Game Spotlight: Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Warning: This entry contains spoilers for the Life is Strange and Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
Unlike my previous entries for the first season of Life is Strange that was split up into a spoiler free Game Spotlight and a separate spoiler-filled entry, I’m just going to go all out on my thoughts about Before the Storm in a single entry. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know explicitly when I start and stop talking about spoilers, and for the purposes of this entry, I’m going to refer to the first season as “Life is Strange” and this new game as “Before the Storm” to make things simple.
And yes, I’m writing this entry before the “Farewell” bonus episode is released where you get to play as Max Caulfield for the last time. I’ll probably end up writing a small entry for that once it’s finally released, but for now, I just want to focus on the main three episodes of Before the Storm.
Wow, okay. Here we go…
The first episode of Before the Storm came out on the 31st of August and, of course, I had already pre-ordered the entire game months in advance and made sure to pre-install it days before release on my Xbox One. However, I did manage to scrape together enough self-control to wait until all three main episodes of the game came out before I even launched it for the very first time. I’m pretty proud of myself for that achievement, because I REALLY wanted to play this game.
“Why would you do that if you really wanted to play the game so badly?” You may be asking. It’s simple.
For Life is Strange, having to wait for each episode to come out every couple of months added to the overall experience of the game because it allowed me time to reflect on the events of each episode. In my mind, I was literally putting myself into the game and obsessing about each and every little decision I made just as Max Caulfield would have done as her introverted self.
So when it came time to play Before the Storm, it made more sense to do things differently based on the fact that I was playing as someone very different from Max. I wanted my time with Before the Storm to feel… turbulent. I wanted that first playthrough to bite me with how fast everything was going and for me to bite right back, just as you would expect from Chloe Price.
Awake, dear heart, awake! Thou hast slept well. Awake!
For all of its faults, it’s not a perfect game, believe me, I know, but I fucking LOVE Life is Strange. It is one of my favourite games of all time, so much so that I bought it three times on Xbox One, PC and the special edition version for PlayStation 4. It’s a game that is very dear to my heart, there’s just something about the way that it was made, the characters, the music, everything, that really hits all the right buttons for me. I fucking love it. (Stopping this train of thought right now before I end up writing an entire essay about the first game yet again.)
So, when I heard that a prequel was going to be created focusing on Chloe Price and Rachel Amber, you can imagine that I was pretty fucking hyped… which is why I decided that I was going to go on a total media blackout in regards to Before the Storm. I didn’t want to know anything about the game at all, I wanted it to be a completely new and surprising experience.
This wasn’t like with the first game where I was trying to figure out if it would actually turn out to be anything close to what I would enjoy, we’ve already passed that milestone. With this game, I trusted it enough to allow it to stand on its own based on what was right in front of me and nothing else.
Hell, I didn’t even know that Ashly Burch wasn’t voicing Chloe, or the fact that none of the voice cast were returning for their respective roles because of the 2016–17 video game voice actor strike. It gets even better, I assumed that Dontnod Entertainment were the ones who were developing this game, but I was even wrong about that! I mean, I was surprised when I saw the Unity logo pop up on-screen when I first loaded the game, but then I saw the Deck Nine logo and I thought to myself, “Is Deck Nine some kind of motion capture utility they used?”
It wasn’t until I hit the title screen proper that I saw that the game was developed by Deck Nine… and I still didn’t know who they were. Of course, after playing all three episodes, I did some quick research to learn more about them, and the more I learned about the development of this game after the fact, the more amazing this game became.
I mean no disrespect by that, but you really have to think about this in context. We’re talking about a niche title that is a prequel to another niche title, created by a developer who didn’t even know if this kind of game was going to be successful or not in the first place. So when the formula is established in that first game and your team takes up the mantle, creating this prequel game that lacks key gameplay mechanics and doesn’t even have any of the voice cast from the original game due to circumstances out of your control… holy fuck that’s an insanely steep uphill battle right there.
Yet, with everything seemingly against them, Deck Nine were able to work with the folks over at Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix (even getting Ashly Burch in to do some writing) and created a game which is worthy of the original. Everything about Before the Storm felt so consistent that I was able to play through the entire game without feeling like anything was wrong or out-of-place.
