Minor disappointments in gaming are easily forgotten simply by shoving something entirely different into the disc bay. This weekend has once again been all about top-notch entertainment as I found time to let Life Is Strange: Before the Storm tickle my emotional strings. A few years ago, developer Dontnod introduced us to its five-episode graphic adventure Life Is Strange, which more or less shot itself straight to the top of the genre as far as I’m concerned. While I was kind of looking forward to Before the Storm, I also had plenty of reservations about it. An entirely new dev team, just three episodes, and focus no longer on the absolutely adorable Max Caulfield but instead her rebellious and slightly unpredictable BFF, Chloe Price, and don’t even get me started on the first adventure ending in a way that doesn’t really warrant a follow-up of any kind.
Still, Deck Nine was given the reins and managed to turn impossible into reality. Before the Storm predates the original, heart-rending adventure of Max and Chloe by rewinding back to the time when Max and her family had already moved out of the little town of Arcadia Bay, leaving the now 16-year-old Chloe still trying to come to terms with the car accident that claimed the life of his father. School sucks, friends are irrelevant, and mom’s new boyfriend is about the most repulsive douchebag on earth. All this changes when the school’s prettiest and most popular girl, Rachel Amber, suddenly shows interest in Chloe, and during the three days that follow, the two of them get marinated in such potent and genuinely believable teen drama that it occasionally manages to triumph over even the game’s outstanding precursor!
If Chloe Price might once have felt a bit too reckless and rowdy for her own good, Deck Nine does a stellar job inducing her with not just attitude but cracks as well. The paranormal elements of the first game have been bravely binned, so Before the Storm is “only” about the happenstance friendship (or perhaps even more) of two teenage girls, full of fleeting slices of life that can be as absolutely awesome as they can stink to high heavens. At least from the perspective of my middle-aged, fairly unscathed male self, experiencing life with such an overflowing dose of teen angst is quite striking, especially when it has been told in such a superbly plausible and touching manner.
As usual, the gameplay elements themselves are nothing but dressing for the story. Chloe has to figure out a handful of awfully straightforward puzzles, and frequently choose her point of view from two to three dialogue choices, each slightly altering the way things will go. Whereas Max Caulfield was once all about hunting down photo opportunities, Chloe focuses on spreading her laconic world view by finding suitable targets for her snarky graffiti. That’s about all the interactivity there is, although the real challenge lies in having to pry oneself away from the game’s most lingering moments. Whenever Chloe decides to sit down for awhile, the game digs into its wide repertoire of great ambient indie songs and goes into full-on chill mode, letting each song and each wonderful scenery give the heroines some much-needed solace. Many games are beautiful on the outside but it’s moments like these when Before the Storm truly gets under your skin.
One would probably have to be pretty dead inside if the game’s strongest moments won’t manage you to get at least a little bit misty-eyed. Although the second episode is dramatically a bit weak, both the first and the third fire on all cylinders and with such intensity that it’s enough to cause goosebumps. Should all else fail, the final one-hour bonus episode, Farewell, takes the player even further into the past, making them relive that bittersweet final day when Chloe and Max, still just grade school kids, originally had to say goodbye to each other.
Short put, this is games at their finest. Narrative, harrowingly beautiful, immensely powerful, and as two separate studios have already proven themselves capable of moving the player on an emotional level, here’s hoping Square Enix as a publisher keeps supporting this in the future. I’m not crying, you’re crying!