It’s rare that a prequel truly works, where a story can captivate despite the audience knowing what’s coming and where the path will lead. Life Is Strange: Before The Storm is one of those exceptional stories because it draws you in on its own terms. The only problem: You know it’s building you up just to break your heart.
As we know, the original Life Is Strange is steeped in tragedy. Maxine Caulfield’s estranged friend Chloe Price comes riding back into her hometown, hoping to find her missing friend, Rachel Amber. The search brings Chloe and Max close again after years apart, but it also illustrates a vast gulf in their life experience, which never fully closes. Max’s life is defined by good fortune and privilege. Chloe, as seen through Before The Storm, is defined by loss.
When Episode 1 starts, Chloe is forced to finagle her way into an underground metal concert with nothing but street smarts and her own awkward sense of sass. She’s not yet as sharp and hardened as the girl we meet in the original game, but she has it in her to become stronger as life gets tough. That girl’s outlook on life is everywhere in Before The Storm: the greyer, evocative, post-rock soundtrack compared to the sunny lilt of the original game, the sneering commentary of the information in the menus. The Backtalk system—a stand-in for Life Is Strange’s time travel mechanic—gives you even more control over the flow of a conversation to get what you want. It’s a way to portray Chloe’s very human strengths that sadly doesn’t get implemented often enough in the latter two episodes.
Whoever you choose to make Chloe become, meeting Rachel shifts her focus. In the original game, Rachel is to Arcadia Bay what Laura Palmer is to Twin Peaks: a bonafide popular girl whose absence seems to mean everything to everyone, but who no one seems to really know on a personal level. Chloe Price, however, did know her, and Before The Storm gives you the chance to find out what was so special about Rachel in Chloe’s eyes.
On the surface, the answer seems to be nothing. Episode 1 has Chloe and Rachel playing hooky, and trying to suss each other out, which doesn’t tell you anything you couldn’t guess on your own. It’s only after Rachel catches her District Attorney father in a compromising act that she metaphorically bares everything, revealing she and Chloe aren’t as different as they seem.
Before The Storm’s three episodes are roughly two hours each, depending on how compulsive you are about exploring every nook and cranny. Compared to the original game, which leaned heavy on the implications of Max’s time travel, Before the Storm has no real supernatural crutch to lean on to solve the world’s problems. What few flights of fancy there are–aside from a heartwarming impromptu Shakespeare performance in Episode 2–manifest as occasional dream sequences, more for Chloe to sort through her own grief than to affect the world around her. The real world around Chloe continues to crumble, and your choices tend to fall on the side of figuring out how to sort the remains. It’s choices like figuring out how best to deal with being kicked out of school, whether it’s worth upsetting Chloe’s mother to clap back at her trashy gun-nut stepfather, or parse out how much basic respect to give the gossip girls on Blackwell Academy’s campus.
The heart of it all remains Chloe’s relationship with Rachel. It’s a textbook case of two people finding someone worth clinging to, and taking it on good will that their faith in each other isn’t misplaced at best or going to get them killed at worst. Episode 3 veers ever slightly off into low-grade cable-TV drama, but even that’s played earnestly, with Chloe and Rachel’s mistakes having tangible, believable consequences, and choosing how Chloe deals with her failings is endlessly captivating to play through.
That captivation is, of course, the problem, if you can call it that. It’s a game that so admirably and genuinely builds a relationship between two girls who absolutely need and deserve each other; when it gets to the ugly business of reminding you where it ends, it sours and saddens every moment. You could use your choices to keep Rachel at a bit of distance, but even that distance feels unfair, because why wouldn’t both girls deserve their momentary bliss?
Still, Before The Storm’s main three episodes largely play out as though the future isn’t set in stone, allowing you to craft something resembling a momentary win for an ill-fated relationship, entertaining the notions of coping and vulnerability in ways very few games typically have time or inclination to. The bittersweet cherry on top, however, is contained in the game’s Deluxe Edition, a final episode that allows you to play through Max and Chloe’s last beautiful day together before Max leaves for Seattle. It’s light, whimsical, often funny, and bathed in a gentle golden nostalgia. And once again, its final moments bring truth rushing in, and it’s a stab in the heart.
This, apparently, is the heartbreaking joy that is Life Is Strange: the inevitability that life will do terrible, unexpected things to people whose presence we love, and people who absolutely deserve better. Developer Deck Nine’s contribution through Before the Storm posits that the pain is still worth it; just to have the time at all is enough. A storm is still coming to Arcadia Bay, and Rachel will still disappear one day, and it doesn’t matter. Being able to spend time with Chloe when her heart is at its lightest, and putting in the work to keep it going, is powerful and worthwhile.