As we say “Farewell” to Max and Chloe in the bonus episode and conclusion of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, it’s time for me to step back in time in my own way and right a wrong, to actually review the miniseries – our Farewell review will follow later today.
In some ways, I struggled to know what to actually say about this series. For fans of Dontnod’s original it might seem like an unnecessary detour to take with these characters, and yet Deck 9 have found a pocket into which they could slip their story and open up a new side to a character we know, and another that we’ve heard so much about.
Before the Storm does exactly what the title suggests it does, taking us back to a few years before Max returned to Arcadia Bay and began meddling with time to near cataclysmic effect. However, there’s no Max in this story, and so there’s no time manipulation, no special powers of any kind. In that regard, Deck 9 revert to the more familiar form that the genre takes, with every decision you make being one that you have to stick with. No backsies.
As it ditches that key gameplay hook, it also removes the pretence of any supernatural elements in the story. There’s no zombies, no world-ending event, no superheroes. The story that Before the Storm tells is about as pure a coming of age story as you’ll find in video games, a story that could be dropped into a US teen drama on TV or feature in a YA novel without raising an eyebrow, and yet it feels unusual and unique when you pick up a controller to play.
It’s a story of teenage rebellion, of a budding friendship, a desire to escape this life and find something better together elsewhere. In those ways it’s clichéd, but especially if you know Chloe through the first season of Life is Strange and have heard of and seen the impression that Rachel Amber and her disappearance left, it makes it just that little bit more engaging to play and experience.
For Chloe, she’s still reeling from the death of her father, pushing back against her mother and the way that David Madsen – F-ing David Madsen, right? – seems to be imposing himself on her life, insidiously encroaching into her home and slowly but surely replacing the last signs of Chloe’s dad. She finds solace out of the blue in a newfound friendship with Rachel Amber, who we actually knew very little about in the first game. In fact, what we did know makes very little sense. Rachel was a grade A student, beloved by her classmates and the teachers, but even when viewed through rose-tinted glasses, does that really fit for her to also be best friends with perennial loner and outcast Chloe Price, who’s constantly getting herself into trouble?
Just as in the first season, Rachel provides the real drive and forward momentum to the story here. It seems improbable, but she’s the one that whisks Chloe off on an adventure, dredging up Amber family dramas along the way. There’s a meaningful spark between the two characters and how they explore this new and exciting relationship while dreaming of another life away from Arcadia Bay. However, they both have baggage, and the story rapidly spirals out of their control as they try to deal with it.
The worst thing that can be said of the story is that the final decision you make is essentially meaningless and undermined by the irrational decisions of another character. There is a “good” ending, but it’s equally easy to end with a shallow decision between telling Rachel a destructive truth and fake happiness. That choice, I feel, plays too heavily to the part of the audience that know of the story of the original game and of Rachel’s untimely death.
While much of the narrative adventure gameplay is intact here, Deck 9 do inject a few hints of originality into the formula. At certain points Chloe can barrage others with abuse, picking on words and phrases in an argument and then trying to turn those words back onto her verbal sparring partner. It’s thankfully used quite sparingly, but it’s something that can crop up in surprising ways. It’s not just about Chloe coming out on top, which would have started to feel very false after a while.
Less successful is the tagging system, where Chloe pulls out a permanent marker and scribbles some dumb doodle on a wall, desk, wall ornament or whatever, all the while congratulating herself on how clever she is. I get that it’s Chloe trying to push the boundaries, but it’s often a tonal shift when, for example, she’s a guest in someone’s home or up against the clock to try and find something.
There’s similarly rough edges to the general look and feel of the game. Rachel sticks out at times as being particularly wooden and expressionless in comparison to Chloe, which is a shame when she’s such a key character. Similar flaws are more excusable when it’s someone you only bump into briefly on a couple of occasions, but not for such a pivotal role.
Despite that, the game manages to shine in some very unusual ways. The second episode features a showing of The Tempest that you’re (predictably) roped into taking part in, and it manages to be a truly engaging and interesting segment of the game. I was saddened when I missed out on the second and third tabletop RPG segments, the first of which had been a lot of fun, playing with Steph and Mikey. At the complete other end of the scale, the ugly manner in which “nice guy” mentality rears its head is something that feels particularly relevant to the modern day lives of teenagers.
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm isn’t a story that needed telling, and it was a risk for Deck 9 to try and add to a beloved series, but they’ve pulled it off. It answers the question of who Rachel Amber was and what she really meant to Chloe, showing something that feels more grounded like a TV teen dramas and speaks to the struggle to find your place in the world.
Version tested: PlayStation 4