Life Is Strange: Before The Storm

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm takes place about three years before the events in the original Life Is Strange. In this game, you play as Chloe Price, Max's best friend, still bitter after Max left for Seattle and never looked back. Chloe is just as we know her and expect her to be, only three years younger and slightly less angsty and rebellious (although this probably depends on the choices you make throughout the game). The game is, in short, a chronicle of how Chloe met and became friends with Rachel Amber, who, as we know from the first game, was later murdered by the genious but evil photographer and professor Mark Jefferson.

One night in Arcadia Bay, Chloe sneaks out of home and goes to the Old Mill where her favourite band, Firewalk, are having a concert. After working her way in with all the cunning ways (yes, that's the Chloe we know), she goes upstairs in the empty attic to enjoy the concert from above at her ease. When two thugs attack her and threaten her, she is saved by Rachel Amber, the most popular girl in their school, who turns out to be a really cool person and they end up becoming friends. Chloe, who is having a hard time at home ever since her mother started dating ex-veteran David Madsen, finds a new-found happiness in her relationship with Rachel.

When Rachel sees her father kissing another woman, she gets devastated and wants to run away from home. Chloe hates David with a venom and rarely goes to her house after he decided to move in with her and her mother, so she agrees to leave with her friend. The night when they plan to run away together, however, things take an unexpected turn and Rachel is called to face a shattering revelation. The events that follow will be overwhelming for both of them, bonding the two girls even more and establishing their friendship.

Rachel and Chloe are soulmates

Several characters that we know from the first game make their appearance in Before The Storm: we have the chance to interact with Nathan, Victoria, Dana, Evan and Justin, who were later Max's fellow students in Life Is Strange. Frank Bauer, the local drug dealer, also has an important role in the plot, as he is a very close friend of Damon Merrick, the villain of the story, and we get to see more of his sensitive and compassionate side. Joyce, Chloe's mother, and her boyfriend David play a crucial part in the development of the events in Chloe's life. Apart from Rachel and Damon, the other new characters include Rachel's parents, James and Rose; Eliot, Chloe's friend and schoolmate, and a mysterious woman, Sera, whom Rachel believes to be her father's mistress.

With its narrative qualities and calm pace, Life Is Strange: Before The Storm is not just one more game. Playing it feels like watching a movie about friendship, loyalty, family values, moral dilemmas and the relativity of good and evil. The plot is split in three episodes (Awakening, Brave New World, Hell Is Empty) which are long enough to let the plot unfold but without dragging on. As a player, you control Chloe and have the chance to make your own choices throughout the scenes. Sometimes these choices are simply different replies, and other times they are important decisions that may have consequences later on, just like in the first game.

Chloe's choices may have unexpected consequences

The main characters are Chloe and Rachel, and most scenes involve both of them.We get to see how Chloe, who was so heartbroken due to Max going away, got infatuated with her new friend and her charming personality. Although coming from a rather prestigious and wealthy home, Rachel has a free, insubordinate spirit and shows a risky and careless attitude towards life, something that she manages to keep in balance with her competency at school, as she is a gifted student with an admirable intelligence. She is also very talented and pretty with great social skills, which makes her extremely popular among her peers. Soon Chloe is all over Rachel and Rachel seems to be quite smitten with Chloe, although it never becomes clear if it's a budding romance going on between them or it is just a deep and loving friendship that simply finds several ways of expression due to the fact that the two girls are going through a tumultuous adolescence.

It is not long before Chloe realizes that Rachel's ideal world is far from being ideal, and that her friend has a lot to go through and carry on her slender shoulders. In the meantime, Chloe is haunted by recurring dreams involving her father, several times depicting the accident that caused his death, while other times he appears to offer her advice which however she has to decipher as it is not always clear. Chloe cannot get over the fact that her mother fell in love with David, whom she despises (although if you have played the first Life Is Strange, you know that David is a good man who simply didn't know how to deal with Chloe). Her dreams are her refuge, but most of the times they end up being nightmares, because of her denial to come to terms with the past and move on. Her relationship with Rachel seems to light a new path in her life, but both of them have to overcome their personal struggles so as to be able to start anew. Ironically enough, we already know how bleak their future would be, with Mr Jefferson killing Rachel a few years later.

Depending on your choices, Chloe's interactions with David may not resemble a battlefield

While I don't like comparisons, comparing Before The Storm with the first Life Is Strange is somewhat inevitable; and this is mainly to underline what was that made the first game so great and why the second game, although still very good, stands a bit lower than its predecessor. Moreover, everything in Before The Storm is connected one way or the other with the original Life Is Strange, so the two games go hand in hand.

The unforgettable first game had something very dark, twisted and haunting about it which made it genuinely charming and fascinating. It had many and varied plot elements (ie, the main plotline with Mr Jefferson, the kitchen sink drama in Chloe's house, Max and Chloe's investigations, the bizzare connection between Nathan and Victoria), its characters were well-shaped and given decent on-screen time, and most importantly, it had that fantastic and powerful supernatural-metaphysical side which actually made it stand out the most. Several of these elements couldn't be applied in Before The Storm; for example, the dark element had to be lowered because in this game the main characters are underage (Chloe and Rachel, as well as their other classmates, are 15 years old); or the supernatural part had to be left out because Chloe cannot rewind time like Max could. Thus they had to be replaced with other, more familiar and realistic ones. Which means that now in Before The Storm there is a lot of time dedicated to the family drama Chloe and later Rachel are going through, as well as several other similar next-door dramas that involve classmates or friends.

The game is lovely overall, there is no doubt about that. It is atmospheric, sentimental and enjoyable to play. The environments are looking fine, and the music is amazing. The character models could take some improvement, but this is not really an issue, as it only becomes evident when they have to do certain movements (ie, when they are dancing). There are quite a few intense and heavily emotional scenes that are more than likely to bring tears to your eyes. Chloe's dream sequences with her dad are wonderful - and here is where you can see sparkles of that great dark element of the first game.

The imagery in Chloe's dream sequences is dark and compelling

What slightly messed up the experience for me were a few plot elements that either didn't make sense or were inconsistent. There is one character whom you see just a couple of times in the first episode and you are led to form a positive impression about him. He makes no appearance at all in the second episode, and then in the third one, all of a sudden, he shows a supposedly different self. You are supposed to realize at that point that he is a stalker and he has bad intentions towards Chloe. The problem is that he has had such a brief role up to then and he is so unrelated to the plot, that this whole scene comes out of the blue, considering, moreover, that it doesn't affect the progression of the events at all. I made a bad choice during a crucial conversation with him, which led to him finding out that I was secretly calling the police, however I still managed to escape, and I never saw him again until the end of the game. I wonder if the developers had other plans for him, and maybe they run out of budget or something and cut his role short.

Nathan's attitude during the play sequence is also confusing. In the game, Chloe and Rachel's class is putting on a performance of The Tempest by Shakespeare; a presentation that is put to the test several times and in various ways, but eventually is carried out successfully with a few surprises. Some time before the presentation, in a dialogue between Chloe and her classmate Steph, who is also the stage manager, Steph tells Chloe how some of the students show a different side while performing their roles; specifically she mentions Nathan, among others, and how there is so much depth in his Caliban performance. Then moments before the play, you overhear a dialogue between Nathan and his father, where they argue about something that never becomes clear. Is it that Nathan likes to be an actor and his father disapproves? Quite possibly, but we will never know. Later on, while Nathan gets on stage to say his first lines, he seems upset and frustrated, he even cries silently and swears among his teeth, then leaves the stage. However we are never shown how he managed the rest of the play; we can only assume he miraculously got to put himself together and made it to the end, as in the finale he comes out on stage and bows before the audience with the rest of the acting students like nothing happened.

That said, although the game is mainly about Chloe and Rachel, I think it should have been fair to devote a bit more time to Nathan, considering the importance of his role in Life Is Strange. We do get some hints about how he was constantly trying to adapt to the models that his father and his social circle demanded, we also get a few other hints about how he probably had a good side (there is even a photo of him and Rachel showing them smiling happily), but there could have been more development of his character, focusing on how he had to suppress himself every single day, and maybe highlight how acting in the play helped him liberate his true self and feel a lot better in his skin, justifying Steph.

Maybe if Nathan let his dark side show for real, he would be liberated

But generally in the character development field, the game could have done a lot better, especially as far as certain important deuteragonists are concerned. It is never clarified whether Sera was really a victim of circumstance or not; plus, she definitely needed more scenes in the game so that we could see if she was truly misjudged. From a point and on, Sera is a major driving force in the story, but you never have the chance to get to know her a little better. You only have a brief conversation with her near the end, which however leaves you with many unanswered questions about her.

There is also one more important theme that needed more development. Frank seems to have quite the bromance with Damon Merrick, who is the arch-villain of the story. The two of them had been friends almost since they were born and they seem to be extremely close, which makes the inevitable outcome of events even more tragic for them.

In a better world, Frank and Damon could have been happy BFFs for the rest of their lives

On another level, Frank and Damon are like a deformed reflection of Chloe and Rachel. Frank lives in the margins of society and he is sort of an outcast in the underworld, because he doesn't fit there either. He looks too bad for the good world, but he is not bad enough to belong fully to the bad world - just like Chloe. Damon, on the other hand, is the king of the underworld - just like Rachel is the queen of her school. These two guys are as different as they are similar, and they seem to have a very strong bond - just like the two girls. Their bromance had so much potential, and it deserved a lot more love in the game.

But most importantly, the main plot weakens as the game progresses. It starts off as quite promising in the first episode, putting you in the mood well enough; it almost prepares the ground for something metaphysical or mysterious during the second episode (we even get the unexpected snow like in the first game). Then everything comes into the light and you realize it's in fact a melodrama centered around hidden family secrets. On top of this, the choices that you make do not dramatically alter the outcome of events. It is not like in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, for example, where a wrong decision may result in the murder of your friend. Or like in the first Life Is Strange where chosing the wrong way to act in the finale can lead to Mr Jefferson killing David who comes to Max's rescue. Here it doesn't matter if you just argue with the villain in the last episode or choose to be fierce enough and attack him with a knife, as the conclusion of the scene will be more or less the same either way.

I guess that what tied the hands of the story writers and they didn't add or elaborate on more elements of the plot was the fact that the main protagonists were underage. This fact alone automatically lowered the level of character development and the amount of more complex details that could have found a place in the game otherwise, as the story had to revolve around the two girls and anything that was related to them had to be in balance with their young age.

But the game is very good nonetheless. It will hold your interest and attention from beginning to end and it has its fair share of captivating scenes and some strong, memorable moments. What it needed was a bit more complex plot, a few more twists and to elaborate more on some themes and characters. The thing is, if you have played the incredible first game, your expectations are inevitably high and Before The Storm, although it will definitely find a place in your heart, will leave you with the feeling that something great could have been made with it, but for some reason didn't happen to the extent that it was promising. If you focus on the sentimental part and try to ignore all that doesn't sit that well or that remains vague, you still have a sweet game with decent replay value, as you may want to try all the possible choices and decisions to see where they lead. Playing as Chloe is cool, and if you get the DLC pack, you can choose to dress her up with a variety of cute and fancy outfits. Also it is worth the while to read her journal; or should it be called 'Letters to Max'? It is a delightful collection of unsent letters to her old friend, where apart from narrating the events of the game in her own hilarious style, she never misses to pick on Max about leaving and forgetting her, making her funny, sarcastic comments in any given instance.

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