Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Episode Two Review: Fire Walk with Me
Life is Strange: Before the Storm started in the same way that the original did in that it spent the first episode building a new (but familiar) world in Arcadia Bay. After its first episode, the original Life is Strange quickly blossomed into an amazing Game of the Year winning game thanks building onto the characters, relationships and world that Dontnod established in the first episode.
The real challenge for Deck Nine, who have created their own world inside the Life is Strange story, isn’t establishing the new story, characters and relationships. Their challenge is matching Dontnod’s ability to build that world. It’s as tough a task as any but Deck Nine certainly did a damn fine job of it in Episode Two.
Spoiler Warning: As usual for episodic games, story points from previous episodes will be brought up in this review. If you haven’t played the first episode of LiS: Before the Storm, you are likely to have some of it spoiled.
The second episode of Before the Storm takes us to Blackwell Academy on a Saturday because discipline for truancy waits for no one, especially in a three-episode, three-day game that occurs from Friday to Sunday. While it’s very convenient for the story that Principal Wells works on weekends, the story needs to be on the weekend for the rest of the episode’s adventures so the girls don’t get in more trouble for skipping school.
Without going into too much detail about what actually happens, Brave New World starts to tie Before the Storm’s story and mythology into that of the original Life is Strange. The best example of that was an amazing dream sequence in which Chloe and her father roast marshmallows over the burning wreckage of his car and discuss the philosophical nature of fire while using it as a beautiful metaphor the Life is Strange story.
On the whole, though, Deck Nine really does start to tie where we are here in Before the Storm to where we will be at the start of Season One without it being as heavy-handed in the first episode of BtS. Chloe’s love at first sight and Rachel saying she’ll just disappear one day moments in Episode One felt far too on the nose.
Speaking of tying back to Season One, compared to the first episode of BtS, Episode 2 does have a lot of references to the original series. On paper, it sounds like an overload of fan service that should hit you over the head to the point of annoyance (looking at you, early James Luceno Star Wars books) but it was actually really well done.
In this episode, we get a new take on LiS Episode 1’s get into the dorms puzzle, there’s a call back to the pirate adventures of Max and Chloe and we get to meet puppy Pompidou. All of these feel like an organic part of the story rather than being wedged in to say “Remember this thing you liked in the original games? Here it is again!” Yes, we remembered them from LiS but they’re presented in a way that works without having needed to play the original game to actually understand what they’re getting at. These references are so organically incorporated that new players won’t be lost as to what is going on but they will obviously miss that these are callbacks.
The biggest benefit that Episode Two has over Episode One is that the previous episode established the characters and relationships in Before the Storm’s part of the LiS universe which leaves the rest of the season to grow those relationships and develop those characters. Certain characters, like Chloe, David and Frank, don’t have as much character development in this episode because their important moments of character development occur three years later in LiS proper so for that development to work, they can’t completely change the characters. We’re just getting them to where they start LiS so their development works from a continuity standpoint.
Having done that establishing work in the last episode, the focus of this episode really shifts to Chloe. While I felt that Rachel dominated the last episode a bit too much, I thought that the writers found a nice balance in what they focused on in this part of the story. Yes, Rachel plays a large part in this episode again but it feels like this episode is about Chloe rather than Rachel.
As a result, this game really helps to flesh out Chloe at this point in her life. Is she the rebel raging against every authority figure in her orbit or is she still evolving into that character? Is she so cynical and jaded that she’s only in it for herself or does she still believe in people? No matter how you play her, it never feels like you’re playing Chloe as a stand-in for Max. Even her most altruistic moments feel like Chloe is being Chloe. Maybe she wouldn’t act this way in 2013 but 2010 Chloe is still growing into her older self.
Credit for that goes to the writing and the acting. I’ll admit to being a little concerned about Rhianna DeVries taking up Ashly Burch’s role as Chloe but Rhianna has been doing an exemplary job in the role. Chloe still has that edge to her that we know from LiS but she also has this vulnerability where you believe that she’s not given up on the world yet. It makes the story and relationships work spectacularly because Chloe is a deep character rather than the one-note character that Wells and David stereotype her as. The acting, writing and decisions that you make really hammer that home.
And all of this comes together to build on the past experiences that you’ve had with these characters, either in Episode One of BtS or in LiS Season One, to create a typically (for Life is Strange) well put together game where the characters and their relationships are the focal point. A lot of people write-off point-and-click adventure games as “walking simulators” or “choices matter” but those tags would do such a disservice to the game as a whole. Life is Strange and Before the Storm are about a rich story, rich characters and how they interact. Sure, it can occasionally feel predictable or clichéd but little feels out of place in the grander narrative.
So while Before the Storm has to balance being its own story and being the building blocks for Life is Strange: Season One, it never struggles to find that balance. You know that you’re building to LiS but it never detracts from the experience, especially in this episode. Deck Nine has you too wrapped up and invested in what is happening in Chloe’s life here to worry about the story in LiS.
Surprisingly, this was the buggiest episode of LiS that I’ve ever played. There were repeated instances of the end of dialogue being cutoff which actually cut an important story reveal from one character early in the game. At least I usually play with subtitles on that worked around that issue. Unfortunately, that lead to another issue in which the closing montage had what seemed like a very, very important Rachel line showing as a subtitle but is never spoken.
It’s a shame that they didn’t catch all of this in QA because the game looks and sounds fantastic otherwise. While Square Enix, Deck Nine and Daughter have largely eschewed the licensed soundtrack in this episode for Daughter’s music, it works. I can’t help but feel a couple more dollars in the music budget would make it better but this episode is certainly not bad because of it. There are also some great visuals in this episode with the looming dark cloud from the forest fire and the repeated references to fire and the forest fire means that this should be a sledgehammer to the head of a metaphor but it’s subtle enough that it works as a reminder of what is to come without being an explicit reminder that is constantly hanging over the player’s head.
What I think holds back LiS Before the Storm the most isn’t the game itself or the characters but the original. The problem with prequels is that they have to be a standalone story but it also has to fit with its canonical follow-up/sequel. It’s harder than it sounds on paper. Just ask George Lucas.
However, that constraint hasn’t held back Deck Nine yet. The short in-game timeline and having to build the world inside the established LiS canon would probably be too much for most devs to handle yet they’ve built amazing characters and relationships inside their own little bubble in Arcadia Bay.
I was really worried that Before the Storm would suffer from having to be a square peg that’s whittled down to fit inside the round hole that is Life is Strange. It isn’t, though. Through two episodes, it works on its own and as a prequel to the original. Of course, the conclusion could change that but I think that the three-year gap between BtS and LiS allows Deck Nine to leave things a little open-ended without forcing a particular version of what happened to Chloe and Rachel between the end of the two seasons. If they do it right, I might prefer things that way.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Episode Two: Brave New World was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you ship Pricefield or Amberprice more.