It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Life Is Strange, so it should be unsurprising that I wound up trying out its prequel, Before The Storm without waiting for its last episode to be released (I usually prefer to binge my games, and really hate it when things go episodic). Having finished the original, and now Episode 1 of the prequel as well, I think it is time to make a comparison. Yes, there will be spoilers, and frankly there’s little way to go about this without spoiling some, so be fairly warned.
Life Is Strange opens with Max Caulfield getting into school, easing the player experience into the daily bustle of school life, and ultimately to the climactic attempted murder by firearm of our dear Chloe Price.
In Before The Storm, one steps into the boots of Chloe Price, finding her way about a dive of a concert by Firewalk in some old barn and back-talking her way through her “blossoming” relationship with Rachel Amber (yes, that Rachel Amber).
While both Episode 1’s have Blackhell – I mean Blackwell Academy as the backdrop early on, there is a very distinct divergence in the presentation of the narrative between the original and its prequel. Whereas the original was exploratory and experimental, Before The Storm has proving to have a story it wishes to tell and willfully chooses the way it would tell said story.
Take for example Chloe’s introduction to Blackwell in contrast to Max’s. Whereas Max puts in her earbuds and gets lost in the bustle of school life to the rising strains of To All Of You as she finds her way to class, Chloe walks – correction: saunters – right into drama class and right into the arms of Rachel Amber, then manages to completely bypass school to join Rachel in a bit of hooky playing.
Whereas the player of the original was given a chance to get a feel for the lay of the school and the personalities within before being thrown into the story, prequel life is rather more hectic and probably portrays well how much Chloe actually attended Blackwell, which is probably not all that much. While some may argue that this is a great way to portray her relationship with school, I strongly feel that a narrative opportunity was missed to show the why of Chloe hating school as opposed to the how of her not attending to begin with.
This tendency to favor moving the story forward towards Chloe’s relationship with Rachel Amber feels both excessive and incomplete. At the start of the prequel, Chloe meets a punky Rachel under trying circumstances where Rachel effectively saves Chloe’s bacon. Fast forward past the school scene and Rachel’s managed to drag Chloe along on a hobo-style stowaway on board a train towards a nature reserve and the now iconic car junkyard. While the prequel manages to dedicate fully half of an episode trying to give the Chloe/Rachel complex a long drawn out introduction, it fails to show how Chloe got so attracted to Rachel ever since the Firewalk concert. Throughout the episode, their exchanges were awkward and abrupt less in the manner of an awkward couple and more akin to slightly schizophrenic characters not quite knowing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Conversely in the original, Max’s sudden and violent reunion with Chloe is poignant, and needs no long elaboration to show that they care for one another at some level. For one, the player is directly involved in saving Chloe back in Episode 1. That one moment between Chloe, a bullet to the gut and Max was sufficient to establish an intensity of narrative way beyond all of Chloe’s whining and pining for Max back in the prequel.
And then there is the matter of choice. Max in the original has an unfair advantage in being able to reverse time, and thereby see the consequences of most actions, even to create new dialog options out of things learned after the fact. That in itself created a way for the player to explore all of the narrative options and more without the painful save/load cycle that players often undergo trying to do the same in narrative driven games.
Unfortunately for Chloe, being bound to causality like the rest of us forces her to pick a choice and stick with it. While arguably enhancing the importance of choice (nevermind the save scumming which I would undoubtedly do), the linearity of choices due to cause and effect is further exacerbated by the fact that there is really only one right way through crucial dialog: The Back Talk minigame. Pick the wrong choices and one will lose the insult sword fight.
As a consequence of these design choices, Chloe feels way more constrained and predestined in her narrative trajectory than Max was, despite both having effectively the same number of dialog options. It does not help that the Chloe-player is not given an interesting alternative for Chloe – being nice at heart and forced by circumstance to go down the path of rebellion that we found her in in the original. It is one thing to be a rebel without a cause, and it is quite another to be said rebel ultimately because.
Narrative aside, I think another step back that the prequel took was a lack of visual and audio variety. While it is admirable that Daughter (omg love the guys to bits) was commissioned to do an original soundtrack for the prequel, the general flavors of the soundtrack blended together such that it was difficult to distinguish where one track ended and another began. I would contrast this to the original’s experience from where Max puts on her earbuds and wanders down school corridors to the rising strains of To All Of You as a commentary on the shallowness of high school life, to Chloe’s room where the wistful Santa Monica Dream played for the pirates, and Crosses in Max’s room as one stares at the fairylights knowing that you’ll be alright.
On to locations. The original had locations in episode 1 that were more memorable to the player – the lighthouse/storm (hella scary), the numerous locations within Blackwell (who’d have thought a toilet and classroom would become iconic?), the dorm (yay Max’s room!), Chloe’s room (Santa Monica Dream, baby) and ultimately the same lighthouse sans storm (ominous…but gorgeous). Each location with its unique people and significant events to allow the player to form memories around. In the prequel, there was the Firewalk concert (which seemed like a throwaway location), Blackwell (which was glossed over) and then the train car (also a throwaway perhaps?), the nature reserve (really liked it) and finally the junkyard (fans will know why. Newbies, I’m leavin you to find out). It would have been nice to have something outstanding to cling on to for each location, but the prequel stopped just short of achieving that.
Overall, while it may sound that I am putting down Before The Storm as a bad game, let it be said that I still think it a worthwhile play. It is most decidedly a different experience from the original, and has moments in it that make the game worth one’s while. This is a game with a fair bit of fan service and is definitely recommended for fans of the series. However, if I were to have to make a choice as to whether I prefer episode 1 of the original or prequel, I have to definitely throw in my lot with the original.