Meteorologically speaking, these are quieter times in Arcadia Bay. And yet, the social drama in this prequel is no less tempestuous.
I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be a teenage girl. That’s one of the reasons Life is Strange was so interesting to me first time around; here was an episodic adventure that earnestly explored the realities of high school from a female perspective. Despite a generational language that seemed ‘hella’ inauthentic, Life is Strange was some way beyond the caricatures of Bully or Skool Daze, exploring relationships with an honest, sincere heart. It also flirted with supernatural time manipulation, but what the hell.
Max Caulfield’s time control powers were a defining motif around which the gameplay was built. Multiple choice conversations are standard fare for this sort of narrative adventure, but being able to rewind time uniquely allowed consequences to be seen and, crucially, avoided if you didn’t like them. In this prequel, Before the Storm, we follow Max’s friend instead. Chloe Price has no super powers at all. Without that central conceit to inform the gameplay, you have to wonder what’s left to carry the experience.
In terms of game mechanics, Before the Storm does suffer a little for its lost focus. Chloe can’t time travel; instead she can mouth off snarky comebacks with maximum attitude. It’s all very well rolling your eyes, but at least wait for me to tell you it isn’t very good. (No, it isn’t very good). The dialogue system supporting this is reminiscent of Monkey Island, if you recall that game’s “insult sword fighting” bits. While that was funny, this is confusing. Would a bouncer really let you into a gig because you slagged off his motorbike?
Situations like that with the bouncer do lack credibility, but it’s really Chloe’s attitude that undermines the opening half hour. If you played the original game (and you should before playing this), you’ll know that Chloe can be a dick. Spending all your time with her is difficult at first – she is almost wantonly obnoxious – but the real Chloe beneath that is conflicted, vulnerable and intriguing. It’s those cracks that give Before the Storm the sincerity of the original, and it becomes clear that gameplay mechanics alone were never really the point.
The cracks in Chloe’s façade start to appear as soon as we start to meet people that matter in her life (for better or worse). Her mother and stepfather, the nerdy kids at school, and most significantly Rachel Amber. Not yet the missing girl on school posters from the first game, the opportunity to see the foundation of her relationship with Chloe feels important. Knowing what happens is heart-breaking, but this amplifies the moments they get to share before us. This first episode absolutely hooked me into seeing more of that relationship.
So far then, Before the Storm is something of conflicted experience. It’s a retrograde step in gameplay terms. No longer can we see and choose divergent consequences, which was so important to the original. I suppose the thing about rewinding time is you end up going backwards. You might worry that the consequences themselves lose their cache when we know where it all leads. Strangely though, that inevitability gives Before the Storm a kind of fatalistic romance that’s inescapable. I know where it’s going, but I need to know how it gets there.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm was provided to us by Xbox/Square Enix via a download code for Xbox One.