Now that I think about it after playing through the entire game, I’m really impressed with how well the voice actors for Before the Storm were able to fit in so well with each of the returning characters. I’m sure if I watched a side-by-side video, I’d be able to spot the difference between each voice, but on a purely natural playthrough of the game, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference.
About the only thing different with this game was the fact that it ran on Unity instead of Unreal Engine 3. That was pretty damn apparent due to the lack of texture pop-in for every new scene, hah.
With everything about this game that was different, it didn’t matter, because as soon as I started up that first episode, it hit me in an instant. I had opened my eyes and found myself back in Arcadia Bay and everything was very familiar… the only difference was that I was looking at the world through the eyes of Chloe Price instead of Max Caulfield…
…and yeah, even though I knew Chloe wanted to leave so badly, it felt damn good to be back.
O brave new world, That has such people in ‘t!
I remember back when Life is Strange was still on everyone’s mind, Chloe Price was one of those characters you either loved or hated, there was no in-between with her. And while I can totally understand why there’s a lot of hate for Chloe, I hella don’t count myself among the haters. In fact, despite all her flaws, I really do love Chloe Price… partly because she reminds me so much of someone from my past (more the good things about her, not so much the bad), but also because I understand her… maybe a little too well.
So when it finally came time to see the world through her eyes in Before the Storm, each episode confirmed everything about her character that I already knew based on my own views of what kind of person she is. I felt completely connected to Chloe and really did see the world through her eyes. It didn’t feel like I was pulling her strings like a marionette, putting her through scenarios to see what would happen. Rather, it felt like her story was my story and that all the decisions made in the heat of the moment were completely natural decisions to make for me as Chloe.
Love her or hate her, you really do get a good look into what kind of person Chloe is in Before the Storm and, for those who didn’t before, start to understand why she is the way she is in Life is Strange. And sure, just like with Life is Strange, there are plenty of moments in Before the Storm that have that teenage angst and awkwardness laced throughout all of it. The common criticism with Life is Strange, and I’m sure Before the Storm as well, is that normal teenagers don’t talk like this and that it’s clearly written by adults who don’t understand what teenagers sound like.
Well, since I am a teacher at a secondary school, I end up spending a hell of a lot of time around teenagers, and I can tell you right now, both Life is Strange and Before the Storm do a really good job at distilling the teenager experience down pretty well. I know just how stupid and irrational they can be for no apparent reason, and these games manage to capture the spirit of that teenage stupidity and shortsightedness pretty damn accurately.
I guess that’s why I’m a lot more forgiving of this series than most other people tend to be. To me, all the character interactions in Life is Strange and Before the Storm make total sense because it’s all in line with the observations I’ve made of the teenagers I teach.
Yes, Chloe is infuriating at times and pretty fucking irrational, flying off the handle, making bad decisions, not thinking about her situation and being a total dick to everyone around her, but damn if it isn’t endearing.
The counterpoint to Chloe is, of course, Rachel Amber, who is handled in a very interesting way and is a force of her own when compared to Chloe. Here is a character who we have never met but have heard so much about from the first game. A character who has become so iconic to the series that she felt larger than life to us as the audience.
That’s why when Chloe encounters Rachel Amber for the first time, there really is a sense that Chloe and the player are in tune in terms of their perception of Rachel. To both you, the player, and Chloe, Rachel Amber is this unknown, mysterious element who you’ve only ever heard about through second-hand information. And it really is that mysterious quality about her, the girl who everyone talks about, that draws you/Chloe in.
The way the relationship between these two characters is handled is very fast paced and gives you little time to breathe at all. I’m sure some may find fault with that, but for me, that feeling was the perfect tone setter for both Rachel and Chloe’s journey. Here was this girl that is touted to be “oh so amazing” by everyone around her, so when you finally do meet her, the game does a pretty fucking good job at making her seem pretty damn amazing by keeping you off-balance the entire time you’re interacting with her.
