Okay, let me make things very clear what I mean by that giant “NO SPOILERS” I put in the title.
There will be no spoilers for this game, Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Per request I’ll make two separate entries, one non-spoiler, and one with spoilers.
That said, if you are playing this game, I assume you have played the original Life is Strange. There will be spoilers for that game. If you haven’t played it, stop right now and do so. Your experience will only be enhanced by playing that entry first.
As always, let’s get the formalities out of the way, so we can address some of the differences between the original LiS and this entry, BtS.
The original Life is Strange was made by DontNod Entertainment. Although Square Enix is still publishing the game and the team still had this planned, it is a slightly different team working on Before the Storm. This time, we have Deck Nine working to tell us Chloe and Rachel Amber’s story.
A lot of people were uneasy about quite a few things, the developer shift being one of them. Another, large one, was Ashly Burch not returning to reprise her award-winning role as the punk rocker who stole our hearts, Chloe Price. Ashly is currently participating in the SAG-AFTRA strike. What you think of that is your own opinion, and I have mine, but we’re not here to discuss that. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a quick filler about why you haven’t heard some of your favorite voice actors, and why smaller-time ones are getting bigger and bigger roles.
Ashly is succeeded by non-union voice actress Rhianna DeVries, who also plays as Chloe’s motion capture. While Ashly is not voicing Chloe, however, she is still assisting the team. She’s credited as a writer and has clear direction on Chloe’s lines and character, so to be frank I don’t want to hear any whining about Chloe “not acting like Chloe,” because Ashly herself is making sure Chloe stays who she is. Although she is not voicing the role, she is still a very active, very enthusiastic participant in Before the Storm. So stop worrying about that right now, okay? Okay.
I will start off by saying that although Rhianna DeVries obviously doesn’t sound exactly like Ashly Burch, it would be, again, frankly, an unfair comparison to make. It’s like comparing Terrance Howard and Don Cheadle as which Rhodey you liked better in the Iron Man movies; they are apples and oranges, and approach the character as they are with slightly different takes. Of course, it’s natural for us to make those comparisons. I’m simply saying don’t write Rhianna off as a bad choice for Chloe. If you can’t get past it because you’re used to Ashly, okay, that’s completely different. But don’t fault her for trying her hardest and for something she had zero control over. That’s where I get irate.
That being said, it is weird hearing Rhianna at first. You’re going huh. But it’s obvious the actress is working very hard to be Chloe. I was very impressed by intonations she made, as they were very similar to Ashly’s, and she cemented herself as a fantastic voice actress in a scene that hit home very, very hard, as this series likes to do.
Instead, I like to see Rhianna’s Chloe as the post-Max leaving, pre-Rachel Amber and Max’s reappearance Chloe. She’s a different person than the Chloe we remember. We see bits of who she is in Life is Strange, but she lacks the complete brashness and confidence, showing us she actually has a shy and awkward side. It’s very endearing. Rhianna is a younger Chloe, one who needs to grow. And that’s precisely what this story is about. That plus her natural hair color instead of Chloe’s trademark blue is the game’s blaring alarms that although this is still the Chloe Price you know and love, she isn’t quite who you remember her as, because she’s two years younger. Right off the bat the game makes that pretty clear to us, the players. So try to leave your hangups at the door, guys. The game managers to convey this message to us artfully and without cramming it down our throats just by how Chloe is.
This is an incredibly interesting theme, and the fact that the devs took the time to make this very apparent to us makes me hopeful that they’re going to explore that more. A change in voice can actually do a lot for a character, and it may work to Deck Nine’s advantage if they use this strategy correctly.
She’s not the only one to get an overhaul on voice actors, either. Joyce and David aren’t the same, either. It seems about half the original cast could actually stay, while the other half voices new members. It’s an entirely new world to get used to: Chloe’s world. Not Max’s.
