A Review of Life Is Strange: Before the Storm
Baby Chloe! Well, sort of baby Chloe. Before she dyed her hair blue Chloe. Before the storm Chloe (pun intended). Life is Strange: Before the Storm, the sequel/prequel to Square Enix’s Life is Strange dropped last Thursday (August 31) to great anticipation (from me at least.) Its three-episode set follows Chloe Price after her best friend Max Caulfield left but before the two of them are reunited in the original game, detailing her relationships with her mother, Joyce, not yet “step-douche” David and her fellow students at Blackwell Academy, including Miss Popular herself Rachel Amber. Some spoilers for the first episode under the cut.
The first episode of Before the Storm, “Awake,” starts with Chloe standing in the middle of a set of railroad tracks, smoking a cigarette while playing an incredibly dangerous game of chicken. She steps out of the way at the last second, the train thundering past her, before heading down a small dirt path towards an abandoned mill where a band called Firewalk is playing a “secret” show.
The formula of BtS isn’t much different from the first game, although the controls have been refined and the game in generally feels a bit smoother; a large complaint about the first game, wonky lip-syncing, has been given a noticeable improvement. The voice acting comes off a bit stiff at times, but despite not having Ashly Burch on board for Chloe it’s mostly full and realistic, and I couldn’t even tell the different between actresses. The characters don’t really show facial expression except in cases of extreme emotion either but that might be more of a result of the artistic style of the game.
You still interact with certain objects in the environment, either to look at them and gain a bit of insight into Chloe’s thoughts, or to use them to affect the environment or story in some way (or to just grab some optional goodies, in this case graffiti spots that are spread across almost every scene in the chapter.)
I’m going for an Illuminati theme.
To get inside the mill, Chloe needs to get past the bouncer, an intimidating looking Samoan who throws Chloe’s fake ID to the ground when she tries to get in. To progress, Chloe has to engage in “backtalk,” a very Chloe way of replacing Max’s time rewinds from the original game. The mechanic works by giving you a handful of options to choose, from which the best ones are a play on what your opponent has said to you. The right phrases sometimes contain a key word, but sometimes you need to think a bit outside the box to hit the right beat. There’s also a timer, meaning you can’t take too long thinking about your responses.
Once you get inside the mill, there’s a few things you can do including steal a t-shirt (and some cash), pet a dog and talk to a familiar face. The first choice of the game (non-reversible, Chloe doesn’t have magical time powers, remember) comes soon after you’re moshed into a very skeevy looking guy with a beer and he and his pal find you in the rickety upper level of the mill. Soon before Rachel shows up to distract them, you can either insult the guy or apologize, and then either attack him or run. Attacking him results in Chloe getting decked by his buddy, which gives her a shiner that the other characters in the game will comment on until she decides to cover it up.
A typical teenager’s room, with a subtle nudge to Chloe’s sexuality in the form of a poster featuring ANTM’s first openly lesbian model, Kim.
After the concert, I woke up with a hungover Chloe who decided to have a smoke while listening to the radio on her alarm clock. I let the entire song play through. As with the first game, the soundtrack is on point, although it’s more tailored towards Chloe’s personality. The indie tracks are still there, but they have a harder, rougher edge to them that fit with Chloe’s own rough edges. After getting Chloe up you pick up her journal, which is filled with rather angry letters to Max, and, coupled with the texts you can read when you find Chloe’s phone, made me dislike Max more than I did in the original game. It’s clear how her departure affected Chloe, and the sense of abandonment and lingering anger fuels much of what Chloe does, both regarding Max and in response to the death of her dad, who was killed in a car accident when she was a kid.
Another hint at Chloe’s sexuality, and her current anger and disdain towards Max.
