Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Xbox One, Full Review)
The world stopped for Life is Strange, literally and metaphorically. It was a story on a grand scale with monumental set pieces. Perched on the edge of a cliff, we watched as a storm defied logic and tore the very fabric of time and space apart while Max tried to alter her own narrative and save her best friend, Chloe. Now, as time marches on, we are faced with a whole new perception of what it means to have your world torn apart in Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
There might not be a literal storm, but the winds of change blow through Arcadia Bay as we see a young Chloe come to terms with the world changing around her, alongside the blossoming of a beautiful relationship with the previously enigmatic Rachel Amber. Instead of contemplating the bigger picture, we are faced with the far more intimate relationships that fill our everyday lives. It’s a tale of loss, grief, young love, and revealing truths. It’s not exactly what I was expecting when I thought of Life is Strange, but it’s touching in the best way possible.
We revisit old faces, and stomp through familiar places as the boisterous Chloe. Itching to leave her mark on the world, Chloe will deface anything that she can and shout down anyone that opposes her. Contrasting the ever aggressive Chloe is the much adored Rachel. Fans of the Life is Strange series know, without a doubt, how this story ends. So, exploring the relationship can be trying at times, especially when it appears that Chloe is just an outright angry and, at times, extremely juvenile person that swats away any outstretched hand that comes near her, in fact many of these situations ends up with the “backtalk” mechanic. And that’s where Life is Strange: Before the Storm falls apart.
When in tense situations in which Chloe rebels against authority, the “backtalk” mechanic excels as one of the more engaging aspects of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, but the reality of these situations is that an adult would never respond in the same petulant manner. A good example of the mechanic working well is between Principal Raymond Wells and Chloe. The two verbally joust, with Chloe throwing petty barbs in Wells’ direction, but Wells always rises above it and tries to empathise with a teenager struggling with the loss of her dad and trying to make sense of a world she feels has no place for her. There’s also emotionally, and horribly relatable, conversations with Chloe’s mum that shine in an otherwise confusing mechanic that sees Chloe belittling and sniping at anyone who challenges her. It definitely suits Chloe’s antagonistic nature, but its place in a modern teenage romance is misplaced.
But, even when verbal cannons are misfiring all over Life is Strange: Before the Storm, nothing really ruins the atmosphere quite as much as the graffiti mechanic. In Life is Strange, Max would capture moments. Small sections of time made permanent with the aid of her trusty camera. She didn’t leave her mark on the world, not deliberately. All Max ever wanted to do was capture the beauty of it. Conversely, Chloe is on a path of destruction. Everything that can be defaced, will be defaced – even in the most tender moments. It’s a mechanic that’s exists purely out of expectation rather than character building. Early on it makes perfect sense, but Life is Strange: Before the Storm sees Chloe grow beyond her temperamental façade and it seeks to diminish the efforts Chloe makes in weighty situations. It could all be remedied by giving more thoughtful options, or even just cutting back this element to the earlier stages in the story as there are most assuredly some moments Chloe shouldn’t and wouldn’t leave a catty calling card.
And it’s not the only aspect of the game that feels at odds with the rest of the game. There’s a clear disparity in the quality of models in the game at times, with the titular characters having prominent facial features and very distinguished looks while the rest of the cast can look a little washed out, or even like a smudged oil painting. It’s hardly a focal point, but it does detract from the overall pleasure of the wonderful moments the lesser members of the cast bring to the table – especially when the voice cast is fairly stellar throughout.
In fact, the whole experience is fairly stellar. Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a good game, but it didn’t need to be. It’s fan-fiction day-dreamed up by some truly devoted fans with the blessing of the original team. There’s no Kate Marsh moment, a particularly heart-wrenching even that I’ll remember for as long as I live, and all roads eventually lead home. That’s definitely the point that sticks in my craw, no matter what decision I made, it was always going to end in one way and boy-howdy does the ending make that horribly clear. All the aspects I loved about Life is Strange are barely blips on the map in Before the Storm, but it’s a totally different experience. I might be a jaded 20-something – I’ve been told green actually suits me, so I can deal with it – but I started to believe in Chloe and Rachel’s relationship by the end. I wanted them to outgrow the pangs of growing up and embrace each other, but nothing will ever explain away the beautiful girl that left us too soon. The hole in the heart of Arcadia Bay might be patched over by an origin story, but the true strength of Rachel Amber lies with her in a ditch as a complete mystery and the fact that maybe nothing beautiful is meant to last.
This review encompasses the entirety of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, but you can also read some slightly more in depth analysis of Episodes 1 & 2 here and here, respectively.