Deck Nine’s recently concluded “Life is Strange: Before the Storm” is one of those rare prequels that manages to surpass the original in every aspect. Despite being put at a million disadvantages, the final product is more succinct, emotionally impactful and LGBTQ+ inclusive than its predecessor. Overall, it’s better at being “Life is Strange” than the original “Life is Strange.”
If you haven’t played the original, it’s still worth a look, but it isn’t necessary for enjoying “Before the Storm.” Released over the course of 2015, it was developer Dontnod’s angsty, teenage take on the Telltale Games episodic adventure formula. The player was placed into a world with a series of scenes based around dialogue choices and very simple puzzles, with the only notable difference from Telltale’s formula being a time-rewinding mechanic, which allows you to see the immediate consequences of your choices before you made them.
Despite largely sticking to a well-established formula, it did manage to paint a portrait of teenage vulnerability that was unique to video games, even if it was one with stiff and janky animations. Every single character walked, talked and acted as if they were the caricatures that some middle-aged French men believe populate American high schools — it didn’t help that the game was made by middle-aged French men. For all its veiled references to “Twin Peaks,” the game copied the story structure of “Donnie Darko” beat for beat while failing to execute on “Darko’s” coming-of-age themes. In terms of unique things it had going for it, the LGBTQ+ romance, subplot about disability and time travel mechanic all could’ve been handled better.
Despite positive reception, Dontnod decided to stop handling those things — at least for a while. They took a few years off to work on other projects and handed the franchise over to American developer Deck Nine. However, in order to not affect the original game’s conclusion or interfere with any of Dontnod’s future plans for a “Life is Strange 2,” Deck Nine was given next to nothing to work with. Their game had to be a prequel, it couldn’t feature any of the first game’s iconic time travel and, due to an ongoing strike, it couldn’t use any of the old central and beloved voice actors.
Deck Nine took their restrictions and ran with them. Amazingly, the dialogue throughout the game sounds exactly like what actual teenagers would say. The LGBTQ+ romance between the two main characters is handled much more maturely. A new mechanic called Backtalk shows off just how much the dialogue has improved by involving you in snappy arguments where, in order to succeed, your chosen response has to match your opponent’s insult — think of the insult sword fighting system from “The Secret of Monkey Island” but faster and more serious. The mechanic never gets brought out often enough to become well-developed, but neither did the original’s time travel. The story and choices you make are still the game’s focus, and with only a 10 hour run-time compared to the original’s 15, it’s remarkable that anything in this game was developed better.
In a lot of ways the game is about the power we have within restriction. Any player of the original knows that neither member of this game’s core duo has a happy ending. But, as the game’s self-reflexive dialogue is quick to point out, it is still beautiful to watch them work. Repeated vignettes involving a roleplaying game, an extended theatrical sequence, dreams of people long passed, the conversations you have, the impractical teenage plans you make, the choices you’re presented with — the very fact you are playing a video game are all reminders of how good it can be to live in your imagination, in the moment. Whether or not this is the same thing as living a lie is the question at the center of “Before the Storm,” a question it asks so beautifully that it puts the “lessons” the original taught to shame.
That said, the game isn’t flawless — the last episode in particular could’ve used some more work. A lot of scenes in it feel truncated, and there’s no other way to describe the ending of “Before the Storm” except as wrong. Without spoiling too many details, a melancholy work like this about finding power in hopeless situations should not end with a lament for how powerless its characters are. I wish I could tell you there was at least some happy recognition of the power while they had it and that “Before the Storm” didn’t end as a complete downer, but 1) there isn’t, and 2) it does. Sticking the landing well is a hard thing to do, but a quick rearrangement of the game’s final cutscene could’ve fixed the most self-destructive ending I’ve seen in years.
There is a bonus episode coming in a couple months which will supposedly bridge the gap between the prequel and original, but given that it features the original duo, I’ve no hope for it to fix any of the major problems that arise in “Before the Storm.” For their unique atmospheres alone, both “Life is Strange” games are still worth buying — just try to take the game’s advice and live in their best moments for as long as possible.