Welcome back to Arcadia Bay, where everything is the same and different at the same time.
When Life is Strange: Before the Storm was released, I was quite cool on the concept. It seemed to be pushing all the wrong buttons: a prequel with no time travel that focused on characters we already knew the fate of. And it was shorter (three episodes vs. five for the original). And it didn’t have any big supernatural mystery. And it focused on Chloe.
While I loved Life is Strange, I never got on board the Chloe bandwagon. She just rubbed me the wrong way and felt way too angry and bitter to be identifiable and likable. So a whole game about her? Um… no thanks. But then I got a $30 gift card from NewEgg and was browsing through the games section and saw this and thought, “Why not?” It wasn’t costing me anything, at least.
And after about 10 hours of a playthrough, I’m back to say that my initial fears… weren’t really put to rest. Despite some raves that I see out there for this game, it’s nowhere near as compelling or interesting as 2015’s adventure game. It’s a quieter character-driven piece that doesn’t have much in the way of a main narrative but does, to its credit, make Chloe a lot more personable and brought out Rachel Amber for us to meet.
Taking place about three years prior to Life is Strange, Before the Storm documents about three days during which Chloe connects with fellow classmate Rachel. Seemingly opposite, the two bond quickly and help/use each other to navigate the various struggles they’re going through. Chloe is feeling abandoned after Max left, her dad died, and David moved in on her mom; Rachel’s starting to crack under the pressure of being perfect and she’s found out something really disturbing about her father. They both talk about rebelling, about fleeing the town, about being besties forever… you know, hyper-emotional teen stuff.
But we know the end. Which is the problem here, as it is with a lot of prequels. When you know the end — especially a tragic end — then it robs a lot of tension of what’s going to happen before that point. We’re just learning more about who this Rachel is, why Chloe was so hung up on her that she spent months searching for her after her absence, and seeing all of the pieces move into place for the beginning of Life is Strange.
Everything seems so much smaller and less important with the prequel. There are fewer characters, no supernatural paradoxes to navigate, and no really fun mechanics. So many plot threads and decisions are offered up as potentially important only to fizzle out later (such as the big fire that Rachel started… which just kind of goes out in episode 3 like it ain’t no thing). And I couldn’t shake the knowledge that Rachel, as captivating as she is here, ends up as a user of people and of drugs. We know she’s not stable; she’s the Laura Palmer of this series. And to see Chloe kind of grovel at her feet and treat her like perfection felt wrong to me.
The budget and scope of Before the Storm feels smaller, too. There’s a lot of padding, such as several scenes where you try on clothing or just watch characters hang out while montage music plays. You spend way too much time fixing up a truck, just because Chloe needs a truck eventually for the sequel. And while Chloe and Rachel get excellent facial animations and voice acting, the rest of the cast has this wooden doll quality to their animations. It’s almost uncanny valley for some of them, like Rachel’s dad, and I found it pretty offputting.
I didn’t hate it. The story was fine and kept me somewhat interested as it went through the paces. There are two bits in particular — a D&D session with two other students and an interactive version of Shakespeare’s Tempest — that are brilliant ideas and well worth the praise that they’ve earned. And the body language, particularly of the principle characters, is nuanced and identifiable. When the characters just shut up and act, it can say so much.
But I can’t give Deck Nine, the studio brought in to create this prequel, a complete pass. There just are too few decisions of consequence, too many illogical plot points, and too much dithering around to make this as good as it could be. How many dream sequences do we need in which pretty much nothing is said? If the characters are going to end up as we know they are for the original game, what does anything they do or say matter? Why was David completely a jerk to me when I tried to rein in Chloe during the first episode?
And then there’s the ending, which the team completely botched. It’s really, really bad, because I got the feeling that the writers got themselves into a corner and then had to twist themselves into knots to create some sort of game-hinging choice. I don’t want to spoil it, but basically you’re going to have characters completely reverse their positions and motivations in the last hour just because, and the game is going to try to argue you into going a certain way that you know another character would hate.
As I said, it wasn’t bad. It was serviceable, which is probably the nicest thing that I can say about any prequel. But it wasn’t that necessary, didn’t add much to the world building, didn’t answer many questions that were left by the original, and didn’t have my mind all in a whirl when it was said and done. Here’s hoping for the real sequel, whenever it comes out.