[NOTE #1: Since I'm diving into Before the Storm's storytelling problems there will be MAJOR SPOILERS scattered throughout. Some spoiler-y mentions for the 1st season of Life is Strange will crop up but not to any substantial degree.]
[NOTE #2: All play experience is based on my Xbox One X, also after receiving some updates.]
"What was the point of this?"
It’s a common reaction we have to prequels today. Even the venerable Shakespeare couldn’t avoid that trap with “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Now, I have no doubt developer Deck Nine Games yearned to buck that trend with Life is Strange: Before the Storm. There was potential: a condensed yarn of three episodes cataloging Chloe's story before donning blue hair and reuniting with Max could've indulged fans with an illuminating and remarkable backstory. The end result? Nothing short of a train wreck in respect to storytelling and game design.
"Say beans," I hear you say while a sneering smile stretches across your face, "if you're wanting to dive into incompetent storytelling have you, perchance, bothered with this little game called Life is Strange?"
Yes, yes. It's not hard to see how it’s cropped up as cannon fodder since Episode 5’s conclusion. And some of that is justified. Misunderstanding acclaimed artistic works (like Twin Peaks & Catcher in the Rye for starters) to the point of misappropriating their deeper underlying meanings is tough to ignore. Easier to critique is the annoying dialogue and lacking character development for specific secondary people. But, through and through, I still find its ambitions and heart more endearing than a cluster of criticisms could surmount. It's a game whose stumbles are so noticeable because of all the legwork.
But...that's not the case with Before The Storm; in fact, it's the opposite. Previous facts about Arcadia Bay, Chloe's family history, Rachel Amber, and the sleepy town aesthetic have all been available in the original, either in cataloged diary information or dialogue. What's worse, many new things here are among the series' worst.
Since Chloe is the main protagonist there's no room for the undoing of choices via Max's rewind powers. Deck Nine's decision of aiming for a more grounded approach ends up looking sillier since the new mechanic supplanting time powers is simply telling people off in hopes of achieving a preferred outcome. The introduction of it qualifies as meme material: Chloe verbally thrashes a tatted-up bouncer whose off-hand remark about her bedtime makes her retort with...
..."Isn't it past yours?" The Ruler of Rejoinders, The Sultaness of Sass, The Queen of Comebacks truly has no equal. This is my life now, isn't it? Reviewing one of my most annoying games of this generation is what I’ve become, then? At least I get to trample on some of its critical praise, I guess.
To expand on the greater issues with this narrative. It's one of those cases of feeling as though I've stumbled into some bizarro world. Where what's critically accepted as being "deliberately paced" focusing more on Chloe's emotions I only see as meandering and oftentimes pointless, until flooring the gas pedal for its final episode.
Another astounding contrast for me compared to critics would be Rachel Amber, the series’ analogue to Laura Palmer (from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks). Before, she was just a picture on Missing Person posters; in this prequel, she's in the flesh going on adventures with Chloe—even skipping school. Here we see this lovable, innocent girl show those traits along with having a 'cool' edge helping Chloe get out of trouble then thrashing her head about while enjoying punk rock music. From a simple plot device to paralleling Firewalk With Me, Rachel shows off a more complicated side for us to observe. Seeing is not the same as reconciling, however.
All Rachel's become here is a mobile, oftentimes nonsensical, plot device. She's everything at once and nothing worthwhile. She's able to be the most popular girl in school with fantastic acting talent, acquire good grades, and extols so much positive energy to everyone; and yet, she also plots to steal a couple's wine while skipping with Chloe, sneaks out late to attend raves, acts like a total maverick who says “f*** it” to all societal norms, and...controls the wind when her emotions aren't in check, maybe. That last one's tough to decipher because it's only shown once and then subsequently disregarded. And that kind of haziness permeates every aspect of her development. The reference to Laura Palmer already suggested character imperfections to the well-versed; unlike Lynch's character though, Rachel doesn't have an abusive upbringing to explain her darker side. She was raised in an upper-class neighborhood by fine-if-boring parents. She's just an emotional a****le towards Chloe when necessary because the almighty plot demands an obstacle here. Aside from the explosive reveal in Episode 2, I rarely connected with her because of this artifice; she’s a quintessential examples of the writers crafting a Swiss Army Knife in lieu of a three-dimensional person.
"At least Chloe does something..." is about the best type of praise I can muster for her too. Admittedly, I often found her abrasive angst too grating in Life Is Strange. We weren't on the best of terms to start. But Ashley Burch's voice acting and the balance between her and Max felt honest. Before The Storm has neither of those qualities. Instead, we opted into new arenas: the punk exterior Chloe maintains with the game's new mechanic and the freshness of her dad's untimely death.