As we learn more about Rachel, the layers begin to unwrap and you really do get a good sense about who she is… at least, the person she chooses to reveal to the rest of the world. Despite everything we learn about Rachel in Before the Storm, it didn’t break the air of mysteriousness about her at all. While Chloe is pretty fucking straight forward in almost every way, Rachel remains extremely hard to pin down and it shows, both at your own reaction to her and the way Chloe reacts to her.
The chemistry between Chloe and Rachel is handled brilliantly and the ultra fast pace of their relationship added to that teenage experience of jumping into situations without thinking that made it all feel very… nostalgic.
Everything was happening so fast that it became just as turbulent as I hoped it would feel when I decided to play all three episodes of Before the Storm in one go. I was hanging on every word Rachel said just as much as Chloe was in-game.
Along with Chloe and Rachel are the rest of the fine people of Arcadia Bay, some of whom are new to us, and a lot who are very familiar. I don’t know what it is about these slice of life fictional characters, but something about how normal some of these people are is a real joy. Especially when you’re so used to fictional characters being so over the top in their characterisations.
Before the Storm does an excellent job of painting all the shades of grey you can possibly imagine with these characters. As much as you would like to try to shift your view of the world into black and white and view people in such basic terms, the writing of this game reminds you that life is never that simple… it may be strange, even. (I had to.)
As much as I would like to go into more detail about each of these supporting characters, we’d end up getting too far into spoiler territory which I want to save for a later section. What I can say is that characters like Joyce, David, Rachel’s parents and even minor parts such as Nathan Prescott and Chloe’s friends, Steph and Mikey are all handled extremely well.
To thy strong bidding, task Ariel and all his quality.
As mentioned before, there have been quite a few technical improvements to Before the Storm over the original Life is Strange in terms of eliminating texture pop-ins by switching over from Unreal Engine 3 to Unity. However, another very striking improvement I noticed very early on was the facial animations compared to Life is Strange.
Holy fuck, there were so many moments throughout Before the Storm where I was totally stunned at how amazing the acting was on-screen… and I really do mean that just as I said it. Not only was the voice acting excellent, but the way the characters acted on-screen was absolutely brilliant. After playing the game, I heard that Deck Nine recorded the facial expressions of the voice actors in their recording sessions and probably used some other techniques to get everything to look natural.
Colour me impressed, because there were a lot of moments when I was totally lost in the moment because of how well everything was done with those animations combined with the level of polish with the rest of the game.
I’m also impressed that they managed to find a way to add a gameplay element to replace Max’s time powers that felt truly in line with Chloe Price’s character. The backtalk challenges were all really enjoyable sequences because it is similar but very different to how Max did things.
With Life is Strange, Max’s powers allowed me to second guess my decisions and actions and it felt very natural for Max as a character to do such things. However, when it comes to Chloe, you have none of that advantage, everything about Chloe is being able to out-charisma the person you’re back-talking. That’s why I absolutely adore that little gameplay addition, it’s so fitting for Chloe and it’s handled in a really entertaining way.
Additionally, I also noticed that I handled the dialogue options a lot differently than I did when playing as Max in Life is Strange. There were moments when I knew exactly what to choose, but there were other moments when I had the option to ask a question or take an action that I didn’t actually go through with. In my mind, I/Chloe had the thought of asking that question or taking that action, but decided not to.
And of course, just like with the first game, who had Jonathan Morali from “Syd Matters” producing the music for Life is Strange, Before the Storm mirrors that by having the band “Daughter” producing a soundtrack more in line with Chloe Price and her view of the world.
It’s taken me a hell of a long time to actually write this entry because I’ve spent time in between writing different sections listening to the music from this game. On a side note, you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to legally buy this music when you live in Australia. I mean, sure these are indie bands we’re talking about, but I would have thought that the existence of the Internet would have mitigated such asshattery long ago… I guess not.
I really do love this soundtrack and all the bands that the game has brought to my attention. I also love how, despite the soundtrack being tuned more toward Chloe, it really does still feel like it is the soundtrack to Arcadia Bay.
Part of what resonates so strongly about this entire series is the music, and they’ve managed to capture something special yet again with the soundtrack to Before the Storm. There were A LOT of moments when I let the scene linger just to hear more of the music… so damn good.
Hell is empty. And all the devils are here.
