Before the Storm

One of the best games I’ve played this year is Life is Strange. I found the experience completely captivating. While I’ve played similar choice-based titles before, there was a sense of genuine openness and honesty to the game that feels completely new.

The most startling thing to me is that once it was over and finished, I felt an actual sense of loss that stayed with me for days. I found myself missing the characters and setting. I found myself humming the songs. I wanted nothing more than to go back and experience more of the world.

Thankfully, Life is Strange has a prequel which takes place three years into its past. I immediately picked up Life is Strange: Before the Storm with much anticipation.

I knew I wanted to discuss the game with others, so I convinced a friend to join me in playing through the game. I compiled my own thoughts into a series of notes for us to use as talking points.

I’ve decided to release these notes as they can serve as a review, or “first impression” of the game. It would be best to read each section after completing the accompanying episode from the game.

This post will contain spoilers for Life is Strange, and major spoilers for its prequel, Before the Storm.

Episode 1 #

To get started, I’m already liking Before the Storm. It still plays just as well as the first game did. Admittedly it didn’t grab me right away through the intro sequence, but once we started seeing more of the characters I was right back in.

One of the first things I found is that playing the “bad girl” is a pretty different experience. I’m glad they’ve gone in a different direction this time, but it’s also harder for me to get into the character of Chloe than it was with Max. Chloe has an established history which I want to honour, but I still feel conflicted between playing “my way” or “her way”.

As an example, one of the first moral choices set out by the game is: do I want to steal t-shirts and money from a stranger? And honestly - no, I don’t want to do that. But it does seem more in line with this character. Story-wise, I also want to see how the consequences of my actions play out over time. So ultimately, I did steal the money. I just didn’t feel all that great about doing it.

The interesting thing, this episode even jokes that Max would be terrible at “Two Truths and a Lie” because she can never lie. And similarly how she wasn’t even able to pirate music which is literally pirate-themed. So the ethical differences between these two characters is not insignificant.

Mechanically, there’s far more permanence with the removal of the rewind system. That does mean that - unfortunately - not all dialogue will be available in one playthrough. I think I’m okay with that though. It does make actions feel more personal and important.

Arguably the first game could feel less-consequential at times because you could almost always revert a bad situation. From that perspective I can understand the change in that gameplay mechanic. And of course, it wouldn’t fit the lore to give Chloe the same rewind power in this game.

I am curious if the game may ultimately be more forgiving due to the lack of rewind though. If there’s no failure state, will the story be more streamlined? That remains to be seen.

The backtalk mechanic is pretty interesting. It’s much more “video gamey” than before, which can be slightly immersion breaking. However I think it flows well enough and doesn’t seem overly difficult. I think I like it.

Another change is the introduction of timed decisions. I haven’t seen a lot of these yet, so it may just be during backtalk. I wasn’t a big fan of this mechanic from Telltale games, so I’m not sure if I’ll like it here either. I do think it makes more sense without a rewind feature though, as the urgency it introduces is more meaningful now. But generally, I prefer being able to take a minute to consider my actions.

I noticed that Before the Storm seems to focus a little bit more on minigames than the first title. Two Truth and a Lie. Viewfinder improv. Even a game of D&D at Blackwell.

The D&D match impressed me the most. While I knew I was still just navigating dialogue trees, it felt completely fluid and fun. Actions had consequences, and you really might have been playing a board game.

(If you were wondering, we killed the boss but I succumbed to my injuries)

So those are the big mechanical changes. Let’s talk about characters. Starting with Chloe.

The new voice work for Chloe is a little jarring at first, but I got used to it quickly enough. There’s been a few specific voice lines which stood out to me, but that could also be explained by Chloe being three years younger. So overall I really don’t mind it.

Chloe’s relationship to Max at this point is definitely worth talking about. She’s upset at Max, but only because she clearly cares about and misses her friend. Based on her texts and journal entries, this affection seems to be unreciprocated, and that’s actually really sad. Reading the texts back from Max definitely made me feel like a jerk; far more than the first game ever did.

