Tag Archives: Life is Strange

Before the Storm

After finally wrapping up Life is Strange we wasted little time before diving into the game’s follow-up prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm.

Chloe and Rachel bonding.
“Chloe and Rachel bonding.”

When I first heard about Before the Storm back in 2017 I was a little skeptical. First, it’s a prequel to a game that, back then, seemed unlikely to need one, a suspicion I can definitely confirm having finally beaten the game. A major concern for me, personally. Second, developer Dontnod wasn’t signed on for this one, with Square Enix instead passing the reins to Deck Nine, who had never worked on anything like Life is Strange as far as I can tell. Concern rising! Perhaps most controversially, due to a Screen Actors Guild strike several voice actors, including the voice actors for the two lead characters, Max and Chloe, wouldn’t be on board for this one. While it turns out that Max would barely be featured, BtS centers around the character of Chloe, whose excellent voice acting in the first game was an undeniably crucial component. Oh dear…

Working backwards through each of those concerns, the voice acting turned out not to be much of a problem at all. Deck Nine was able to find someone who was capable of sounding reasonably close to the original voice actor, Ashly Burch, for Chloe. I say “capable of” because, while for the longest time I had wondered if they had indeed managed to source the original talent, or if maybe they went back and re-recorded her lines after the strike was over, there definitely were some moments in the latter half other game where the illusion shattered, taking me out of the moment to ponder how unlike Chloe the impostor on the screen sounded on a specific line, or in a particular scene. Thankfully these moments were few, and replacement, Rhianna DeVries, mostly nailed it.

In lieu of Max's time powers BtS adds a new backtalk system to conversations.
“In lieu of Max’s time powers BtS adds a new backtalk system to conversations.”

As for Deck Nine? While I’m about to go into more specific details in a bit, let me just sum it up by saying I was surprised at just how incredible of a job they did with this game. I’m not sure what they’re working on currently but I really hope that this wasn’t just some sort of a one time experiment for them and that they have more narrative games in their future. Amazing job!

The justification for Before the Storm’s existence as a prequel is probably a much more fundamental issue. Did the original Life is Strange need a prequel? Not at all. Is Life is Strange stronger with the existence of BtS? Surprisingly, I think so! As improbable as it is that shoehorning a new story into a timeline that was already somewhat established would be successful, it’s executed extremely well.

Before the Storm takes place during the often alluded to time in Chloe’s life after her father died and Max moved away, and after she’s already well on her way to becoming the rebellious Chloe we met in Life is Strange proper. An early scene in the first episode has Chloe sneaking out to see a band at a shady-ass club in the middle of nowhere. BtS shows us a Chloe who, at least from the new perspective of being inside her head, wrestles with how to handle the adversity she encounters and later muses about how she’s managed to pull off being such a badass. This is a different Chloe, one who is still developing the defiant confidence we saw in Life is Strange. I love this sort of subtle attention to detail, especially given that the events of this game are surely critical to that development.

...and instead of snapping artsy photos, Chloe just vandalizes shit.
“…and instead of snapping artsy photos, Chloe just vandalizes shit.”

Therein lies one of the real successes of Before the Storm. This time, lacking Max’s supernatural abilities and as much of a dramatic plot to deal with, BtS focuses more on the “slice of life” sections of the original game. While this makes it perhaps a little less exciting, the relationship between Max and Chloe was easily one of the best parts of Life is Strange and is echoed by the relationship between Chloe and the game’s other main character, the legendary Rachael Amber. I might argue that BtS is perhaps even more affecting given how much of a strong, passionate personality Rachel is, and for the record, not only does Rachel live up to the lofty reputation built up for her in the first game, but in some ways she even exceeds it.

Unlike the first game, the romantic undertones between Chloe and Rachel also seemed more obvious, and while we took the bait in our playthrough, despite the game seeming to want the choice to be more binary, we felt like it was more realistic for Chloe to respond apprehensively rather than leaping haphazardly into a relationship with someone whose signals weren’t always exceedingly clear. In any case, Chloe’s connection with Rachel goes on to justify many of the interpretations of her later relationship with Max. Was Chloe trying to reconnect with her old childhood friend, or was she actually trying to recapture her romance with Rachael? It’s even more interesting when you consider how Chloe takes on Rachel’s role as the fearlessly impulsive, assertive one. This is just one example of how Life is Strange feels stronger with the character development present in BtS, which culminates with the elephant in the room, the tragic events around Rachel Amber in the first game, being all that more disturbing after getting to know her here.

