character has previously said. It’s THAT dumb. No creative answers, no trying to foresee replies, no nothing.
“Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
“Hey, maybe it’s YOUR bedtime, not mine.”
Not everything is as terrible as that, however. The story sure is interesting to see unfold towards the end of this first episode (especially when Max’s leaving is brought up), the characters are pretty interesting, and some neat ideas are thrown into the gameplay, too. For instance, a character asks whether we want to play a role-playing game, and realizing the character actually meant it, and a full sequence of game was created for that moment was great.
Let’s dive deeper into mechanics. There’s a scene in which Chloe loses her mind and starts hitting everything around her with a bat, full of anger. I found it very interesting to see how all four options that are usually given to you (inspect, use, take…) are all replaced by “smash”. In more traditional game design, there would be just one option, but Deck Nine decided to have all four options with the same action, conveying how Chloe feels: the only way she has to express how she feels is destruction, there is no other way for her, even if she is aware of her need to find another path. Nice!
Seconds after that you are presented with what should be a decision (according to the rules created by the game itself through the interface), but with only one option available. This is pretty lazy design in my opinion, as it feels like a quick time event, as if the game had been paused to give you time to think – only there’s a single answer you can give. So basically, it’s the play button you press to continue watching a cinematic.
Before the Storm is extremely similar to Life is Strange, and that sometimes plays in favor of the prequel. The graphics, for instance, look as vibrant and breath-taking as they did in the first game. Hand-drawn textures and beautiful lighting effects create a stunning visual experience, indeed. It does have many technical issues, though. I’ve been lucky enough not to experience any crashes nor game-breaking bugs, but terrible controller support and resolution issues have definitely made the experience poorer, I’m, afraid.
What about the fans of the first game, you ask? Well, you’re in for a treat. Many references have been thrown into the 3-hour-long episode, and even if some of them do feel forced, most of them are a joy to discover. Those who own the collector’s edition of Life is Strange will be glad to find a copy of the soundtrack included in the package inside Before the Storm, for instance. Graphic options in the menus have a “Hella High” option (which is nice, but sometimes annoying: what sort of antialiasing am I using!?), and many more.
All in all, Before the Storm is not the great prequel fans deserved, but it is an okay experience to have while we wait for Life is Strange 2. Hopefully, developers will take their time in order to make the next episode of this prequel better, and the story will get deeper, more personal and please, subtler. For now, it is hella average. 5/10