What made Life is Strange so powerful when the title released in 2015 was the realism of the emotional relationships between characters against a supernatural backdrop. This blend of human conversation with quantum-defying superpowers made for a game that felt like an interactive novel, and one that players could experience through the lens of their own life and hardships. Though not without flaws in some of the plot beats or resolutions, the story told was complete. Even as fans have wanted a sequel or a chance to engage with the world of Arcadia Bay once more, going back was always going to be a challenge, no matter the details. When Before the Storm was announced, many fans were excited to finally be able to return to a place that had deeply affected them. However, with that prospect came anxiety over whether a second trip could capture the magic of the first. The fact that Deck Nine, instead of original team Dontnod, was making this prequel did not ease the mind, as such a delicate world would need to be revisited with the same care as those who made it from the start. Pleasantly, though, the new developer manages to make Arcadia Bay feel much the same as when players initially visited. Changes in voice actors, most significantly for Chloe, certainly reshape the playing field, yet these differences can be explained given these events are years removed from the future season. Indeed, the combination of familiar set pieces and faces, the tightness of the plot, and the focus on similar themes make for a suitable addition to the series, though one never quite reaching the heights of its predecessor.
Coming back to any story after time away can be a daunting task for both the writer and the audience. Even in series developed by the same studio for their entire run, subsequent titles face the uncertainty of introducing something new to an established world. Nevertheless, Dontnod laid such a solid foundation for Deck Nine that returning to Arcadia Bay is not as hard as one would think. Recognizing most of the NPCs helps, despite knowing their eventual fates, as Deck Nine explores who they are before Max’s return in the events of Life is Strange. New facets of each character help ease players into the past, and different voice actors for many of them aid in some ways by vocally separating their past and future selves. Principal Wells still wields his authority, even if he sounds different, and Samuel is still as enigmatic ever. The biggest change is Ashly Burch’s absence, whose performance made Chloe so visceral in the original story. Chloe is younger here, though, and different than she will be later. In rationalizing that idea, players have an easier time accepting this change. Graphically, the set pieces look the same, if not sharper given graphics improvement over the past couple of years. Having this sense of familiarity allows for immersion despite the shift between developers and allows players to settle into the new story in a world they already know. Whereas the core of the first season is the friendship (and perhaps more) between Chloe and Max, Before the Storm focuses on a similar relationship between Chloe and Rachel Amber—the oft-mentioned, but unseen, character key to the plot of that preceding narrative.
Rachel is built up as someone larger than life—a force of nature that swoops into Chloe’s life to fill the gaping void left by Max’s departure. Chloe’s in-game journal entries do an excellent job at reflecting the pain of her perceived betrayal by her best friend, and, in her vulnerable state, she seeks another to fill Max’s place. Giving players the chance to meet Rachel and get to know her at the same time as Chloe makes for an interesting experience, allowing the player’s reactions to reflect the character’s. Though Rachel’s fate is known in Life is Strange, her character is only second handedly described therein, so getting to know her does enhance her presence in the future. Whether or not players can put aside their feelings from the first season is a tough call, especially knowing all the emotional struggles to come. Nevertheless, Before the Storm focuses on Rachel’s personal struggle with a shocking revelation about her family and how Chloe helps her through that pain. For gamers who have played the original, their feelings concerning this relationship can already be colored by how they perceive Max and Chloe’s own bond. Chloe may not know the future, but those players do, and that comparison will bias the perception of Rachel in some way. To the developer’s credit, Deck Nine shapes Rachel and makes her an actual person instead of simply a name, and, if nothing else, she feels just as the real as the rest of the cast by the story’s end.
Similarly to the first game, players spend time making dialogue choices big and small that affect Rachel and the other members of the cast. In place of Max’s time powers, Chloe’s strength is her sharp tongue, via a Backtalk mechanic that allows her to get otherwise-impossible outcomes by winning arguments according to contextual clues. This mechanic is fun and makes players feel empowered even without the supernatural. However, this lack of power changes a core piece of gameplay. Decisions can no longer be reversed with a simple button press, and many of them require reloading a previous checkpoint and watching an unskippable cutscene to do so. This design choice makes the decisions figuratively have more weight, slowing down real time as well as game time. Still, whether players have spent time with Chloe or Arcadia Bay before, the game does the hard work of making them care about their choices and what happens to the characters. Dream sequences with Chloe’s deceased father, William, bring back a hint of the supernatural, and the literary and cultural allusions that made the first game resonate can still be found.
What separates this title from the first season, and indeed holds it back from the same quality, is that the stakes are much lower. Some of the title’s strongest moments come from interactions with supporting characters, such as taking a car ride with Chloe’s step-dad, David, or playing Dungeons & Dragons with fellow Blackwell students. As much as players are meant to feel for Rachel, and although her story is indeed tragic and, at times, deeply moving, a disconnect exists between this story and the one told in the previous game. Hearing foreshadowing and references to future events is satisfying, as is seeing glimpses of the Chloe who will arrive in the future, but, without that context, the question is raised as to how worthwhile the experience is by itself. Even though the story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and this prequel can ostensibly stand alone, that does not mean the episodes should. The only way to truly enjoy this story without comparing it to Life is Strange would be to play it without the previous experience. For many fans that ability is simply unavailable, though, and understandably so. Prequels are generally challenging in this regard, and that difficulty does not mean Deck Nine fails beyond the inherent obstacle of dramatic irony. However, the game’s stakes remain true within the contained narrative, which certainly strengthens the title. Nevertheless, as part of such an emotionally charged series, this story almost, but never quite, reaches the emotional rollercoaster of future events.
While the themes of friendship and family, love and loss, and betrayal and loyalty recur here as they do in the first season, the plot does not feel as meaningful this time around. No matter how great the experience of seeing this world again is and no matter how solidly the title adapts to the demands of a new narrative, lightning does not seem to strike twice. The satisfaction of finally meeting Rachel—of understanding her character and story more—certainly enhances her future presence, but, ultimately, the three episodes feel rushed and almost unnecessary. The upcoming Farewell, which has since regained original voice actors Ashly Burch for Chloe and Hannah Telle for Max, looks like a narrative that could bridge the gap between the two and make the transition easier. However, the plot feels nearly unimportant compared to what happens in the next story, and, though the character moments do more to illuminate the cast, players do not learn much more than they already knew, save for about Rachel.
Standing alone, Before the Storm has an emotional arc, which goes to say that the experience is not an inherent waste of time. The nature of truth that is at the heart of the narrative is not without merit—a worthy exploration of an important theme to be sure. Overall, Deck Nine does as the best as any studio could be expected to in trying to recapture the magic of the first season, even if the experience ultimately leaves players wanting more of that original magic. Perhaps these shortcomings are simply a testament to the quality of the initial installment. Any attempt to replicate Life is Strange would always fall flat, and no one can be faulted for failing at such an impossible task. In the end, even with all the proper precautions and setup in place to capture the same lightning in a bottle, the emotional maelstrom that is Life is Strange is so potent because of the storm at the heart of the game. Anything that comes before is just the calm.
Reviewed on PC.