Her anger, sadness and in some cases spite shows through in many of her interactions, particularly with her mother, Joyce, and her mother’s then-boyfriend David, whom Chloe consistently labels as an asshole and a dick. The player is given a choice in how Chloe wants to act towards the two main adults in her life. In my case, I played Chloe trying to try with both her mother and David. She’s not a mean person, after all, but she is suffering from a very serious trauma. Joyce gives Chloe a small lecture on her behavior and tells her to be nice to David, who’s taking her to school.
During the ride, Chloe has the first of three dream sequences in the game. The colours are bright and saturated, but the detail is fuzzy. The first one is a disorientating and uncomfortable blend of dream and reality, where objects that Chloe associates with David, like his socket wrench, mix together with her memories of her Dad and his love for country music. It was a very jarring sequence that showed just how messed up Chloe’s subconscious is. It’s also the first sign of the darker turn the episode takes towards its end.
After a small errand which introduces the player to Chloe’s schoolmates and another backtalk challenge concerning a very un-cool version of Nathan Prescott and a bully, Chloe heads into the school building to go to chemistry and gets blindsided by none other than Rachel Amber, who is starring in the school’s production of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Chloe is very clearly caught off guard by Rachel’s interest in her, and while it’s possible to play out their relationship in a platonic way, it doesn’t feel right considering both Chloe and Rachel’s reactions to each other, and Chloe’s reaction at the end of the original game, when Rachel’s fate is discovered.
Rachel offers to expertly cover up Chloe’s black eye with stage makeup.
Surprisingly for Rachel (but not for Chloe) the two play hookie and catch a cargo train going… anywhere, really. They cozy up to play a game of two truths and a lie (which you can cheat at if you want to), revealing information about both girl’s pasts, including that they have similar scars on their hands from wrist fractures. Rachel brings Chloe to a state park, where they play another game of spying on people through a viewfinder (which requires a little puzzle to access). The game quickly goes downhill when Rachel spots someone very familiar under the park’s oldest oak tree.
Enjoying Chloe’s music together while scenic Oregon rolls by.
What follows is a whirlwind of emotions, including anger, above all. Rachel’s cracks start to show, and Chloe reacts like a scared, hurt animal, admitting that she ruins everything in her life and she doesn’t want to ruin this, too. When Rachel storms off, leaving Chloe alone in a junkyard, she goes on a smashing spree, hitting everything in sight until she stumbles upon a very familiar car.
This scene put a lump in my throat. Chloe stands in front of the rusted, gutted, mangled wreck of her dad’s car, and everything just comes pouring out; her anger and sadness about her father and Max, confusion and frustration with Rachel, the overwhelming disparity that comes from feeling completely and utterly alone. Chloe goes to town on the car, before finally collapsing to the ground and curling up in a ball, leading into the final dream sequence of the episode.
This time, Rachel plays just as major a role as her father, who, acting as her subconscious, tells her that sometimes other people need her help. When Chloe wakes up in the back seat of the car, she goes to find Rachel, who is standing underneath the same oak tree that sent her on a drunken bender. Rachel admits that it was her father she saw under the tree, kissing a woman who was definitely not her mother. It’s very clear how betrayed Rachel feels by her father’s affair, and in her anger, she kicks over a fire barrel that she burned a photo of her and her father in and sets the entire oak tree alight. It’s a frightening, poignant image that sets the tone for the remaining two episodes. Right then and there, the two girls agree to run off together, to pack their bags and never come back (and although we don’t know how that ends, we do know where both of them end up).
I get the impression that Rachel wants the entire world to burn with that tree.
Peppered through the game are little bits of lore and hints to what’s to come. It started off light enough, with some humour thrown in to counteract the dark undertone, but it very quickly goes from zero to ten. The important part is that the story left me wanting more. It’s making me fall in love with Rachel Amber the same way Chloe is, and breaking my heart more because I know where both of them end up in the finale of Life is Strange. It took me a few hours to play through the first chapter and I didn’t interact with everything or explore everywhere, but it was a solid Saturday morning chunk of trying not to cry because a stupid video game made me feel things again.
For hitting me in the face with emotions I give Before the Storm a solid: