Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1 (PS4) Review

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (hereafter just referred to as "Storm" for brevity of word count) is the kind of prequel which will produce two responses. One will be distinct for those who've played the original game, and thus experience the prequel with knowledge of what's to come. The other will render a story for those who've never played Life is Strange before. Unlike most examples of prequels, in any medium, those responses will probably be vastly different.


So to that end, I'm reviewing this game twice. First, for those who have no idea what the hell Life is Strange is, and secondly - with spoilers - for those who do. If you're just looking for a brief summation on my thoughts: I enjoyed it to a point, and am tentatively awaiting the next episode.


FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN'T PLAYED LIFE IS STRANGE

 

Chloe Price is your average sixteen-year-old. She's skipping school, mouthing off to her mum's new boyfriend, breaking curfew to see a rock band at an abandoned sawmill, and having awkward conversations with Rachel Amber, the hot popular girl at school. One day, Rachel suggests she and Chloe cut class and go on an adventure. What could possibly go wrong?


Storm's first episode is fairly brief, even for an episodic adventure game. The bulk of the story follows Chloe and Rachel's Excellent Adventure, and the things they learn about each other during that adventure. It's a promising beginning for what's set up as a three-part story, with an intriguing sequel hook that most won't see coming.

Where the game excels, particularly in its serving as a prequel installment, is how effortlessly it accommodates new players in the world of Life is Strange. Though there are references to the original here and there, Storm largely stands alone, presenting a story that's accessible and engaging regardless of your franchise knowledge. Considering some of my memory of the original - which I experienced nearly two years ago - had gone quite fuzzy, it was reassuring to know that Storm is a largely pick-up-and-play part of the puzzle. (I do, however, reserve the right to change this opinion depending on how the next two episodes unfold.)


Whether you dig it or not is going to depend on your tolerance for minimalist mechanics and the story Storm goes with. Unlike contemporaries such as The Walking Dead or the recent Telltale Batman series, Storm offers little for players to do besides move and talk. The game is predominantly story-driven, largely through mechanics like conversation and dialogue choices; those who are after some complexity in their gameplay, even for an episodic adventure game, might find Storm's austere mechanics off-putting. If it weren't for some solid writing and a decent slate of voice actors (many of whom replace the original actors for returning characters thanks to the recent voice actors strike), the game would fall flat. Fortunately, for me at least, it doesn't.

As with any other episodic game, how well Storm succeeds will largely be dictated by what comes after. For now, though, its debut is a promising beginning full of emotional resonance, familial distress, and awkward teen dialogue.



FOR THOSE WHO HAVE PLAYED LIFE IS STRANGE - SPOILERS FOR THE ORIGINAL GAME FROM HERE ON OUT

The original Life is Strange still manages to produce extreme emotional ambivalence in me whenever I think of it. The game wasn't a trailblazer the way other episodic adventure games have been, and it was, in a word, awkward. Part of that came from the subject matter and characters being teenagers who spoke in cringe-inducingly awful lingo, but I nonetheless found many of those characters endearing by the end. Both of those Sophie's Choice-style endings still make me choke up (for the record, I went for sacrificing Chloe, one of the hardest narrative choices I've made since Mass Effect). I wouldn't say I loved Life is Strange, but by the end I definitely appreciated it for what it was, and felt utterly wrecked by its conclusions.


For the longest time, Storm seems like it's going to ignore its predecessor's preference for the fantastic. Sure, the original was still fairly grounded in terms of its plot and characters and never strayed into outright fantasy territory, but Max's use of her powers was a thread woven through things from the start, a thread that was slowly prioritised as the narrative progressed (kind of like Heroes, but if if it hadn't been written by a committee of idiots). By contrast, Storm spends nearly the entire first episode playing things comparably straight; in place of the ability to time travel through photos, Chloe's "special power" is the ability to hurl insults and verbally spar with her opponents. Rather than dealing with the burden of great power and the great responsibility that comes with it, Chloe's plot concerns her increasingly fraught family life, missing her best friend and exploring her burgeoning friendship with Rachel Amber. It's not until close to the end that the supernatural gets hinted at again, through a relatively unexpected means, which provides an interesting diving board to head into Episode 2 with.

Unfortunately, that interest is kneecapped by knowledge of the original game. Unless Storm takes the unlikely option of an Inglourious Basterds-style major departure from established canon, we know already that Chloe is doomed to either be killed in a bathroom or left as a shellshocked survivor of a town wrecked by a tornado. We know Rachel's going to end up dead and buried as a victim of the original game's killer. Any attempt at their building character arcs or seeking catharsis through overcoming flaws is hampered by just how bleak both of these lives are going to get. That's not even getting into other returning characters, like Frank and Chloe's stepdad, who similarly have arcs we're already aware of.


Now, I know that a prequel can still be engaging even if we know the destination, and even if that destination is a horrible one. X-Men: First Class managed this handily: we knew Erik Lehnsherr was going to become Magneto, no matter how much Michael Fassbender shared feelings James McAvoy, who hoped there was still good in him. But the journey in the prequel was a balance of optimism and apprehension, making it clear from the beginning that things would not be ending well whilst allowing for spaces of brevity, hope, and the hint of redemption. Things weren't driving towards a wholly nihilistic conclusion.


Though at times rendering a depiction of the bleakness of our teenage years, Storm nonetheless doubles down on attempts at connection and a better life. Near the episode's midpoint, Chloe and Rachel have a long conversation on a train which shows they're thinking of a better tomorrow. Neither want to stay in Arcadia Bay, and the connection they're forming - whether romantic or platonic - is what will spur each of them to achieve that dream of leaving to find something greater. Even after a falling out over something unexpected during their adventure, Chloe and Rachel's reconciliation again emphasises that the bond they're forming is crucial, healing and encouraging. That's a great place to start, even if the next two episodes fray or fracture that bond.

Trouble is, we know what will happen to that bond. Whether in this prequel or in the blank space between games, Rachel will die under tragic circumstances and Chloe will most likely follow suit. For fans of the first game, this feels like Life is Strange thumbs its nose at any kind of heartwarming hope one might get from Storm. Things will end badly, even if Storm doesn't entirely spell it out: if you've played before, you know what's coming, and it crosses the line from bittersweet to downright depressing.


And that's why my reaction is split in two. As its own thing, Storm is a great, if somewhat brief, start to an emotionally gripping episodic series. As a prequel to the original game, it's a nihilistic and somewhat nasty tease at the love that could be and the hope that is not.

- Chris


 

FOR NEW PLAYERS

FOR FANS OF THE ORIGINAL


Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1 is available for Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC now.

Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Square Enix Australia.

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