While there aren't outright spoilers for the original Life Is Strange series from 2015, I definitely allude to some events that happen in it. Be warned.
There's a deep, deep sadness percolating in Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, the Deck Nine Games-developed prequel to the adventure series originally from Dontnod. Maybe it's because we know how this all turns out. Maybe it's because the domestic strife and grief its teenage stars are dealing with feels sometimes hella familiar.
Max, the familiar heroine from the original Life Is Strange series that first debuted in 2015, is kind of like a ghost in this year's prequel series. In Before the Storm we instead follow Chloe, the second lead from the first game, who now feels lost without her best friend after she moved away. To solve the loneliness, she's always penning letters to Max in a notebook she will never get to see. Max is seemingly long gone, not even returning texts anymore, but Chloe won't let herself forget her.
This is a prequel weathering the familiar flaws of the original: the sometimes cringe-y writing, the wayward subplots that shift away focus, the not always-great character animations, and the occasionally tired-sounding voice acting (notably from the father of Chloe's newfound gal pal Rachel Amber this time around, who becomes an integral character in the back half of the series). There's also the Backtalk mechanic that Chloe wields, which is used sparingly contrary to Max's rewind ability from the original game. Chloe's Backtalk essentially is an excuse for her to fling a lot of comebacks and insults at others as a way of getting information. And it's where Before the Storm's most cringeworthy writing comes to roost; but luckily, as the series progresses it comes up less and less.
The game also feels a bit off in its opening hour or so because Ashly Burch, the memorable voice behind Chloe in the original game, didn't return to the series because of the SAG-AFTRA voice acting strike. (Although, she will be returning in a special bonus episode with the game's Deluxe Edition next year, that focuses on her and Max before Max moves away.) Yet the new voice behind Chloe, Rhianna DeVries, captures the spirit that Burch once encapsulated remarkably well. Thanks in part to her (and the terrific voice acting behind Rachel Amber), Before the Storm finds its way to shine through where it counts, and that's in its focus on two fast friends: Chloe Price and the once mythical Rachel Amber.
In the Dontnod-developed Life Is Strange from 2015, Rachel is never a presence. We only meet Chloe, Max's childhood friend she becomes reacquainted with when moving back to town. Chloe's on a mission: her best friend Rachel's been missing for weeks, and even as the police and Rachel's own parents have given up hope, she hasn't. And thus, the tail of Life Is Strange spins dramatically, with time rewinding and a missing person mystery at its core.
I found the missing person mystery to be the least compelling thing about the original series. While Chloe's love for Rachel, which was alluded to be more than just a platonic friendship, was apparent, the blasé villainous turn it all took felt out of character for what was at the core of the coming-of-age tale. For the most part, luckily the brief three-episode run of Before the Storm mostly avoids that clumsy focus.
Before the Storm takes place years before the events of Life Is Strange. We're left with the very lonely (and younger) Chloe, who's reckoning with the loss of her best friend Max, who has ghosted her in the months since moving away. She's also still handling the grief of her dad dying in a car crash two years ago, with her mom's new boyfriend dousing salt all over the wound. Chloe's having a rough time, to put it blankly. Then popular girl Rachel Amber unexpectedly comes to her rescue during an altercation at a concert, and the two share a night of dancing to bad pop rock. And the rest is history.
The first two episodes—episode two in particular—are the highlights of the short series. By the end of episode two a major bombshell drops, and episode three rushes to conclude the occurence in a way that feels ultimately rushed, and unfortunately, nearly derails the bond we've seen form between the two fragile teenagers. Even with its tender conclusion (get those tissues ready), episode three largely left me feeling disappointed. Gone were the little moments I adored: like Rachel twirling around a light pole in a post-stage play high, or Chloe's embarrassing flirting at every turn. Just as the original game faltered in its central mystery, so did Before the Storm's when it took on a bigger challenge.
Also, as I worried with it being a prequel, there are lots of minor inconsistencies when I consider how things go in Life Is Strange. When Rachel and Chloe fantasize about where to run away from Arcadia Bay to, I suggested the cheap pizza slice-filled New York City in lieu of the canonical Los Angeles, as Chloe much later professes to Max. I tried to make Chloe nice (or at least relatively so) to her mom and David, the soon-to-be-step-douche. In Life Is Strange, their relationships feel tumultuous. Then again, a few years as a teenager changes everything I suppose.
I guess that's the trouble that comes with making a prequel. A prequel that's developed by a different team entirely at that. It's also the inherent sort of problem that's inevitable with scribbling in the past, and filling out a once hollow character that we only learned about in whispers and rumors as we searched for her whereabouts in its successor.
Still though, Before the Storm manages to feel more grounded than Life Is Strange proper, which also goes off the rails around its third episode. In a game that longed so desperately to be the teen drama envisioning of Twin Peaks with its Pacific Northwest setting and missing-but-probably-murdered popular girl at the center of it all, Before the Storm feels like the much-needed glue to hold that thread together.
After all, Rachel Amber was always Life Is Strange's Laura Palmer, but without the agency over her own narrative and characterization. Life Is Strange's Laura Palmer was the drug-addled, troubled side with no substance outside of Chloe's rose-tinted view of their relationship. But Before the Storm finally grants that depth to her, just as the Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk With Me and 2017's own continuation Twin Peaks: The Return did for the actual Palmer. Rachel Amber is no longer just the missing and misunderstood girl talked about in hushed tones. She's a girl who lived.
Despite an uneven final episode, the bond between Chloe and Rachel cements the surprising prequel, sometimes even soaring above the heights of the original game. It still has all the faults of Life Is Strange as a series, but its domestic focus helps it resonate even greater than its successor. If Rachel Amber is the Laura Palmer of Life Is Strange, then Before the Storm is her much-deserved Fire Walk With Me.