Make sure you also play the bonus episode!
“Make sure you also play the bonus episode!”

It’s not all perfect of course. Any time you expand a story with a prequel like this you risk inconsistencies or full on retcons of earlier established events, and while the events of Before the Storm seem to be carefully considered, there are tons of issues with the changes to the already sloppy timeline of the first game. None of these issues felt problematic, if we even noticed them at all, but this is a complaint I ran across a lot online.

Another frequent complaint is how the course of the entire game seems to take place in just a few days, which feels like way too short of a time for numerous reasons, not the least of which is how quickly the bonds between Chloe and Rachel form. While I agree that the timeline feels compressed for no real reason, that’s one specific assertion that I don’t agree with at all. I believe that at that point in her life Chloe desperately needed someone in her life and Rachael came along at just the right time to catch her in this vulnerable state and knock her off of her feet. Simple as that! I’ve heard some people suggest that Rachael may have even sensed this in Chloe and actively exploited it, and while, erring on the side of optimism, I’m not necessarily prepared to pass that judgement, it does fit with the events fairly well.

I can’t say I’m exactly immune to these kinds of complaints though. I was bothered by the timeline of the bonus “Farewell” episode, which has you playing through one of Max and Chloe’s last days together as kids. Avoiding spoilers here, but that is a compressed timeline, folks! While I really enjoyed the episode, it definitely clashed harshly with my impression of the events as presented in the first game, even if those details are ultimately fairly inconsequential to the overall story.

Some people also hated the end, particularly the very end, and of course I understand the reasons why. For me, despite being incredibly sobering, it felt thematically totally appropriate and helped tie the stories between the two games together.

The Tempest scene was truly memorable.
“The Tempest scene was truly memorable.”

I suppose I should stop there before getting into spoilers. To quickly run through a few remaining notes: the music is much more consistent and fits the tone better even if there are less standout tracks than the first game, the graphics are quite similar, though perhaps a bit more stylized this time around, and while the gameplay is mostly the same, we found ourselves feeling strangely pressured by no longer having Max’s ability to rewind time, having to live with the consequences of our decisions. God forbid!

While I’m not sure if BtS manages to surpass it or not, in some ways it’s probably superior to the first game and, in any case, I came away just as affected by Chloe and Rachel’s relationship which is a huge accomplishment all by itself. That said, the game seems to be quite divisive. I’d have thought if you liked the first game, BtS would be more of the same for the vast majority of people, but I suppose the people who loved Life is Strange loved it so much that of course they’re going to be super sensitive to any changes something like this inevitably brings. Regardless, I wouldn’t hesitate checking it out if you are a fan of the original Life is Strange.

Screenshots were take from various places on the Internet. Most of them are from the PC version rather than the Xbox One version but the difference isn’t huge, especially when reformatted for this blog.

Yes, It Is.

Back in early 2017 I made mention that my girlfriend and I had played through the first 4 episodes of Life is Strange and loved it but that our playthrough was “tragically” cut short before we could tackle episode 5. I talked about this a bit more here, but that original allusion was to a pretty shitty “real life” invasion into my gaming life. In the summer of 2016 my house was broken into and burglarized with my video game collection being one of the primary targets. Fortunately, I was in the process of moving at the time so most of my stuff had already been packed away and didn’t get touched, but one of the things that did disappear was my Xbox 360 which was still connected to my TV at the time. I wasn’t using cloud saves as my default save game storage back then so, worse than losing the console itself, I lost my entire history of Xbox 360 saves up to that point. Disheartened by the whole thing and not wanting to replay through almost the entire game in order to finish it, we regretfully put Life is Strange on the backburner.

Our protagonist, Max Caulfield.
“Our protagonist, Max Caulfield.”