As I previously mentioned, this takes place two, three years before Life is Strange. Chloe tells us it’s been two years since Max left, and she’s in the spring of her sophomore year at Blackwell Academy. Bells started going off in my head; part of me thought it was just my literary senses going on overdrive, but Life is Strange is a series that is crammed full of imagery and interpretation. If you remember, the original LiS took place in the fall, which is often seen as an image of death. The leaves fall from the trees, the flowers wilt, the grass begins to wither under the morning frosts. Nature itself is dying. And so does Chloe, regardless of what your choice at the very end is. Chloe, during LiS, is constantly dying, mirroring the season. Here, however, it’s springtime, when flowers bloom, trees regrow their leaves, we all get allergies, and animals come out of hibernation and begin to procreate. Spring is a sign of birth. That, coupled with the episodes title, “Awake,” had me musing that these two episodes were set in their respective seasons for a reason. We’ve already seen the death of Chloe… now, we see her birth. A backwards method of storytelling, but one that has worked before, and absolutely works in BtS’s favor as we see subtle references made to things that will happen two years later.
Before the Storm is very good at these little easter eggs, making sure just to drop them and leave them for you to find, occasionally dropping one in front of your face in the form of dialogue. Overall, however, they could have been a lot more obvious in their hint-dropping, as I’ve seen plenty of painful, groaning, and cringeworthy foreshadowing in my time devouring books and playing games. BtS sprinkles it in and it adds a nice flavor, rather than trying to dump the entire seasoning bottle in your mouth at once.
When are we going to get to the good part? What about Rachel Amber?
Before that I promise, I promise, the couple of things I have to say are incredibly important and pertain to Rachel Amber.
If you haven’t seen the 90s cult TV show Twin Peaks, it’s likely you’ve missed quite a few of the references in the original LiS. Their references here, though, are more important. First off, I’ll just say that the band Chloe loves so much is a direct fucking reference and homage and love letter to Twin Peaks and its key phrase “Fire walk with me.” Mmkay? Mmkay.
The second is one that’s been there since the first game, but is now being expounded upon in droves, and that’s the parallel of the characters Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, and Rachel Amber from LiS. Laura Palmer is the central figure in Twin Peaks, as the series opens with the police finding her dead body, and the entire show revolves around the bigger mystery that starts off as “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and leads into “what the fuck is even going on in this area?” There’s a mystery to Arcadia Bay; you can’t tell me you haven’t really wondered what was up with Samuel in the last game, or what the Tobanga really stood for, along with random phrases and images Max can find that obviously have some sort of reference to…something, but how, how does it tie in? There’s been some theorizing over the internet, but not a lot has been deduced. Arcadia Bay, like Twin Peaks, is so full of people concerned with their personal problems that they can’t focus on the big picture and the eerie supernatural mystery that surrounds them. People mourn Rachel’s missing status, but continue to go about their everyday lives, as people mourned Laura Palmer and continued to do so, so absorbed in their everyday drama. It’s the human condition. It’s what we do. Only people who were directly affected, like Chloe (and Donna, in Twin Peaks), start doing things to actively get to the bottom of what is going on.
There’s also the blatant reference of many people only referring to them by full name: “Laura Palmer” and “Rachel Amber” more commonly than just their first names.
Laura Palmer is a very mysterious character in Twin Peaks. She was described as a nice girl, but we see multiple facets to her in Dale Cooper’s investigation to find out who murdered her, and why. Laura was not as nice and innocent as she seemed, and we find this out about Rachel Amber as well. Rachel was beloved by all of Blackwell, and regarded as on a “higher level” than most of the students, showing off wisdom beyond her years and a mind that seemed to stare into the cosmos as much as it did the chalkboard in her classroom. Laura and Rachel were both portrayed as forces of nature, mysterious, enigmatic beings that even the people closest to them did not understand. While Chloe may argue that she and Rachel loved each other, Rachel never even told her about her relationship with Frank Bowers. To that end, we don’t even know what happened with Frank Bowers; Rachel broke up with him, but they still obviously loved each other. There was something to be mended, but couldn’t be, due to Rachel’s unfortunate death.
Does BtS deliver on this promise of Rachel?