On that note, they really hammer it home that Chloe has issues with abandonment. This was present in the first game, as she blamed her father for much of her problems. But it seems to really be bubbling up here.

I think the worst part is that she knows that she can’t blame her dad or Max for disappearing. It wasn’t either of their faults. She wants to hate them - to have an outlet for her anger - but she can’t honestly blame either of them. So who does she have left to blame? Herself? Maybe everyone else.

From the very first scene in this game (jumping away from a speeding train), Chloe is always seeking her next high. Adrenaline or drugs, it really doesn’t matter. She’s not stupid or even suicidal, she just doesn’t care what happens anymore. If the train hit her? Oh well, right?

I think we’re going to see a lot of development in Chloe over these three episodes. I’m going to go as far as to say that transformation will be the underlying theme of the entire game.

On the totem poll at the park, we learn that in Native American culture the raven stands for transformation. It’s fitting then that the raven is everywhere in this game. She sees it in her dream. One flies over the railroad track on the way to Rachel. We even see it in the game’s loading icon. There is strong symbolism there.

We know what the end-game is already. In the first Life is Strange, we met a version of Chloe filled with confidence. She has blue hair and her punk rocker identity. Our younger version of Chloe however is still struggling to find herself. The call-out from Frank Bowers is completely on point: “Studs? You’re trying too hard”.

Her relationship to Rachel Amber is going to be important. There’s more than a love interest here. Rachel is going to play a big role in helping Chloe figure out her identity, sexuality, and ultimately help rebuild her confidence.

Some of the other characters are worth talking about too.

Rachel Amber - You think with all her screen time I’d have her figured out by now, but I’m still trying to understand her. They attributed a lot of personality traits to her in the first game, and we’re seeing a lot of them already. She likes to party, but is also a straight A student. She hangs with drug addicts at the Old Mill, but also tutors students in her free time. It feels contradictory to me but somehow I think the devs are going to make me a believer.

Joyce Price - Joyce is a fantastic character. She is somebody who has clearly been dealt a bad hand in life, but manages to stay loving and supportive all the same. She sees the best in others.

While I tried to play the role of Chloe Price for the early-game, once I met Joyce I couldn’t help but consider her perspective when making future decisions. I did not want to hurt her.

Nathan Prescott - Wow, what a different character. Chloe is not the only one set to undergo a massive change. I couldn’t help but stand up for Nathan when he was bullied, even knowing what a monster he becomes. His current self is a completely different person.

Samuel Taylor - I have been convinced since the first game that Samuel is one of the most important characters we’ve met. As Native American spirituality was such a common theme of Life is Strange, Samuel’s connections with nature seem to tie him directly to the paranormal activities in Arcadia Bay.

So far, his name has only been mentioned on the drama club website. I continue to hold out hope that he’s involved in this story somehow though, and that this mystery will finally be explained.

Many of the other characters still seem one-dimensional and archetypal at this time, but I expect we’ll see more from them as the story develops.

Episode 2 #

So, I’m not sure how I feel about my decisions from this episode.

Right off the bat, things went poorly with the school. Keeping in mind that I was trying to keep a positive relationship with Joyce, I went along with Rachel’s story. When Rachel took the blame and I saw the “backtalk” option, I thought “hey, maybe I can keep us both out of trouble”. Win/win! That did not happen, and I got expelled. Dang it.

I’m not sure if it was possible to avoid being expelled, but it sure felt like I goofed up. That may just be convincing story-telling though.

Then we talk to Eliot, the love-sick puppy. Chloe was clearly not interested so I chose not to lead him on. No hug, no tickets. Only later did I realize though that I turned down tickets to see Rachel perform. Dang it.

At the car afterwards, when David insisted we lay out our belongings on the car, I thought to myself: “Hey no problem, I have nothing to hide”. Noope - busted again. Dang it!

So I was feeling pretty bad about my choices right from the get-go. Three things I did not anticipate that I ended up regretting, in the first 15 minutes. That’s not to say that the game had misled me. I just missed clues or context.

