Intelligent and enriching, this is a preview worth playing.
The truth can be hard to look at, is it really something you're ready for? Maybe the lies we tell each other are less horrible than the truths we keep hidden? In addition to these being the main questions Life is Strange: Before the Storm asks of its players, they were also, in a way, the questions those players asked of publisher Square Enix when Before the Storm was first announced. Why spoil the mysteries of the original Life is Strange by laying them bare for all to see? Why not let fans leave the words unsaid and the people never met to their imaginations? Why entrust these beloved secrets to a new development studio? But, despite those legitimate concerns from the Life is Strange community, since the first episode launched in August this year it's been apparent that Before the Storm is not only a worthy follow-up to the original Life is Strange, in some ways it surpasses the groundwork that has already been laid.
Before the Storm paints a more intimate picture of Chloe Price, hellraiser best friend of the original's protagonist Max Caulfield, three years before the events of Life is Strange, in the time Max moved away to Seattle and the two lost contact. Playing as Chloe is a markedly different experience to playing as Max, and given how much you know about Chloe's future at this point, it's remarkable how much freedom it feels like Before the Storm gives you in shaping her outlook and attitude.
Crucially, of course, Chloe does not have Max's mysterious ability to rewind time. This could have been regarded as a step backwards in the complexity of the game, but Before the Storm wisely plays to Chloe's strengths of perception and social manipulation, meaning there are plenty of opportunities to carefully explore your surroundings and approach altercations as a puzzle to be solved. And there's a very marked permanence to the responses you give and the reactions you have to the world around you, raising the stakes in a very real way.
An extra layer is added to certain conversations in the form of Backtalk, a unique skill for Chloe where she can turn an opponent's words against them in a sort of verbal Tug O' War. These are never mandatory, but can open up new dialogue avenues and resulting consequences if undertaken. They range in difficulty, sometimes allowing you room for slip-ups and sometimes immediately failing should you give one wrong answer. Responses must be given in a very short time frame, piling on the pressure in an already tense stand-off. Backtalk is a very Chloe way of dealing with the world around you, and although it doesn't always flow in a way that feels natural, it's a shame that it is used less frequently as Before the Storm moves towards its conclusion.
Chloe is only one half of the relationship at the core of Before the Storm, however. This is our first time meeting Rachel Amber, the enigmatic figure at the centre of Season One's disappearance case. Fans were worried that actually meeting Rachel after only hearing about her in the original series would spoil her allure, but in truth spending so much time with the real person behind all the rumours and hearsay is every bit as intoxicating as you'd hope it to be - Rachel is a beautifully nuanced individual, as strong and as vulnerable as she is deeply flawed and ultimately unknowable. The chemistry between the two young women is immediate and electrifying. Seeing and experiencing them both as I do after playing Before the Storm enriches the experience of the original Life is Strange in ways I didn't think possible. It changes not only how you see them, but how you interpret different events of the original game and, surprisingly, how you feel about Max by extension.
Many players wondered what point there was in telling the story of two people we already know the fates of, but Before the Storm's greatest strength is in coaxing you into forgetting everything that has come before and losing yourself once again in Arcadia Bay, in letting you forget the hardships to come and revelling in the heady rush of an exciting new relationship. It also takes risks by introducing new characters and new scenarios. The D&D section of Before the Storm's first episode was quite a large departure from the tone of the original series, entirely optional - and an absolute triumph with fans. Players can return to the fantastical adventures of Elamon and Callamastia in Episode 3, but only if they've followed a very specific set of actions - otherwise, the opportunity to play won't even arise. It's also a clever conceit that actions Chloe takes throughout the story can have an effect on her luck in-game. Players who take the time to explore and interact with things up until the game will be rewarded with a higher perception roll, for example.
Additionally, Before the Storm introduces new characters so likeable that, going back and playing the original series after having started Before the Storm, I actually missed them among all the obnoxiously pretentious Blackwell alum. Conversely, some side stories involving familiar characters seem to fizzle out in Episode 3, and it makes you wonder whether it would have been better to have kept them away from the story entirely. But then, it would have been disappointing to fans not to have them included at all, and seeing how differently some of these characters deal with the acerbic Chloe as opposed to wallflower Max is a treat in itself.
As with the big, story-altering choices in Life is Strange, your decisions in Before the Storm have no right or wrong answers, but nor are they choices that mess with the fabric of time, space and reality. The decisions Chloe makes in Before the Storm are the million everyday decisions we all make every single day, to further our own agendas, to help those we love, to heal, to hurt. In its best moments, Before the Storm prompts you to look inwards and ask yourself: are the lies we tell ourselves any better or worse than the lies we tell other people? It reminds us, again and again, that nothing and no-one is ever just black and white. A bully can have the best interests of those who can't help themselves at heart. A parent can do unthinkable things to preserve their child's innocence for just that little bit longer. You can criticise someone for hiding a painful truth, but turn around and do the exact same thing simply to keep a smile on the face of someone you love.
As Before the Storm reaches its conclusion it culminates in a decision that, ultimately, is just about a careful choice of words. But words destroy worlds just as easily as tornadoes do, and no-one will feel that more acutely than players who are invested in Chloe and Rachel's world. The final choice means nothing if you don't care for these characters, and asks you to be introspective in a thoughtful way that games rarely manage.
One of the things I truly loved about Life is Strange, even when the dialogue was a little off-putting and the lip-syncing was poor, was that it was always heartfelt and earnest. Too often now it feels like we are encouraged to mock anyone and anything that dares to bare its soul, both on-screen and off - to be honest with ourselves and with others is to be vulnerable, and to admit that maybe you don't have all the answers. Before the Storm puts itself out there in the same way as the original series; this is no cynical exercise in spinning out a successful franchise for a quick cash grab, this is a labour of love and care by developer Deck Nine. In its best moments, Before the Storm portrays the beauty and wonder, as well as the danger and difficulty of loving others in a real, raw and intelligent way, setting the bar for other games like it to follow.
It's a shame that events in the final episode force Rachel and Chloe to spend large amounts of time away from one another. If anything, Before the Storm could have done with one more episode to flesh out revelations made in the game's final few acts and avoid a lot of confusion and even a few plot holes and inconsistencies as it hurtles headlong into a rushed resolution. Although it's amazing what Before the Storm has managed to accomplish in just three episodes, it would have been fascinating to explore a few of the plot threads that ended up being left by the wayside - the relationship between Chloe and former fling Eliot, for example. And though there are plenty of nods and easter eggs for eagle-eyed fans of Life is Strange, Before the Storm never feels like just filler material, or like we're treading water until the main events get underway. It also looks and sounds beautiful, carrying on the somewhat dreamlike, sun-drenched visual quality of Life is Strange and punctuating moments of calm with wistful and delicate indie rock, adding texture and a distinctive rhythm to a world already dancing to the beat of its own drum.
Despite fears that it would sour the memories of our first trip to Arcadia Bay, Before the Storm changes how we see not only Chloe and Rachel, but the rest of the world that Dontnod created. Its story is more mundane than the original - and by that I mean more relatable, more meaningful, more painful and more beautiful. Before the Storm is not a magical mystery story, it is an everyday tale of two people coming together at the exact right time in their lives. it's about capturing those moments, big and small, that change who we are as people. Every player will bring their own experiences and prejudices to each situation, conversation and confrontation within Before the Storm, and what you answer may tell you as much about yourself as it does Rachel and Chloe. Before the Storm does what every worthwhile prequel should - it tells its own story and connects to what came before in a way that enhances both experiences for the better. Hella feels.