French outfit Dontnod Entertainment's Life is Strange was a surprise success. An episodic adventure that told a supernaturally charged tale of the friendship between two estranged young girls, Max and Chloe. A storm was coming, a girl was missing, conspiracies and your typical teenage problems made for a memorable, different and compelling game.
And so it wasn't without a certain amount of scepticism that we learned of a prequel at this year's E3. A prequel spanning just three episodes that were not being developed by Dontnod, but instead was done by American outfit Deck Nine. To make matters worse, the prequel that told the story of how Chloe and the girl missing in the first game Rachel came to know each other and due to an actor's strike the actor who voiced Chloe, Ashly Burch, could not be brought back (she would instead lend her assistance to the writing team). Could Deck Nine really do justice to the first game and create something that would stand on its own legs? The answer, having played the three episodes that make up Before the Storm is yes, they sure could.
It's a more subdued, less fantastical, and in some ways more grounded game. It won't necessarily be remembered for its plot twists, its major scenes, or oddball characters, but rather for daring to tell a story closer to our own lives. It took one aspect of Life is Strange and built on that, rather than trying to copy the entire formula. It's a more succinct and distilled experience, for better and worse.
The first episode gave us a slow start, but by the second episode we realised that this wasn't just a slow start, the entire game offered a rather gentle ride with a few dramatic scenes sprinkled every here and there. Most characters are wonderfully fleshed out and made human, complete with flaws and not as one-dimensional as you may think.
If anything that's where Before the Storm shines the most. The small, seemingly inconsequential scenes, like in episode one where Chloe can take part in a board game session with Mikey and Steph, or the somewhat out of character last minute inclusion of Chloe in the drama class' interpretation of The Tempest (episode 2). We also enjoyed the ending, perhaps not the big choice you make (as you'd expect) but the fact that the developer was brave enough to leave some things a bit vague. We're not going to spoil what that is, but it was handled well. There was one scene in the final episode that we felt was a bit odd, one character that was there in the periphery inserted himself in a scene and perhaps it was just the way we'd played the game, but it felt a bit forced here. Again, we don't want to spoil things.
It's a story about people and a story about Arcadia Bay, then. And to be perfectly honest, that's enough. On the surface, it may seem a bit scaled back, but it also helps focus the three-episode long season. This season helps flesh out Chloe and demystifies Rachel Amber. It also adds some depth to key characters in Life is Strange, Frank and Nathan, most notably. In a way, we feel we would have made different choices in Life is Strange had we first played Before the Storm, and perhaps that's the calling card of a well-made prequel. It builds on some things that were already there, but also adds new perspectives on certain things.
Something that we feel this game did better than the original was the extras, the diary entries, the tags Chloe could do (for achievements and trophies, of course). A lot of love has gone into providing players with these extras and connecting players with the one person missing here (Max). We also really enjoyed the scenes between Chloe and her father, these dreams or whatever they were, offered an effective way to illustrate Chloe's thoughts and emotions without needing to burden the main adventure too much with that.
Maybe Telltale Games are to be blamed for getting us accustomed to five-episode seasons, and maybe that's why Before the Storm feels a bit on the short side, but really the story told here wouldn't necessarily benefit from being stretched out over more episodes. We're also left with the feeling that our choices didn't really influence the direction the story took, but rather just added flavour. It felt very much like a linear ride and perhaps Deck Nine didn't factor in player agency enough (whether actual or false). We felt there were some missed opportunities for little things here, like when we put on a shirt Rachel had thrown away and we didn't get the expected comment from Rachel about it. Another area that we kind of felt was a bit unsatisfactory was the relationship between Chloe and her mom and stepdad. Knowing where this was heading later simply made the choices in this part of the game feel pointless. Chloe's new ability to "talk back" ultimately felt a bit underwhelming and mechanically disappointing, it also felt out of place in many cases.
It's not the milestone that Life is Strange was, but it's not without merit and it manages to carve out its own identity next to the original game, a great feat all things considered. It was a tough act to follow, and while it won't please all fans of Life is Strange, it pleased us.