Here we are again, let’s take a deeper look at the story told in Life is Strange: Before the Storm and focus in on each episode. Unlike the spoiler entry I posted for Life is Strange which went into detail about the choices I made throughout each episode, it seems more appropriate to focus more on the emotional tone of Before the Storm.
START of all the spoilerific content /
Episode 1: Awake
I’ve mentioned this constantly throughout this entry already, but I went into this game knowing very little about what I was going to experience. But as soon as the game started, I was already hooked.
Here I am, sitting in my soundproofed home theatre room with my big screen TV and surround sound system turn up, the lights are turned off, I’m so fucking excited to see what’s ahead of me… and that buzz of excitement was mirrored by Chloe who felt the same way about seeing Firewalk live for the first time.
From the very first second, this game took my own excitement and Chloe’s and used it as a way of emotionally synchronising us together. As Chloe was rocking out to the music, so was I, the emotional tone of the entire scene was set.
Then, I see Rachel Amber for the first time and my first thought is, “THAT’S Rachel Amber?!” As that thought popped into my head, I realised Chloe was thinking the same thing. The image of Rachel Amber before us was of this punk/goth girl and looked nothing like the Rachel Amber we had seen before. The surprise I was feeling at seeing Rachel in her punk/goth get-up was the exact same surprise that Chloe was expressing on-screen.
“Sometimes when you meet someone who’s going to change your life… You just know it, I guess.”
As far as first impressions go, this very first scene in Before the Storm’s first episode nailed it completely. As Chloe and Rachel were in the mosh-pit, the music blaring loudly in my home theatre, and the scene faded out, I was right in there. This game, again, had me completely, but this time it wasn’t at the end of the first episode, it was at the start.
I’m also really impressed by how well Chloe’s dream sequences are handled… they do a good job at evoking some very strong emotions.
After the initial high of the opening scene, it was nice that things got toned down the next day. It really did feel like it was just another day in Arcadia Bay and that’s how it was meant to feel. I have to say, one of my favourite moments of normality, and I’m pretty sure everyone agrees with me, is that pick-up game of D&D you play with Steph and Mikey.
It was handled so well with such flair in its presentation that I lost myself in the game just as much as Chloe had. I was totally geeking it out with Steph and Mikey and we were having so much fun. I loved how those two characters were introduced because the game made it pretty damn clear. These are my kind of people, not just because I’m a huge geek, but because, that’s who Chloe is as well, after all, she hung out with Max.
And yes, I did defend Nathan. I’ve already said it in the spoiler entry for Life is Strange but I cannot stand bullies. Though, to be perfectly honest with myself, I think I did it more because Samantha asked me to more than for Nathan’s sake. In any case, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Kids, if you ever see someone being bullied, don’t ignore it because that makes you just as bad as the bully. Do something about it, let the person who is being bullied know that they’re actually worth something in this world.
Anyway, things really start to kick off when you encounter Rachel Amber, this time, in her more recognisable every day girl style. This girl you know nothing about who is completely mysterious in your eyes is presented in such a way that her mysterious nature never grows old.
You and Chloe are both mesmerised by her charm and the way she’s able to lead you where ever she wants you to go. From the very first second she has you right where she wants you, and it’s great. I really did enjoy the time Rachel and Chloe spent in this first episode and it felt just as emotionally confusing as it should feel.
As for that final scene in the episode where Rachel starts the forest fire. It was intense, the way it was shot, the way it played out, the voice acting, the animations, everything about it was really on point.
I also love the ambiguity as to whether Rachel has any strange powers or not. For me, it felt like Rachel may have some kind of powers but she was never aware of them consciously. In a strange way, it shocked me to see that and my shock was mirrored by Chloe witnessing Rachel’s emotional outburst in the first place.
Episode 2: Brave New World
Jumping straight into the second episode after the first, because this time, I didn’t have to wait, we come to the inevitable consequences of Chloe and Rachel skipping school the day before.
And yeah, I wasn’t having any of Rachel’s bullshit with her trying to defend me and taking the blame. I wasn’t going to let her ruin her school life, even if it was her own passive-aggressive way of getting back at her dad.