While we’d been eyeing all of the subsequent Life is Strange follow-up games like Life is Strange: Before the Storm and The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit with some curiosity, with the release of Life is Strange 2 this year we were finally hyped up enough to revisit the original game. This time around we took advantage of it being on Xbox Game Pass yet again and played the Xbox One version. Jumping in, we found that we both more or less remembered all of the first episode though our memories of specific details slowly began to fade as we progressed, culminating in the entirely unknown episode 5 and a satisfactory ending to the game at long last.

Broadly speaking, the game is a stripped down modernization of the classic graphical adventure game in a similar vein to Telltale’s post The Walking Dead games or Quantic Dream’s adventure games. That is to say, extremely narrative heavy with your choices being reflected in-game, giving an illusion of a complicated branching story. A lot of those choices take place via conversations, and there are also minimal, easy puzzles based on exploration along the way to round out the formula. In Life is Strange’s case, a lot of the puzzle solving involves the main character’s ability to rewind time, also central to the plot itself. There are some more traditional adventure game puzzles early on but, as with The Walking Dead: Season One, that approach is largely abandoned after the first episode.

Light, exploration-based adventure game stuff.
“Light, exploration-based adventure game stuff.”

Despite the similarities, Life is Strange does an admirable job of not coming off as some sort of a Telltale adventure game clone. Its systems don’t feel quite as obvious, at times feeling more like a “walking simulator” than an adventure game, and the total lack of QTEs or any sort of action gameplay goes a long way to helping. The game also supplements the already effective presentation with a phone text messaging system and an in-character log/journal system for even more exposition and depth.

The game starts off with your character, a teenage girl named Max, going about her day in a private school she’s recently transferred to after moving back to the town where she grew up. The mundanity of the high school drama quickly turns much more serious with a startling act of violence, the discovery of the aforementioned time manipulation powers, and an unexpected reconnection with Max’s childhood best friend, Chloe. Those (and other) inter-connected threads end up in a compelling balance of interpersonal drama and mystery with just a touch of the supernatural.

The drama takes no time at all to kick in.
“The drama takes no time at all to kick in.”

The first episode is a little jarring to a lot of people as that’s where some of the game’s more infamous peculiarities are at their worst. Much has been made about the odd, stilted attempts to replicate teenage conversation which had so many people facepalming out of the game, the nonsensical description of Blackwell Academy as some sort of a prestigious art school that sounds like a private college (and indeed, most of the students are college aged) yet is referred to multiple times as a high school, and the sometimes annoying and unlikable personalities and behaviors of the main characters. While I don’t think any of those issues are anything to bail out of the game early over, a couple of them do warrant some further focus here, I suppose.

First, about the odd language that the characters, particularly Max and Chloe, use. Just about everyone seems to agree that it comes across as a little ridiculous and, at best, inauthentic. Some justify it as simply being the way teenagers actually talk, less us out of touch adults forget, while another common explanation is that Life is Strange’s developer, Dontnod, is French and likely even more out of touch about the way American high schoolers talk (which may also explain their lack of understanding about the American school system!) Regardless, this gradually improves as the season continues past the first episode, with the characters sometimes even seemingly jokingly referencing those earlier missteps. It’s no big deal even if it is sometimes incredibly silly.

The infamous 'Go fuck your selfie!' line. Oh, and fuck Victoria Chase!
“The infamous ‘Go fuck your selfie!’ line. Oh, and fuck Victoria Chase!”

Directly related are the characters themselves. Personally, I find their personalities and motivations to be easy to believe. Chloe’s overly rebellious behavior and shitty, selfish attitude is fairly thoroughly justified. This is someone whose struggles with her emotions and her place in the world, already an issue for a lot of teenagers, are amped up to 11 by the trauma of losing her dad and then her best friend when she needed a support network the most. Max, on the other hand, comes across as someone spends far too much time in her own head and, while not incredibly awkward, sometimes comes across as a little shallow when she does decide to come out of her shell and interact with people. When she’s thrown into all of these crazy new situations she’s, of course, thoroughly unprepared to handle them. I’ve known plenty of people with similar personalities as both characters myself, in fact Max reminds me a bit of teenage me – the conclusions about how the world around me works, what is and isn’t cool, etc., forming my own private reality which I did a fairly terrible job of expressing. Honestly, there’s a certain amount of accepting that teenagers can be cringey and a little overly self-obsessed that needs to happen to truly “get” any of these characters. Sure, they can be annoying, but I feel like the people who absolutely hate this game because of the characters probably lack some perspective and maybe even a little empathy. Sorry!

