Developers: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Plot: As a dangerous forest fire burns across Arcadia, Chloe faces suspension, family crises and a growing drug feud in her back door. The only answer is to run away with Rachel Amber.
Let’s be honest, the story to Before the Storm doesn’t come close to holding a candle to the intricate narrative of Life is Strange’s original five episode run. The main story thread about Rachel Amber dealing with her father having an affair with a mysterious blonde woman is thread-bare at best, more of an excuse to keep the game heading towards ‘something’, rather than a solid attempt at creating a driven narrative. The subplots are hit and miss too. The Chloe home life should be interesting, but being a prequel where we know how each relationship plays out, any scene spent with Joyce and David feels frustratingly like a waste of time. There are small pockets of joy to be found in the supporting cast’s squabbles (Nathan’s initial steps into darkness, a school play), but the only subplot to really bring any sense of curiosity to the table is Frank and his dangerous drug-dealing acquaintances.
This makes it even more amazing that Life is Strange’s spin-off series manages to hold itself together, thanks to the central relationship. In the old game, the plot was beautifully written, but held back by a focus on the occasionally dull Max and her fascination over her volatile best friend, Chloe. The opposite can be said of Before the Storm, but whenever the game slows down to examine this central bond between Chloe and the charismatic popular girl, Rachel Amber, you don’t mind. The naff story about her father’s affair is trivial, but manageable, because really it is just an excuse to get Chloe and Rachel in the same room. That is where the magic happens, the story sparking to life, whenever the pair of them are close to each other, like two live wires jolting an engine to life. In some regards, Before the Storm can be accused of retreading old ground. Chloe has jumped roles to the out-of-town bi-curious girl, devoted to this strange new friend, bursting full of personality. But Before the Storm is much more engaging. Chloe will always be more exciting than Max, as the player is able to choose harsh put-downs over stuttering apologies. It is also nice to learn about Chloe before the original story. The punk rocker “fuck everyone” vibe is present, but restrained, occasionally giving way to a softer side (this does depend on your choices). It is heart-breaking to think of the person she becomes and the unsung hero you might make her out to be now. At the same time, it is too much fun to see her slowly evolve into the Chloe you remember, as story beats bring the time-lines closer together. The lesbian angle was also only ever hinted at in Life is Strange. While I appreciated that the player was allowed to choose the sexuality of their character, whether Chloe was just a friend, or something more, here the story feels more driven by the romantic sparks that fly. A lot of the time, the game just slows down to revel in how infatuated Chloe is with the gorgeous Rachel Amber, as well as solidifying why that should come as no surprise to the gamer. A lot of the mini-missions in the game are excuses to spend some more time with them. Chloe and Rachel meet at a junk yard and start customising their own car to drive off in the sunset together with. A drug deal job brings Chloe to the performing night of The Tempest, starring Rachel Amber. Before the Storm turns into the kind of game that depends on how much you are invested in “Amberice”. Without that dying need to see that burning chemistry, this game is nothing more than a few set-pieces stapled together. However, when you buy into that story, the set-pieces are nothing short of incredible. An opening credits sequence where Chloe trashes school property to a buzzing soundtrack hits the heights that the first Life is Strange opening credits left the bar (sadly still unbeaten), is the bad-ass video game moment of 2017 so far. A brutal scene both makes you question your morals and pains the bully character of Drew in a brand new light. The Tempest play hits emotional heights no one expected to see.
And then there is the scene under the lamp-post at night. Depending on how you play the game, it could be that romantic moment you have been waiting for.
Final Verdict: On one hand, this is more of the same. On the other, it is improving with each episode, an emotion-provoking display of raw characterisation.