So, I got expelled from Blackwell Academy and I took pride in that. We may have only been friends for a day so far, but with what we’ve been through so far, I’m loyal to my friends.
The scene afterwards with Chloe, Joyce and David was really well-played out. While I’m sure there are plenty of people who would give David some slack because of his eventual role in the first game, I was looking at this through Chloe’s perspective. David didn’t belong anywhere near her family and I stubbornly acted like a complete asshole toward him all the way through.
The tension during that scene was great, I really did get the feeling that I was in an actual family argument and it felt really awkward. At the same time, I was so in tune with Chloe’s feeling on the matter that I was totally in her corner, as irrational as she was being.
The rest of the episode progressed the overall plot, but I’ll leave my overall thoughts on that for later. For now, let’s focus more on Chloe and Rachel’s progressing relationship on day 2 of their turbulent “whatever this is.”
I will never look at The Tempest the same after playing this game.
When Juliet Watson couldn’t make it in time for the play and Victoria Chase couldn’t be her stand-in because she collapsed after we tricked her into drinking her own muscle relaxant laced tea… well, when Rachel tagged us in to play the part of Ariel, my eyes widened in shock just as much as Chloe’s.
Seriously, my heart was pounding in that moment and when the next shot was of Chloe standing there in her Ariel costume looking into the mirror, we both had the same emotions running through us. I was starting to get really nervous about this whole thing and was really glad that there was a copy of the script in front of me with my lines highlighted.
I read the FUCK out of that script and tried to memorise as much of it as possible. I mean, I know this game is constrained by its limited dialogue options, but I was right there with Chloe in not wanting to fuck this up.
When the play started, I was so nervous that I couldn’t sit down. I was literally standing up for the entire section of the game where you are in that play and my heart was pounding. As I chose each option, my heart pounded even more because I wasn’t sure if I was getting any of this right. I loved the way this game made me feel that way, I was really getting into it.
The icing on the cake for that entire sequence was that I absolutely NAILED it. So much so that Victoria Chase sent me an especially pissed off text message later on not believing that I played it perfectly. I had a pretty fucking huge grin on my face for that moment, I tell ya what.
“Excitement ages quickly. And I fear, if we set out in search of new fun, you’ll tire of me and then I’ll be alone.”
Again, this game nails the emotional tone with Chloe and Rachel’s relationship in these kinds of moments. So when Rachel starts ad-libbing lines to Chloe and exposing her feelings towards her in front of an entire crowd. Again, I felt exactly the same way as Chloe… exposed and open.
After the play, when they were walking the streets together at night and Rachel wanted to run away together with Chloe away from Arcadia Bay, I had several options where Chloe was able to cast doubt on the idea. I chose none of those and went straight for the “fuck it, let’s do this!” option.
And yes… I went for the kiss… but unlike the reasoning I gave for the kiss that Chloe and Max shared in Life is Strange, my reasoning for the kiss between Chloe and Rachel in Before the Storm was more around… we both wanted this to happen badly. The energy was in the air and the chemistry between them demanded it. It felt completely natural for this to be happening right now.
I really enjoyed the way the final scene played out in this episode. Finally coming face to face with Rachel’s parents was a very interesting scenario. One, because of what we know about Rachel’s dad… or what we think we know, and two, because it shows how much of a child Chloe is and how naïve and stupid she really is in the face of adults who know better than she does. She was 100% awkward around them and it was a great experience to have.
On top of that, I made a really interesting choice during the dinner scene with Rachel and her parents. Throughout the game so far, at every opportunity, I’ve chosen to backtalk people and give them all the sass I could muster, because that’s just who Chloe is.
However, during this dinner scene, when the option to backtalk Rachel’s father came up… I backed down. I backed down HARD, in fact. Because that’s who Chloe is, she can fuck around with her own family and other people, but when it came to Rachel’s family, she feels inadequate and realises she is just a child in comparison to them.
For Chloe to backtalk Rachel’s father, it wouldn’t make any sense because the only person who can truly do that is Rachel herself. So I backed down and allowed Rachel herself to confront her father, for her to have this moment as HER moment alone. Chloe, on the other hand was out of her element in this scenario.