It seemed appropriate then that Chloe chose that moment to go on the lam. Her low-point matched my own, and her slamming the car door in Madsen’s face was actually therapeutic. I may have done a fist pump.

According to the character sheet, there is only one more unknown character at this point. I’m quite sure that’s going to be Sera.

Sera is an interesting one. For the first two episodes, she really only floated in and out of scenes at unexpected times. You’d see glimpses and then nothing more.

I found it especially odd that she was at the play. It made more sense with the revelation at the end of the episode: she was there to see her daughter perform. I also noticed that she had a butterfly tattoo this time. The devs are fond of their symbolism.

I actually really enjoyed the play segment. I knew something was up when Chloe said: “I’d never be caught dead in this bird mask”. The devs also love their foreshadowing, and I managed to catch that one.

It was actually really fun learning the lines backstage. I didn’t know how scripted it would be, so I tried to learn at least the start of every line. I managed to complete them all except for one. The sense of being on stage and not knowing the correct line was actually pretty uncomfortable. I can’t imagine if it was a timed prompt.

What’s really interesting is that I didn’t even feel bad about getting expelled anymore, once it meant getting to do the play with Rachel. It felt like a really spontaneous, vulnerable, but also joyous experience. Just overall great character building.

Plus, I didn’t feel bad about turning down those tickets anymore because I was actually in the show.

At this point, I’m still trying to figure out Rachel. I think I’m starting to get a sense for her though.

One thing I’m becoming sure of is there’s a very strong connection between Rachel and fire. I don’t just mean in the obvious sense that yes, she started the mountain fire. But I feel they’re making very strong symbolic connections here as well.

Towards the end of the episode at the dinner table, I kept noticing that the camera positioning was such that the candles always lit her face up. For other characters the camera took a higher-angle shot.

The strongest connection though is based on the campfire vision with Dad. As we roast marshmallows over a car fire, the mountain fire rages in the background. He warns us that fire is beautiful, but also dangerous.

As he turns and reveals his charred face, the raven squawks beside him and picks at it. That’s a pretty heavy vision.

Later in the episode when the girls are excited from finishing the play, it begins to snow as they share their first kiss. It was a sweet moment, but I also had a different interpretation here. Having grown up in an area prone to forest fires, I suspect it may not have been snow that was falling, but ash. I wonder if this is more of an omen than a sign.

We also finally got to meet Samuel in this game. He seems… creepier this time around. I don’t know if the voice actor was different, but his facial animations were decidedly more menacing this time around. What the heck did they do to him?

More importantly though, the books on his shelf have some major implications. He has three books:

  1. First, a book on Chaos Theory. You can’t tell me there isn’t a connection there. He is almost certainly aware of, or somehow connected with the supernatural side of Arcadia Bay.
  2. Ignis Corvusque: My translator fails me here, but Ignis means fire.
  3. Pharsalia: A Roman poem. From the Wiki article: “J.D. Duff (the translator) … notes that the work is notable for Lucan’s decision to eschew divine intervention and downplay supernatural occurrences in the events of the story.”

I really hope we learn more about Samuel by the end, because he is the most intriguing character.

So, we are back at Blackwell post-expulsion, but now with a job. We’re tasked with stealing money from the biggest kid at school. There is no way for that to end well.

Even now, I’m still not sure if my decision with Drew was the correct one. I decided to keep the money hidden from Damian because frankly, I trusted Frank more. And if Drew was willing to take a beat down for it, he clearly didn’t want Damian to have the money either. I’d guess Damian is probably right and it was intended for his dad.

This seemed like a no-win situation, but I still expect this one will come back to bite me later.

For whatever reason, I still like Frank. I think his instinct to protect us in the first episode speaks to his character. That, and tiny Pompidou is adorable. I felt it best to return the money to him as promised (should the game let me), and I also decided not to steal from him.

