Friday, December 22, 2017

Life is Strange: Before the Storm review

    I am a huge fan of Life is Strange. It's basically the Twin Peaks of video games not just because it draws inspiration from that show but because it really is an incredibly different sort of game which has potentially changed the nature of the medium. Okay, perhaps that's premature but in a sea of first-person shooters and action, it's amazing there's a work about a time-traveling teenage girl and her relationship drama that's loved by both men as well as women. Hell, it certainly influenced my work and characterization.

    So, I was both excited as well as apprehensive about Before the Storm. Truth be told, I'm not excited about a sequel to Life is Strange unless it stars Max and Chloe (which I've heard it will not) because they're the heart of the original story's appeal. So, a prequel which centered around Chloe was something I was interested in. I lost a little of my enthusiasm with the revelation Chloe wouldn't be played by Ashley Burch, it wouldn't be made by the team which made the original game, and would only be three episodes long with a bonus fourth for those who bought the deluxe edition. Still, I wanted to play it.

Grumpy Chloe-face is my most common Chloe-face.
    So, what is Life is Strange: Before the Storm about? The premise is Chloe Price, deuteragonist of Life is Strange, is suffering a great deal of stress from the loss of her dad in a car accident as well as her only seeming friend moving away to Seattle. She's begun using pot, attending concerts in the middle of the woods, tagging walls, and generally being about as threatening as Bart Simpson. However, this has caused the prestigious school she attends to want to kick her out and her mother to become extremely worried about her. It's during this time she meets Rachel Amber, a beautiful drama student who the disappearance of in the original game is the basis of the plot.

    As you can tell just by the summary, this is not a game for people who have no familiarity with Life is Strange. If you have no attachment to Chloe, her family drama, or the Rachel Amber character then this isn't going to have nearly the impact it had on me. This is a game for the fans by the fans and that's a niche (but not inconsiderable) market. It actually reminds me of Bioshock 2, which was a similar game published by a different studio developer that I found superior to the actual studio follow up.

A weird add-on is choosing Chloe's style.
    The good parts of the game? Rhianna DeVries does an amazing job as Chloe Price and manages to give a different but still valid performance. You can act the role of Chloe the delinquent which everyone wants her to be or have her try to be better only to have no one give her the chance she deserves. The future is preordained in Life is Strange: Before the Storm, which may have been a mistake, but that doesn't mean you can't choose the road which reaches the end. I chose to play Chloe as a fundamentally good kid who just got dealt a really bad hand and everyone treated her like scum as a result.

    The character of Rachel Amber is wonderfully nuanced. The game successfully manages to capture the Laura Palmer-esque figure who managed to enchant Chloe and most of Arcadia Bay while also making her believably flawed. While the choice to romance Rachel Amber or not is, ultimately, up to you, I think the "proper" path is to have Chloe fall in love with her. I also like how it's clear she's a character who is fundamentally manipulative and a bit of a liar, which fits her actions in the future game, but still someone I believe who loves Chloe.

Much of the game is focused on Rachel and Chloe's friendlationship.
    The supporting cast in the game is also excellent with new characters Drew, Steph, and Mickey all being quite intriguing despite their limited screen time. I also liked Damon North as an antagonist, being the far more aggressive and dangerous drug dealer than the somewhat lovable lout Frank Bowers. I also liked the characters of James Amber and Eliot who represent reasons why Chloe might have both issues with authority as well as her fellow students.

    The music selection is excellent and has a kind of smooth indie rock feel, same as the original game. In fact, it actually tends to dominant scenes a bit more than the original game so that it underscores just how little game there is. Still, I didn't dislike any of the soundtrack and might end up buying it. I do think it's kind of funny this is exactly the kind of music which Max Caulfield would listen to but not really the kind I think Chloe Price would listen to.

Chloe being adorable is a rarely scene thing.
    The supernatural elements of the story are also nicely handled. It's all but stated Chloe has never encountered the supernatural in Life is Strange before discovering Max's time travel ability. Here, however, we have several dreams which allow her to speak with her father that might actually be visitations from the dead she dismisses as hallucinations. Likewise, Rachel is implied to have powers related to fire but she never quite gets the hang of them. That was a nice compromise which I felt "kept Arcadia Bay weird."

    Now for the bad? The game really could have used two more episodes and what is crammed into the third episode feels like the game is missing a good chunk of interaction. At one point we needed Chloe to do a "backtalk" challenge with Rachel and realize her bestie/love interest had a tendency to use her but that never occurred. The supporting cast is underdeveloped and we could have had a better developed Samantha/Nathan plot as well as a follow up to Steph's crush on Rachel. There's also the implied supernatural elements of the story which don't really get touched on more than they should. In simple terms, the story doesn't feel quite finished so much as it just ends.

I wish I could see my dad again too--even in horrifying visions.
    There's also the fact I can't help but think Chloe was probably not the right character for this game and it might have been better to play as Rachel Amber. We never get a look in Rachel's mind and it would have been more interesting to have us decide her interactions. Chloe is arguably too well-developed a character to have much range in her choices. I'm not really going to judge the game about what it should have been versus what it was but I do think the game should have also had more of a lead in to Rachel's disappearance two years later. While it would have been a helluva time skip, I think that's the story I wanted to deal with.

    I'm not a big fan of the Backtalk mechanic, either, which is supposed to represent Chloe's ability to browbeat people into doing what she says. This is already an odd mechanic because if there's one thing Chloe Price is NOT is someone who can convince anyone of anything. Her being ignored, overruled, and irritating to everyone is one of her primary qualities. It's also a poor substitute for Max's time travel ability that fits perfectly with the "save scumming" which most players do.

Chloe takes her first step into a larger scuzzier world.
    In conclusion, this is a fun game but it falls short of the original game. The characters are underdeveloped and the story sort of meanders along with important stakes only entering into the picture with the third episode. There's a lot of good in the game but I feel like it was a tie-in that no one had the confidence to make a full-fledged sequel. If they had, I think we might have gotten something truly special.


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