And that last revelation in this second episode? Very well done. I was so glad that I waited for all the episodes to come out before playing this game because I jumped straight into the third episode.
Episode 3: Hell Is Empty
Continuing straight off, we finally get an explanation as to what has been happening with Rachel’s dad. No, he’s not having an affair, in fact it’s so much more complicated than that. I was really impressed by the way the game handled the back story of Rachel’s dad and her real mother. Looking through the viewfinder, Chloe and Rachel side-by-side.
This episode really does an excellent job at highlighting all the shades of grey in the world and how complicated the lives are of seemingly normal people.
On an aside, the dream sequence with William in this episode really hit something deep within me. I am so damn impressed with the way that each dream sequence escalated every time Chloe experiences one.
Chloe desperately screaming “DAD!” along with the bloodstain on the stage, the way everything felt so surreal and eerie. It all hit home really hard and even the way Victoria Chase calling out “boo!” so brazenly at the end fit into it really well, making it the right level of absurd it needed to be.
Again, I’m so glad I waited to play this game until all the episode had come out, because this episode gets very turbulent in many different ways. I was out there with Chloe making a whole lot of bad decisions and I was regretting them along with her as they happened.
One such decision involved David and his peace offering which I really liked. Looking at the statistics for that episode, I think over 90% of players chose to take David’s photograph of him and his comrade. It seems pretty clear that the ratio of people taking this photograph was so high because of the general feeling people in North America have toward people with military service.
However, I was in tune with Chloe on this one. In her life right now, she’s being stubborn and pigheaded and nothing David can do can change her mind about him. I let that photo drop and I fucked right off out of that house. I was being the biggest asshole to Joyce and David and I didn’t care. All that was on my mind was Rachel.
So when it came time to make that final decision, just like with the first game, I knew what I had to do… and it exemplified a fact that has been pointed out in this series time and time again…
Everybody Lies, No Exceptions.
When it came time to reveal the truth to Rachel or hide it from her in order to protect her. I lied and hid the truth from her.
So why did I do this, lie to Rachel Amber? Because when you love someone, you end up doing terrible things for their sake. Just as James Amber had done for his daughter, just as Max Caulfield did for Chloe in my playthrough of Life is Strange.
And yes, it may end up being unforgivable, but that is the choice I made because it is an inevitably that yes, everybody lies, no exceptions.
It sets up, so well, who Chloe and Rachel both become that leads us into the events of Life is Strange, because their friendship started off on an extremely turbulent ride and was sealed with a lie.
As much as Chloe wanted someone to be close to, it was clear that Rachel couldn’t be the person who Chloe wanted her to be. Knowing how things turn out, the path between the end of Before the Storm and the start of Life is Strange is very clear.
It’s heartbreaking to see it as someone who is already aware of those events and to watch Chloe being completely oblivious to it in her naïvety… but such is life.
/ END of all the spoilerific content
Was ‘t well done?
Clearly, after all that, it’s pretty damn obvious that I love Before the Storm. I love it just as much as I love the first game, and sure, it too has its own flaws, but these can easily be forgiven.
I mean, I know what I like and what I don’t like. The less said about The Last Jedi, the better, but I didn’t like that movie and I knew I didn’t like it the more time passed when I was sitting there in the theatre watching that movie.
With Before the Storm, the more I played it, the more I loved it… and I’m glad I’m at a point in my life where I can articulate pretty damn well why I hated The Last Jedi and love Before the Storm so damn much.
I fucking love this game.
Also, as a little gift for anyone who has read this entry… I discovered that the ending credits track called “Max & Chloe” from the Life is Strange soundtrack and the end credits track called “Glass” from the Life is Strange: Before the Storm soundtrack are actually companion pieces. I posted up a video on YouTube of both tracks mixed together… and all I had to do was just place one song near the end of the other and have the sustained tone from one lead into the next. They really ARE companion pieces and it’s fucking awesome!
Anyway, I’m off to write another entry on Nier: Automata which is also fucking awesome.
See ya later, fuckers!
- Life is Strange, choices are hard, people are complicated… but in the end, I knew what I had to do | 10 November 2015
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- Star Wars: The Force Awakens | 21 December 2015