In short, yes.
(This is not journalism; this is not a review; this is not unbiased.)
I hate teen stories. If you want to put me off of a piece of media before I even try it, tell me its set in high school or college. Its not that my life at that time was so awful I don’t want to go back there; but it also wasn’t the best days of my life, and nearly everything tries to glorify it in ways that are so far removed from my experience that they fail to hit any nostalgia with me. But that’s complicated; and another post.
Life is Strange breaks that for me. The characters are gray areas; their lives are neither prom and football nor are they fully reckless teen rebellion. They care about things, and fuck things up, and find out the ways the world is fucked up. And incongruous as it may seem for a franchise that starts with time travel, the situations and the world are real. The world is beautiful, and inviting, and dangerous, but most of the time its dormantly passive – but you can’t tell the difference between the moments before the times that life is beautiful, or strange or before the times that its about to suddenly turn and destroy something you care about. In many ways the game lets you have as much or as little as you want – of exploration, of learning and looking for clues; of just hanging out in a magic hour moment that you want to try to hold onto. There are things that I love that I know better than to recommend to the masses – Zeno Clash, Red Dwarf, the occasional gas station hotdog for breakfast. Life is Strange is something that I love, that I cannot see how anyone could fail to take something away from it and so I recommend it over and over again.
But any more on that, and this would be, again, a different post.
Before the Storm was an instant preorder for me; I saw it at the E3 Microsoft conference and was instantly torn between a frenzy of texting everyone I know and trying to look up a preorder for it. I remained unabashedly optimistic and still excited when people became concerned that it wasn’t being developed by Don’t Nod, and Chloe wasn’t going to be voiced by Ashly Burch. I could tell from the trailer, with the beautiful light and the first strains of Daughter playing that someone involved in the trailer “got” the essence of it, and I was hopeful that might be true of the game.
I was right.
Before the Storm takes you back before the original game, to the story of a slightly younger Chloe and Rachel Amber. You’ve heard this story, partially, if you played Life is Strange, but you were told the story from a point of view – now you go back and look for the truth of it yourself, much like revisiting your childhood memories as an adult with the understanding that the way you perceived things at the time was without the benefit of knowing what you know now. You see why Chloe was so drawn to Rachel; you look for your own conclusions about Rachel and what Chloe was to her. You see Chloe looking for who she is without Max – a Max who right now is grieved simply as an absent best friend. You see Joyce trying to build the beginnings of a new life and family and can explore how things got to the way they were when you met Chloe in the old pickup truck somewhere in the future. You can explore for yourself if Chloe is gay, or bi or.. she’s probably not straight. There’s not a lot of room to explore that possibility. You see Chloe before she became exactly the charismatic, selfish, reckless, confident person you were probably madly in love with.
Lighting and music are so important to the game that they are almost characters; both of these things Deck Nine must have “got” about the game. The way that scenes have light spilled over them and music punctuating them makes you feel like you’ve got to document them, remember them, hold on to them. I love the soundtrack to the first game, but I think there’s room to argue that Beyond the Storm did music even better. Daughter contributed several original songs which are used both in the way that licensed music is traditionally used and also as ambient music. Lanterns on the Lake also makes an appearance. One thought that I had about the first game’s soundtrack – although don’t get me wrong, I love that soundtrack – was that for a game that was so about a young woman’s experience, there weren’t many female voices singing the songs of her life. Which isn’t to say that Max could only identify with songs from female voices, but it seemed a rather low percentage of the soundtrack of her life, especially considering how many brilliant songs there were from female artists in the year of Max, right in Max’s genre. The ratio is different in Before the Storm.
The new installment also gets right Life is Strange’s use of down time. The game gives you a lot of time to linger in a moment, often without consequence. You can stay and enjoy that moment, and enjoy the person next to you for as long as you want. Which for me does trip my nostalgia for youth, because that is what freedom was for me – to stay as long as I wanted, passing time without measuring it, in a car or under the light in a parking lot, or in some abandoned place, with the person who I thought was coolest in that moment in time.
The little dose of chaos in choice is there too, even though time travel is not. Much like the first game, you make choices with a preferred ends in mind, but you aren’t always served what you thought you were trying to bring about. Consequences can be unexpected, but all you can do is make choices. I didn’t actually miss time traveling, even though I thought I would.
And to address the other elephant, Chloe’s voice recasting didn’t bother me in the least. I knew it would be different going in, and I can tell the difference, but it isn’t jarring to me. It still sounds like Chloe. Rhianna DeVries just makes her sound a little younger – which is appropriate, and my brain just accepted that the voice was familiar but not exact – like seeing someone you know at a different point in time. (I’m somewhat assuming you know that Ashly Burch, Chloe’s original voice actress was recast because she couldn’t break the voice actor’s strike, and development could not wait for her. There’s plenty to read about it elsewhere. I personally feel that both things were reasonable; I understand why she couldn’t do it, and why they had to move forward – the livelihoods of many people are often connected to development timelines.) Burch was still involved with the game and has a writer’s credit on it, for the record.
If I had any complaints about the game, (and I suppose I might as well have a few complaints) they would be:
- Joyce’s recast VO was very jarring to me. I didn’t know she had been recast, but I could tell immediately, and it bothered me throughout. It wasn’t that the new actress was bad, it just didn’t have the familiar sound in a way that made me miss what had been there.
- I didn’t care for the Back Talk mechanic – I thought it was a bit silly, made Chloe seem a bit less likable, and I mostly ignored it. Much like I have largely ignored it here.
- At the very beginning, I found the dialog writing to be awkward and bothersome. At first I didn’t hold out much hope for the writing – but by about five minutes in the dialog was much better and after that it was engagingly good enough that I stopped thinking about that it was written dialog at all. In all fairness, its been awhile, but I think I remember feeling like Max’s first little bits of inner dialog were cringe worthy too.
But, there’s always something to complain about. I’ve now been convinced that its worth my continued fanboying. I almost wish I hadn’t finished Episode 1 in one setting so I’d have more to play right now…
And now, to avoid non-consensual spoilers, I’m putting these screenshots in a gallery. Look at your own risk.
Also, 1% of people were bastards who did not share headphones with Rachel.
And if you were wondering, I’m #BaeBeforeBay.