More important than the personalities of the characters are the emotions they manage to convey, and this is where Life is Strange seems to make its improbable grand slam home run. The writing combined with excellent voice acting by the two leads really made the characters feel relatable and realistic, and their friendship (at least when coupled with the choices that I made in my playthrough) felt touchingly genuine. Combined with the intrigue of the plot, the game is astonishingly affecting and absorbing. By the end of the second episode I was totally hooked. From the reviews and impressions I’ve scanned, I believe I’m far from alone here in appreciating this particular aspect of the game as being uncommonly fantastic.

Max and Chloe's relationship steals the show.
“Max and Chloe’s relationship steals the show.”

This is a complete package though. The interface is fairly intuitive and never really gets in your way. The graphics are mostly very good with the only real shortcoming being the character models, which are perhaps slightly more realistic than the game can really pull off, with faces and especially lip-syncing sometimes looking a little janky. I definitely feel like they should have leaned into the stylized approach just a bit more even if they didn’t want to go full Telltale. The soundtrack, save for a couple moments where the songs don’t quite fit the scene, is excellent. Not only does it work well with the perceived tone of the game, but it goes along way to helping set it. I had “Obstacles” by Syd Matters stuck in my head for days after finishing the game. It all feels reasonably polished too.

Your text messages and your journal provide just a little extra exposition.
“Your text messages and your journal provide just a little extra exposition.”

So, after a few years we finally made our way back to (and through) the final episode. I wanted to talk a little bit about the end, and yes, I’ll spare anything but the vaguest of spoilers. Episode 5 culminates in some bizarre and disturbing time shenanigans, the resolution of at least one of our major plot points, and a big, dramatic decision. Not every potential loose end is wrapped up. You never receive any answers about the nature of Max’s powers, for instance. As that’s not really focus of the plot I can’t say it bugged me too much. It also ends up that quite a few of the details introduced in earlier episodes that seemed like they might be important never go anywhere. Regardless of whether these were plot threads that got abandoned as the series developed or they were purposely misleading “red herrings”, they added a lot of intrigue and mystery to the game.

I’ve also seen many more complaints about this last decision being a binary choice which does little to account for all of your previous choices up to that point. While sure, it does feel a little forced and limited, I don’t think it does anything to invalidate all of the choices you’ve made up until then. As I’ve said in the past in reference to Telltale’s games, the choices you’re making aren’t so much about affecting the overall plot as much as they are about affecting the details of the story, particularly when it comes to the actions and reactions of both playable and non-playable characters in the world. It’s less about changing the plot and more about customizing the particulars of it, with some entertainment value coming from standing back and observing the results.

The end times are here!
“The end times are here!”

Perhaps the oddest thing I’ve heard about the end (sometimes, but not always framed as a complaint) was that some players didn’t find Max’s relationship with Chloe to be compelling enough to make that final decision all that difficult. Since, as I mentioned, I found Max and Chloe’s friendship (we definitely read it as a close friendship, NOT romantic, by the way – interesting that such a potentially massive detail is so affected by your choices) to be one of the best parts of the game, this is quite hard for me to relate to. While I wouldn’t say the decision at the end was easy, both my girlfriend and I sided soundly in the same direction and were happy with the ending we got from it. Between that and the occasional complaint about plot holes I see, I’m fairly confounded by some people’s reads of this game. Maybe it’s a lack of empathy or any sort of ability to emotionally connect to a game on the part of some players, like I suggested earlier, or perhaps the differences caused your decisions along the way were greater than I realized.

Regardless, I loved Life is Strange and easily recommend it to those who like newer narrative adventure games and classic adventure games alike. Providing you’re able to fight your way through the all of cringey teenage dialog and drama, I think you’ll end up liking it. As for us, we already have the game’s follow-up prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, installed and ready to start in the coming weeks.

As usual, these screenshots were liberally stolen from numerous places on the Internet. Most of them are from the PC version rather than the Xbox One version, but whatever. Also, the color palette isn’t quite this boring, and Max doesn’t only have one outfit – most of these shots were from the first episode to avoid spoilers!