If the original Life is Strange was Lightning in a Bottle, then Before the Strom is an attempt to replicate what it achieved; A huge resonance with young adult and teen audiences. But whereas the original game balanced it’s character driven story with time travel powers, Before the Storm does away with the powers and leans all the more into it’s characters.
The game is a prequel, taking place long before Max Caufield returns to Arcadia Bay, and we assume the role of Chloe Price as she becomes friends with Rachel Amber, the missing girl from the first game. It seems leaning into the character dynamics payed off really well since Chloe and Rachel seem to have a natural chemistry together despite them sharing less time together than you might expect. This is because when they are together it’s for something big, so you end up remembering it, whether it’s starting a forest fire, performing a romantic gesture in a stage-play or untangling a web of lies together, something eventful is always happening.
And this is great given that this is just a spin-off game with two less episodes – amounting to roughly four hours less play time – than the original game. It shows a lot of effort went into the pacing of the game as to make the most of what they had to work with.
But although the writing excels at convincing us of the relationships between various characters, it really lacks in the story department. The story regards Rachel trying to find her biological mother after her father lied to her about who she was. But her mother winds up in a bad way due to dealings with a nasty drug dealer, who we’ve seen attending concerts with his goons and literally hospitalising a teenager. It is up to us, Chloe, to find out the truth about why Rachel’s mother left and then decide whether it’s something that Rachel deserves to know. The path puts us on a collision course with this drug fellow.
Much like the original Life is Strange, it’s not really the height of moral quandaries that we are presented with in the finale; we either lie to our best friend and/or lover or tell her the truth, and since there’s no real downside to doing either then telling the truth is the obvious thing to do. As a result, we have the repeat problem with there being no incentive to pick the controversial choice over the conventional one unless it’s simply to see what happens, which is never a good thing in a story driven game.
But worse than that is this whole drug dealer subplot. The main villain is in the game for all of five minutes and isn’t even confronted by the player in the finale – in fact we don’t even get to see the person who confronts him and drives him away do that. It happens entirely off screen when Chloe is knocked unconscious. It feels like he was there as an arbitrary danger to raise the stakes because this game has neither a mystery to uncover or unstoppable tornado to anticipate. But the thing is I still don’t think we needed these drug dudes in the game to spice it up, since Rachel’s father quickly falls into the role of an antagonist, as does one of her school buddies, which, coupled with drama occurring in Chloe’s family, results in a game already juggling plotlines struggling to lend it’s main threat any form of legitimate care.
The final thing we have to talk about is the gameplay, or lack thereof. With the removal of the time travel mechanic, puzzle solving is substituted with “talk-back”, where Chloe can force her way through conversations with attitude and wit. It’s very simple; listen to what the other person says and choose a comeback responce that includes some of the words they used, and one that is context-appropriate. The problem is that, of all places, this is where the game’s dialogue suffers the most since 90% of the options you need to pick to pass the minigame are incredibly obvious. Therefore the “game” feels more like typical TellTale interactive movie, which the first one managed to somewhat avoid.
The result is a game that’s a very mixed bag. What it does well it does extremely well, like the handling of Chloe’s grief leading her to idolising Rachel unfairly, and how Rachel does the same for Chloe after discovering her father’s secrets. For a game renowned for iconic hit or miss dialogue, it manages yet again to handle mature themes in a respectfully realistic way, while also implementing tongue-in-cheek scenarios here and there to give the game some charm. So, again, it’s no hard to see why it resonates so well with it’s target audience – it respects them the whole way through. It doesn’t quite walk the line between silly and real as well as the original, but it still does so competently and the result is a game that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve; offering player’s a lot of sincerity, even if it does struggle to do much else.