Few games blindsided me the way Life Is Strange did back in 2015. Though outwardly presented as quirky science fiction story with a neat gimmick—the ability to rewind time and change your decisions—that premise buried what proved to be actually special about Dontnod's five-part adventure: the relationship between Chloe Price and Max Caulfield. Against all odds, hellas and all, the bumbling teenagers came across as deeply authentic, and by the end of the game, storms swirling, you were deeply invested in the two of them.
And that's to say nothing of the way Life Is Strange managed to tell believable stories about sexual discovery, how kids manipulate class and social structures, the perils of teenage sex in the age of social media, and the way many feel lost during such formative years. These were not stories you expected from a video game, and while part of Life Is Strange's appeal was the sheer novelty of it all, there's no denying Dontnod built a world many fell for—hard.
That's what makes it so incredibly weird to be playing another game starring many of the same characters, especially one set before the events of the original game and without any of the supernatural trappings. Then again, the parts of Life Is Strange that linger, the moments that bubble up in my memory every few months, had nothing to do with a storm or a mysterious power that provided someone the chance to bend space and time. What I remember about Life Is Strange was Max and Chloe's journey. I remember the relationships.
More importantly, I remember that kiss.
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm is a three-part prequel made by a different developer, Deck Nine, focused how Chloe and Rachel Amber met one another. You might remember Rachel because she was mentioned constantly in the original game: her disappearance was critical to setting the plot into motion, and it was obvious Rachel meant a great deal to Chloe. Why Chloe and Rachel cared for each other, given how different they were, was never clear, nor was the game explicit about whether they'd ever been more than friends. Before the Storm's first episode makes it clear this prequel is focused on filling in the gaps to those questions.
(Side note: Dontnod is currently working on another Life Is Strange game, but they haven't said if it's it's a sequel, merely set in the same universe, or will be an entirely new thing.)
Before the Storm's first episode, Awake, opens with Chloe, always equal parts curious and adventurous, walking miles from home for a rock show she's too young to attend. It's not long after her father passed away in a tragic car accident, an awful period compounded by the departure of her best friend, Max, who's no longer answering her calls or texts. (It's the same Max. She's not present in the story, but she will have her own side episode.) Chloe is in a shitty place, but unlike many hormone-fueled teenage grievances, you can't blame her.
And gosh, it feels good to be back. Despite my apprehension for prequels, a surefire way to destroy mystery and ambiguity purposely left by the original story, I didn't care. The look, the feel, the awkward dialogue—the new writers seemed to be dropping in without skipping a beat. Soon enough, Chloe was talking shit and getting into mild but escalatable trouble. It felt like starting a new season of show you love, where the point of returning has less to do with the story being told than spending more time with the characters. Sometimes, that's enough.
Quickly, Chloe gets into a scrap with two dudes—remember, she's unambiguously younger than everyone else in a barn-set party with lots of drinking and drugs—where it's looking like she's about to take a beating. Rachel appears out of nowhere, bailing her out of the dire situation. Rachel, aka Arcadia Bay's Best and Most Talented and Most Perfect Girl, grasps Chloe's hand, and the two disappear into the crowd to enjoy their favorite band. Their glances are electric. Two people, people with seemingly nothing in common, found a bond.
These moments, where people are just being people in a way that feels warm and genuine, are what originally sold me on Life Is Strange. That Before the Storm seemed to recognize and capitalize on this, while ditching the deus ex machina storytelling that overly defined the first game, suggests these new storytellers actually know what made Life Is Strange click.
This is backed up by all sorts of little touches, too, like an optional side quests where you can participate (for a surprisingly long time!) in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. So far as I can tell, you can't water a plant, but there are two episodes to go, so there's still time.
To my delight, there is no supernatural twist at the end of the episode. After Chloe and Amber meet, destiny is placed in their hands, not someone else's. Granted, what's happening around them—Chloe's ongoing emotional trauma over the death of her father, Rachel's own complicated family situation—informs their relationship, but the focus is squarely on these two figuring out what (and who) they are. For many, that will mean exploring the potential of a romance, while others can steer things towards an intense friendship. (Like the first game, there's an option to explore dating another, male character.)
The game is also, so far, respectful of an easily exploitable situation. A story about two young, attractive women falling for one another is going to involve sex and sexual attraction, and during a moment where it could have fallen into the male gaze trap, it was tasteful.
Before the Storm does stuff a lot of character development into one episode, which it doesn't fully earn when it's over. It's easy to buy why Rachel and Chloe would be very into one another, but it unreasonably squishes awkward teenage courtship into 24 hours. This is probably the result of Before the Storm's compressed timeline of only three episodes, but it would have been satisfying to watch these two tango off one another for a while longer. Still, by the end, I was on-board, and given what happens at the end, deeply curious to see where things go from here. Prequel problems be damned, I am here for Chloe + Rachel + Trouble.
It doesn't all work, though. Replacing the time travel mechanic are optional sequences where Chloe can get into what can only be described as an escalation of feeble verbal attacks to win an argument. It's an interesting idea, but one failed by the game's writing; too often, Chloe comes across as trying too hard, rather than succeeding at psychological intimidation.
Worst of all is the new voice for Chloe. Due to the ongoing Screen Actors Guild Strike, actress Ashly Burch declined to participate. Rather than wait for the strike to be resolved, a non-union actress was picked for the part. In Life Is Strange, Chloe's ragged but memorable personality was the result of great writing being paired with a great performance. The second part is missing from Before The Storm; this new Chloe is all over the place. At times, it feels like nothing has changed. Too often, though, she sounds flat, boring, and affectless. None of those are traits that people would assign to Chloe Price, and it undercuts her character.
This is most notable when contrasted with actress Kylie Brown, who nails the demanding emotional arcs of Rachel Amber. (The gulf is enormous towards the end of the episode.) We'll see how this dynamic plays out as the season moves forward, but given the emotional stakes are likely to grow, I was left wondering how things would be different with Burch.
Still, it works. Life Is Strange still works. This Life Is Strange prequel, of all things, seems to work. The world is a better place with more Life Is Strange in it.