On the positive side: how Chloe handles losing her cherished father is executed quite well. Although sparse, it's easy to tell these emotional setpieces were foundational from the beginning. As with everything about Rachel, how the pair reaches the iconic junkyard and the emotional fallout between them is contrived; and yet Chloe's anger feels so raw and unadulterated. It's married well with the momentary gameplay too. Chloe has a bat and every contextual action is limited to one input: smash. These succinct visual cues are what make the 'less is more' phrase so understandable. It’s what buoys those melancholic, personal moments with Chloe and I would change almost nothing about them—aside from some pretentious dialogue.
Another off-hand positive: whether it’s termed Notebook, Diary, or Codex, adding flair and nuanced personality to the way player characters itemize their thoughts and knowledge goes a long way. As with Life Is Strange, Chloe has an ever-evolving compendium of discovered trinkets sewn into pages, updated diary entries channeling sincere thoughts, and a method of cataloguing where she stands with everyone. Her standing with Max after her dad’s funeral is rather uncomfortable. A few stray cellphone texts, some unsettling drawings, and pages describing her heightened sense of isolation puts Chloe’s prickly demeanor in a new light. In no uncertain terms, Max comes out looking like an apathetic friend; that uneasy dynamic adds an unexpected and welcoming layer to the original.
Squeezing all of that praise out is what makes it such a shame to see how inundated the game is in taking an opposite approach to decision-making and development. Touching back to the bedtime insult, Chloe's chief mechanic outside of pure dialogue choices is an insult-'em-up: make the best dialogue choice based on what the other person had previously said. The rules vary from either amassing more or all 'winning' insults over the opponent to win this battle of wit. Shame the script is so witless. I'm still flabbergasted at how much this game gaslights Chloe’s burns as anything other than dull and obnoxious.
The frequency of these verbal battles also feeds into Chloe having to act more annoying throughout. It’s a time where David Madsen is settling in to the Price residence and Chloe’s anteing up the incessant volleys at "stepdork." God, from "stepd**k," "stepd****e," and more, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear more time was put into the variety of granularly different slurs than many side character arcs.
Onto the awfulness of specific plot points! One of Episode 2's most cathartic & emotionally driven scenes involves getting Chloe on-stage for the student play. Before the curtains part, queen bee Victoria tries to DRUG Rachel's tea in the hopes of procuring the leading role. Since Chloe sees this, they spin the table and convince her to drink it. Soon thereafter, this results in her fainting in front of the whole drama class backstage. This momentarily distresses the drama teacher but…the show must go on! Like a light switch, everyone outright disregards an unconscious Victoria once it’s decided Chloe should step in. Get her into wardrobe, stat! It’s such poorly-done execution that I still can’t fathom whether it was meant to be a comedic bit or they just didn’t think it was important to acknowledge. Maybe Arcadia Bay is full of uncaring sociopaths.
If you've read some other reviews on this, you may have noted a recurring theme in calling Before The Storm "plotless" or something similar. It's true that the stakes are smaller and more focus is given to Chloe and Rachel hanging out or the school play; but that goes away in Episode 3, wherein the plot of two episodes is crammed into half of one. Basically, several plot elements that'd been given lip service are now of utmost importance. I was still dealing with whiplash several hours later. Lives are now at risk, including Rachel’s own. Though this stumbles back into one of the toughest hurdles for prequels: knowing a character won’t end here. And it’s strange just how much of an emphasis is given to a question of her fate when every fan knows this answer.
After that, you're tasked with tracking down Rachel's birth mother by breaking into her dad's, the DA's, personal office. Your only chance now is sifting through valuable evidence implicating one of Arcadia's worst criminals and burning it to get to Rachel's mother. Then, out of the blue, Eliot shows up. Who's that, you may wonder? The worst, most generic nonentity in the series thus far. In Episodes 1 & 2, Chloe clearly has him in the friend zone and anything he says is met with a lukewarm response. Now, he's tailed Chloe, prevents her from leaving the office, and gives a tough talking-to about Rachel's pernicious influence and also awkwardly opening up about his feelings. And the whole ordeal, along with her escaping his grasp, lands firmly in what could be labeled “the destructive incel” category where he's willing to exhibit violence in front of her to get his emotions across. I can’t overemphasize enough how grossly mishandled this exchange felt. Granted, there is an optional bit in Episode 2 that also reveals some iffy stuff about him; however, the transition from a harmless wet blanket to side-villain has no real room to breathe. The cherry on top is how all of this culminates in a haphazard implementation of the BackTalk system: ‘winning’ the verbal fight nets an uncomfortable, involuntary hug from him before fleeing the scene.
