Release Date: August 31, 2017Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: Deck NinePublisher: Square EnixGenre: Adventure
*This review covers Before the Storm’s first episode, “Awake.”
Life is Strange: Before the Storm doesn’t really seem interested in whether you like it or not.
At first, that must seem like an odd position for a game to take. As the prequel to 2015’s Life is Strange, you might think that Before the Storm’s development team would have been tempted to use this game as a chance to reach out to the audience who praised the original series’ supernatural elements and deep decision trees, but were less than thrilled with its angsty characters and so-called “hipster” mentality.
Instead, developer Deck Nine has decided to double down on the controversial themes, characters, and dialog style that Dontnod Entertainment used as the foundation for 2015’s Life is Strange.
Their decision to do so will no doubt draw scorn from those who were not enamored by the original series. Before the Storm takes place three years before the events of Life is Strange, which means that most of the time-travel and supernatural aspects of the original are – at least for now – not present.
Before the Storm focuses on the “normal” life of 16-year-old Chloe. The emphasis on normal speaks to the fact that Chloe’s adventures include some dramatic elements that you may or may not consider to be typical teenage activities – depending on your own life choices – but in comparison to Life is Strange, this is a decidedly more grounded story.
Those who considered Life is Strange’s interpretation of modern youth culture to be its worst quality may find Before the Storm to be a bit too much. Chloe’s adventures feature things like her arguing with her mom’s old-fashioned boyfriend, trying to sneak into a concert, and deciding whether or not to interfere in a schoolyard fight. There are more intense moments here and there involving Chloe’s infatuation with a girl named Rachel and the intimidating presence of some scummy underground characters, but much of the game plays out like a fairly familiar high school drama.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when I think back on Life is Strange, I remember how the series’ slow start was eventually overcome by a dynamic narrative that used time manipulation to enhance its otherwise more traditional dramatic elements. That first season of the game reminds me a lot of the CW show Riverdale. The weirder aspects in play complement the otherwise standard high-school small town drama that is the core of the series.
While the ending moments of Before the Storm’s first episode suggest that Deck Nine is going to be able to craft a story that is every bit as emotional as the original Life is Strange, I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t feel like something is missing.
Before the Storm tries to compensate for the loss of Life is Strange’s brilliant rewind mechanic by implementing a back talk system that allows Chloe to engage in a war of words with certain characters, but it’s not quite the same. These back talk moments fit Chloe’s character, but rarely involve you doing anything more interesting than keeping an ear out for certain keywords that you use when selecting your comeback.
These sequences can also suffer from Before the Storm’s iffy dialog and so-so voice acting. Rhianna DeVries does a decent enough job filling in for Ashly Burch as Chloe, but due to both the nature of the character – snarky teenager – and the general dialog style, her delivery sometimes comes across as a bit wooden. Those unemotional pieces of dialog have a bad habit of taking you out of the moment.
These are all shortcomings to be sure, but you have to remember that Before the Storm is a game that – much like Chloe – doesn’t really seem to care whether or not you approve of what it is. While that attitude is the source of the game’s reliance on previous design elements that could have used some polish, it’s also the source of many of this game’s best features.
Before the Storm is an unabashed high school drama. That’s something we occasionally see in video games, but it’s usually just a piece of a march larger narrative puzzle (Persona 5 is a great example of this.). There may be a general concern that a high-school drama will not appeal to a large enough audience.
Because Before the Storm isn’t concerned with all that, it chooses to explore teenagers, their culture, their attitude, and their world views in ways that feel refreshingly honest. You might cringe when Chloe worries that the school bills her mom can’t pay will get her in trouble with the principal or when she describes having to fetch her mom’s boyfriend’s keys as the worst thing ever, but the truth of the matter is that most of us probably were that kid at some point even if we don’t choose to forget about that phase of our lives.
It’s not all awkwardness, of course. There are genuine moments of brilliance in Before the Storm that couldn’t have been accomplished if the game wasn’t so devoted to its theme. These range from little qualities (your objectives are scribbled on Chloe’s hand) to unforgettable scenes. The best example of the latter that isn’t a big spoiler is certainly Chloe’s choice-based D&D gameplay session.
Meanwhile, other iconic aspects of Life is Strange make their untarnished return in this prequel. Its soundtrack is still an eclectic and exciting mix of indie songs with a few surprises thrown in. The game’s choice system is still the most dynamic of its kind as even the smallest dialog option can change the nature of a conversation. This is still a story that will likely make you cry.
It’s just that it’s really tough to recommend Before the Storm to those who didn’t absolutely love Life is Strange. Even then, some fans may feel like this is a step back in terms of scope. It’s hard to argue against that point.
But you know, there’s something to be said for a prequel that is willing to use the name value of the original experience to sneak-in the kind of intimate and unconventional tale that almost never receives big budget love in video games. I respect Before the Storm for that, even if I have doubts regarding its ability to be as great as what came before.
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