Life Is Strange: Before The Storm is Hella Awful
Anyone who's been here a while knows this, but just to reiterate - I really love Life Is Strange.
I've definitely given it some guff in the past year for the way it utilizes "bury your gays" and sort of kind of queerbaits players. However, I still feel like it's something special in this industry. It's authentic. It's heartfelt. It's something that Telltale and David Cage at the top of their game couldn't get close to touching in terms of sincerity and ambition. Cringeworthy dialogue notwithstanding, I feel confident in still claiming it as one of my favorites of the current decade.
Which is why it pains me that Life Is Strange: Before the Storm was allowed to happen. Because for everything the original did right, this limp prequel finds ten things to do wrong. Deck Nine, a developer known for Cool Boarders, Pain, and a port of Ratchet Deadlocked, have managed to suck the joy and stylistic ambition out of the franchise in every nanosecond. The writers have taken one of the most memorable characters in recent memory and turned her into a spiteful little cretin that the player can't help but root against.
But neither party is more to blame here than Square Enix, really. Because this game is a damning indictment for why artistic integrity is nigh impossible in the AAA development sphere. Deck Nine and the writing staff can't be blamed for the soulless corporatism that lies at the heart of this production. Life Is Strange already has a sequel in development. It's by the original developer, and presumably, the original writers. But that won't be out for another year or two. For a big ol' gaming company, that's just not soon enough. A hot IP's got to be milked for all it's worth, regardless of whether that milking is necessary or done with the involvement of the original parties at all. Because you know. That's worked out so well for Halo.
Regardless of who's to blame (which is Square Enix, in case that wasn't clear enough,) though, the fact remains that we're left with a terrible game. Before the Storm takes place prior to the events of Life is Strange, and follows Chloe Price, the doomed blue-haired rebel from the first game. Except this is before the hair dye, before the mortal wound that kicks off wacky time travel antics, and before the storm that threatens to tear apart Arcadia Bay.
Get it? Before The Storm? Get it?
Isn't it so c l e v e r?
Anyway. The Chloe we see here barely resembles the one we met in the first title. She instead behaves like a failed crossbreeding experiment between Devil May Cry's Dante and a Papa Roach song put through a Xerox machine. She says "fuck" a whole lot, flicks people off, and does shitty graffiti. That's it. That's her character. Oh, and she has dead dad issues, which I'll talk about more in a few seconds. Other than that, she's far from the nuanced, intriguing character we came to know her as through the course of Life Is Strange. In Before The Storm, she's the "cool" angsty edgelord that every teenager thinks they are, in some capacity. But just like a lot of those actual teenagers, she's really just a spiteful little asshole.
This time around, the focus is placed squarely on Chloe's relationship with Rachel Amber, the deliberate Laura Palmer figure from the first game. In that title, we're led to believe that Rachel was a tragic figure much like Palmer - a popular beauty queen trope with a streak of manipulation and a dash of drug addiction and questionable sexual conquests. Unlike Fire Walk With Me giving Laura Palmer further depth and agency, however, Before The Storm makes the player wonder why anyone ever cared about Rachel to begin with. She's obnoxious. She's abrasive. She's kind of a jerk. It's made clear that Chloe is angry at Max for moving away and feels pretty desperate for some kind of meaningful companionship, but from what I was led to believe about Chloe in the first episode, she's a take-no-bullshit type of character. One conversation with Rachel as she's depicted here should send her for the hills, and yet, this is the character we've heard so much affection for. The tragic, doomed lover we're supposed to give a fuck about. Well, whatever Chloe sees in this girl, I sure as hell can't see. Myself and the two people I played the game with honestly wanted to shove her out of a train both characters ride during a particularly obnoxious "character-building" scene.
It doesn't help that the writing here is laughable in general. Not in the way that makes it fun to laugh at, but in that way one laughs in disbelief, disbelief that someone could string together sentences this hackneyed and stilted. No single conversation in this game has an ordinary flow. Topics are brought up and dropped in a jarring, random fashion. There's no coherence or emotional weight behind any of it, especially not with the horrendous voice acting. This is most clear in conversations that Chloe has with Joyce and David near the beginning of the game, which ramble on with no clear direction or focus, and sputter out with no actual payoff. It's the kind of dialogue that you'd hear as filler for background characters, but brought to the foreground and cobbled together to form the conversational equivalents of Frankenstein's monster. For all of its awkward dialogue, which mainly stemmed from the game not being written by native English speakers, the original game had coherence and logic in its conversations. Both of those are absent here, and somehow, the "teen lingo" here feels even worse than before.
Everything here in the writing department is just bad across the board, and no character is given any chance to really shine, because writing this muddled and disjointed can never shine, not without a deft editorial hand. Or a total rewrite.
Unfortunately, the bad writing carries over to the narrative arc as well. In three to four hours, we're given nothing of significance until the last fifteen minutes. The rest is filler, and I daresay character assassination. Every female character in this game is somehow based around and defined by a male character. Chloe's traumatized by her dad's death. Rachel's upset that her dad's a philanderer. Joyce is defensive of her dickbag boyfriend. Victoria, my favorite fucking character from the first game, now serves as an overbearing protector of rapist photographer Nathan Prescott. The writers don't seem to understand that one of the key reasons people loved Life Is Strange was its cast of interesting, dynamic female characters that supported and attacked each other in different capacities. Here, that's thrown to the wind in favor of women with daddy and husband issues, and of a fiercely independent character (bully or no) being creepily protective of a male character. It's a sorry state of affairs, and feels like something by somebody who doesn't understand that women have lives not based around men.
It gets worse when the game attempts to parrot social justice language for brownie points. "Slut shaming is so 2009," scoffs Chloe at one point, which basically sums up the game's attitude towards hot button topics in general - cringe-worthy irreverence and a Whedon-level (read: toddler level) understanding of them. Mansplaining and social inequality are touched upon in a game where its protagonist is casually homophobic and has a gobsmackingly racist trope of a bouncer in the first ten minutes. The all-male writing team is trying to integrate social justice elements into a script while being painfully unaware and uncritical of their own biases. Again, it's very Joss Whedon-y in that sense - sarcastic teenage girls are Strong Female Characters (tm) and the concept that women might have it hard is considered a bold stance to take.
This is especially sad when holding it against the original. Life Is Strange featured a pregnancy subplot that had more weight in its ten minutes of runtime than anything in this multi-hour tour through a narrative trash can. Hell, it had a significant narrative arc about the interplay of religion, slut-shaming, and cyberbullying, and players got to see the real-world ramifications of that as it affected the character in question. Before the Storm can only muster a flaccid "sexism is hella lame, dude" before denigrating male side characters for being "girly."
It's a fucking disaster, really.
Before The Storm, in general, is a fucking disaster. Because it takes a game that didn't need a prequel, made one, and actively undermines characters that people loved in the first one. Worse yet, it gives us background details for a character that was seemingly left ambigious, because her ambiguity was a central thematic element to the original title. That's not even getting into the game's ugly visuals, bad stylistic eye, and a new "Backtalk" mechanic that's a poor man's riff on Apollo Justice and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Life is Strange: Before The Storm really makes me wish Rachel Amber would hurry up and get to dying. Because honestly, I'm not sure I can stomach spending two more episodes around her.