At some point in all this you wonder: what am I even experiencing? You have this rushed, unsettling stuff to chew on and still need to face down a drug dealer before Rachel's mom meets a bitter end. Even how all that concludes feels underwhelming. The reliance on the 'fade to black' resolution followed with exposition reminds me of rushed movies.
In conclusion, it's...tough to conclude on such a low note. I simply don't know what these writers were thinking. I also don't want to discount Storm's few great moments, because those few are worthy of being in the annals of the series’ best. But whether it's the examination of grief or one-off moments like Chloe playing D&D with some school friends, these are drowned out by atrocious pacing, insipid dialogue speciously acting as though it’s clever, underwritten characters, frustrating plot conveniences, disconnected thematic content, and sheer stupidity. Wrapping my head around all of these issues is a true juggling act.
Aside from the aforementioned dialogue feuds, traditions go back to typical TellTale functions and special items to collect in moving the plot forward. This doesn't get much more mechanically complex as find *X item(s)* scattered about the designated area. Disregarding the tone & pacing of the final act, there's some enjoyment to be had in sleuthing through the DA's home office. There's a successive amount of cool activities to accomplish that had at least a sub-standard level of difficulty. Although not mechanically arduous, memorizing Chloe's lines for The Tempest was enjoyable too. Not just for the engrossing art design, cinematography, and mood, it can feel sensational to nail a line you weren't 100% certain was correct but went with gut instinct based on English Literature credentials.
Just as Max had Polaroids for collectibles, Chloe uses her trusty Sharpie to act like the bad*** maverick she is, uncaring about society's norms for private property, man! There's a few moments where her graffiti makes sense and qualifies as candid self-expression. Oftentimes, it's unfunny quips or nonsense to acquire achievements. Going back to DA's office in Episode 3, I don't know who thought it was a good idea to have one of the final collectibles mark that you broke into his office.
Graphics and visual design is a tough one to grade because of how much was lifted from the original to start. Technical upgrades do show most noticeably in the eyes and improved lip-syncing. Nice to see that dead-eye look gone. Outside of that, it's tough to be as blown away from the painterly art style when you've seen so many of these locales. There may be an uptick in sharpness and quantity of items scattered but nothing remarkable—even with playing on Xbox One X. As far as original designs, the most outstanding examples would have to be The Tempest play and the party atmosphere at The Mill. Overall, a relatively unexceptional visual update both in technical chops and artistic variety.
Sound is another victim that's taken a nosedive. For context: Before The Storm was being developed during a voice actor's strike, which left people like Burch unwilling to VA until a deal was made. Her replacement, Rhianna DeVries, wasn't bad per se but there was still a difference I couldn't shake. Simply hearing how off so many characters sounded impelled me to see if they’d swapped them; lo and behold, they did with exception to the bonus “Farewell” episode. It just makes the whole production appear all the more confused. While I found practically all of the other voice acting to be subpar, Rachel's father and Eliot are the two most distracting culprits. I’m not sure how they got the roles. It’s also tough to know where to center my criticisms as well. When considering the writing itself, is it out of the question that those in the script supervisor and/or line director roles even knew how to communicate the right tone? Hard to say.
Sound design is the basic humdrum of the previous. It's tough to really gauge much of a disparity though, needless to say, there was hardly any awkward pauses in dialogue or sound glitches; in fact, this may be the one category Deck Nine succeeded at versus the launch versions of the original episodes. One of Storm's inspired choices was leaving OST works in the hands of Daughter, an indie folk band out of England. Even when the plot feels contrived the emotions poured through some songs hits the perfect note.
How value is handled in these episodic games has become typical: either pay a lump sum for all episodes which range between 2-3 hours or pay for them individually. For any fan, the quantity in the main story plus collectibles hits close to the original’s length. But there is one egregious move on the part of Square Enix: the locking of a bonus episode titled “Farewell” (at least when the game initially released). Players had to either purchase the Deluxe Edition of the main game or purchase on its own. Considering how thoughtful it was, I consider it deplorable to see this slice of Max and Chloe’s tween adventures cut down and relegated to being a bonus you need to pony up to enjoy. Considering the poor state of the main storyline, Farewell is actually my favorite episode of the bunch. This action only solidifies my annoyance with the whole product, in respect to grading and the corporate implementation.
Back to that initial question: "what was the point?" My best answer after completing it is much ado about nothing…except to annoy me. And it's such a shame because I understand why this could feel meaningful to many people. I don’t doubt Deck Nine cares about Life Is Strange; it's just a shame that wasn't communicated through their fiction. And I can sympathize with stressing how rare it seems for these types of meaningful experiments are pushed by a big publisher. But I don't think it helps to elevate said works when they do their job as ineptly as Before The Storm.
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