In a way, knowing that we never escape Arcadia makes it harder to choose which bridges to burn and which to protect. I know I’m going to need to live with my actions, and in a weird way that makes the choices feel more important. Were I playing blind, I probably wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Somehow though, I feel better about my decisions now than I did at the start of the episode. I’ve accepted my expulsion. I’ve accepted that I can’t go home. The direction forward is more clear than ever.

Episode 3 #

There was some beautiful presentation in the intro cutscene of episode 3. Looking in with the viewfinder as Rachel’s dad tells his story, and seeing it acted out? That was magnificent story telling.

Episode three was interesting. There were a lot of cutscenes, and fewer choices overall. But in a way I was glad to be along for the ride and just see how my previous actions had played out. Did I maintain relationships with the right people? Was it all worth it in the end?

Interestingly enough, with the exception of that horrifying segue into the first game, I do think it was a pretty happy ending.

I opted to tell Rachel the truth. Even when Sera was pressuring me not to, I felt quite confident that it was the right thing to do.

Rachel’s dad overstepped his duties when he hired an actual criminal to scare her off. He is free to blame Sera all he wants, but he was at fault here. He associated with criminal elements, and did exactly what he accused Sera of: endangering his daughter. By trying so hard to protect her, his actions resulted in Rachel being stabbed.

I think the big question from episode 3 was just that: Is a harsh truth better than a gentle lie? And I think I’ve come out of this believing that yes, a harsh truth is better.

You can only protect people for so long. When you keep something important from them, you are depriving them of the chance to grow past that pain and be a better person for it.

Rachel’s dad took it too far, and it was time for her to see the truth.

Learning what happens to Rachel in this game really makes the first game feel more sorrowful. Where previously Rachel was just some “popular girl” that went missing - now she is Rachel Amber, a character that you have grown with. The girl that Chloe loves.

The snow globe in James Amber’s office had interesting dialogue: “If it can rain ash, I guess it can snow in LA”. I think that confirms my guess from episode 2 about it being ash, not snow that was falling.

Let’s talk about characters.

Eliot Hampden - I knew this guy was a creep once I met him at the hospital. The devs did an impressive job of subtly making him feel off somehow, but not spelling it out. Was it in his mannerisms? The look in his eyes?

Drew North - I was sure that I’d be busted in episode 3 for stealing Drew’s money. For whatever reason though, it simply never came up. Drew and his entourage were friendly to me the entire game. I guess they just… never learned that I took the money? I don’t really know what to think about that one.

Frank Bowers - Three times now this guy has saved me. I’m feeling good about my decision to stand by him. As for what happened between him and Damon, I would have preferred to see it play out rather than deus ex machina.

Samuel Taylor - Oh, Samuel. You will remain an enigma forever.

Nathan Prescott and Samantha Myers - This was a subplot of a subplot. I encouraged them to be together and it seems in the end they were. There was really no character development for Nathan as I was expecting. I had a theory that he might end up attacking Sam, but she was hurt of her making.

David Madsen - David extended an olive branch in this episode, but frankly, it was covered in excrement. I was already completely done with him by this point, and did not accept. He barks that “You’ll regret that!”, but ultimately nothing comes of it.

In a way, a lot of the subplots ended up faltering in the end. Episode three focused almost entirely on Rachel and Sera. While I am glad for the character depth, it does leave me with a lot of unanswered questions.

Overall, I do think it’s a great game. It fills in a lot of the details that the first game only glossed over. It will also add a lot more meaning to future replays of Life is Strange.

However, for me at least, it does lack a certain spark of magic that made the first game really special. This title didn’t resonate with me on quite so perfect a note as Life is Strange did. I’m still very glad to have played it though.

Post-game, one thing I really miss is seeing the percentages for small decisions in the post-game screen. I can’t be the only one who wants to know if others watered their plant with a soda can.

So, just to summarize the main themes I’ve written about:

One final note. While browsing the credits, I did notice that Chloe’s original voice actress (Ashly Burch) helped write the story. So while she wasn’t there in voice, she was at least there in pen.