Absolutely. Rachel is kind, but moody, gorgeous, but mysterious, playful, but manipulative. She is someone who you’re completely drawn to. I find myself liking her quite a bit, and mourn the fact that she, Max, and Chloe couldn’t be an unstoppable trio. Life is Strange built very high expectations for Rachel Amber, and so far, I find that they’re delivering in Before the Storm. There is chemistry between her and Chloe; something that draws Chloe in. Likewise, there’s something so straightforward about Chloe that draws Rachel in, becoming inevitably attracted to her. Rachel’s life is so full of mystery, perhaps she’s tired of the bullshit and wants someone who can give her straightforward answers. Or perhaps she’s looking for someone to enlighten. We can’t really say; as much as I like Rachel, due to the nature of her characterization, I don’t quite trust what she says. I did say she could be manipulative.
But as Chloe says she did, Rachel comes in, a whirlwind, and sweeps Chloe off her feet, leaving her spun about and incredibly confused. And it only proceeds from there. She absolutely lives up to the expectations built in LiS, and I’m eager to see where it goes from here.
Like the first game, Before the Storm gives you plenty of moments to sit and let your main character reflect, and for you to soak in the gorgeous atmosphere and music. And holy shit, are they both incredible. I’m itching for the soundtrack already. It’s not as acoustically-filled as Max’s story was, but we’ve known Chloe is a rocker, so it stands to reason that her music is a little harder than Max’s. That said, they still keep far away from A-list artists that we know and immerse us in a world of music we’ve never experienced before. That, thankfully, hasn’t changed, since it was one of my favorite parts of the original Life is Strange.
Now what about Max? She’s the main character of the original game, and Chloe brought up again and again how she felt that Max betrayed her. Don’t worry. That’s addressed in droves. Rachel and Max actually do a very interesting switch.
In Life is Strange, Rachel Amber was still very much her own character through her absence. We found out things about her through Max, the investigation, how the town reacted to her disappearance, through the lives she directly affected (Chloe and Frank bowers in particular. I will not stop mentioning Frank Bowers, I actually like him a lot). Something similar is done with Max in Before the Storm, but in an inverse manner. Before the Storm is the story of Rachel Amber, and we already know what kind of person Max Caufield is. So rather than Max being a character through discovering bits and pieces of her, we see Max as a character through Chloe’s loneliness, despair, and grief. This is a refreshing perspective, as well, since Max always had rose-tinted lenses when it came to her childhood with Chloe. We see some of that in Chloe as well, but we see much more due to Chloe’s withdrawn manner and aching heart.
In typical Life is Strange fashion, Before the Storm is not afraid to hit on some very heavy topics. As this is a game about Chloe, it’s not a huge surprise, or spoiler, that William and the grief for her father is a central theme. There are a few others presented in the first episode, and there will likely be others stemming from these in the later two, but Chloe’s grief is first and foremost, and it is very, very real. As this is the downfall of Chloe the honor student and the birth of Chloe the rocker, we’ve obviously barely scratched the surface.
There is a scene in the first episode that hit me particularly hard. I will say nothing specific about it, other than you’ll know it when you get to it. It portrays grief in an incredibly human and realistic fashion. After the sequence was over, I had to pause the game and sit back, mulling over just how close to home that actually hit. How I felt the same way, so many times, and was able to just live out something I wanted to do countless times over the past few years in grieving my own father’s death. The writers’ study of the human condition is still spot-on, and I give it full props for dealing with grief in the way that they do. It isn’t a pretty thing, and it isn’t something that goes away. Grief is ugly and can eat at your heart, and will continue to eat at your heart no matter how much the pain has dulled and no matter how well you do or do not cope. The aforementioned scene is by far my favorite, as it quite literally took my breath away.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed Before the Storm quite a bit. I’m liking a lot of what I see and a lot of potential for the game to really take us on a journey through who Chloe was when Max left, and who she becomes with Rachel Amber, and the Chloe Max meets once again. It’s fascinating to see things through Chloe’s world, and I’m looking forward to more of her perspective, Rachel Amber’s entrancing presence, and Chloe’s growth.