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The best Life is Strange game is now on PlayStation Plus – and it’s not what you think

There is always a moment of dread when you condescend to return to a beloved game. While movies often emerge unscathed through the sands of time, gaming’s commitment to rapidly advancing technology causes classics to age faster than anyone in that M. Night Shyamalan movie. It was therefore with some trepidation that I started Life is strange: before the storm, half a decade after I first fell in love with it. It turns out I didn’t have to worry – because developer Deck nine‘s drama-filled debut is as endearingly emo as it was in 2017.

Before the Storm is dressed up nicely in the recent re-release.

For those who don’t know their Max Caulfields from their Nathan Prescotts: Before The Storm is a prequel to the hugely successful frat house drama, Life is strange. When Square Enix first announced that unknown developer Deck Nine would be revisiting the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, the internet responded with a collective shrug. It’s actually hard to blame it; how often do prequels offer anything other than crushing disappointment? From the 2020 non-major film Sopranos tie-in to George Lucas and Ridley Scott making themselves famous in prequel trilogy form, hopes for this Life Is Strange stop-gap weren’t exactly high.

Still, it seems that Lucas and Scott are just no match for the narrative prowess of the ghosts that brought us PS1 snowboard stunner, Coolboarders. Formerly known as Idol Minds, the gnarly studio decided to rebrand as Deck Nine Interactive – working its way into the world of Life Is Strange and a tubular 180 countries all its own.

Focusing on the exploits of the video game’s boldest rural rebel, Before The Storm turns back the clock to join a teenage Chloe Price in the aftermath of her father’s death. With the magic-powered protagonist of the original finally out of the picture, two photographer Max is replaced by an altogether more fearful avatar.

Deck Nine borrows the episodic approach of its predecessor and takes it a step further with the TV inspiration of Life Is Strange. Gritting his teeth on crime procedural Criminal Minds: Without Borders, Before The Storm’s lead writer Zak Garriss assembled his own team of diverse TV talent to bring this small-town drama to authentic life. The best part? Before The Storm succeeds without resorting to the use of magical powers.

It would be 33% less edgy without the cigarette.

Where the recognizable college drama of Life Is Strange became entangled in a web of time manipulation and murder mysteries, Deck Nine wisely argues that life as an ordinary teenager is strange enough.

Like Deck Nine’s next foray into LifeIsStrange verse, True Colors, Before The Storm is a tale of struggling under the weight of unbearable grief. It’s a notable step up from the first game’s hammy script, and while the dialogue may not quite match the medium’s best, the solid plotting and heartfelt vocal performances result in a story that’s irresistibly earnest.

Of course, it helps that Chloe’s story is accompanied by an absolute stunner of a soundtrack. Like its unique narrative focus, Before The Storm is the only title in the series to offer an all-original score. Where the other games feel like a carefully curated playlist of the saddest corners of Pitchfork’s new music section, London indie darlings Daughter masterfully bring Chloe’s melancholy to life. With every major story hammered through by Elena Tonra’s terrifying croon, this beautifully written soundtrack is just as important to Chloe’s story as the script itself.

As with every game in the series, music plays an integral part of Before the Storm.

Still, it’s not all fear and misery – there’s some sweet and life-affirming stuff lurking amongst the tumblr-ready navel gazing, too. Just as Chloe’s aimless rebellion sees her life unravel, she meets the seductive Rachel Amber. Endlessly appealing, this story of young love and redemption brings joy, meaning and excitement to Chloe’s world.

It helps that these characters are the series’ most vulnerable so far. Dressed in the ripped sneakers of a 16-year-old outcast, this is a rare example of a game’s pixelated protagonist who has less freedom than most of its players. Burdened by the shackles of Chloe’s increasingly futile education and the weight of grief clouding her judgment, teenage angst is the only weapon you wield in Before The Storm.

Where God Of War: Ragnarok turns teen tantrums into dazzling encounters, Chloe Price trades Atreus’ divine sulks for a middle finger and a snarl.

Chloe’s highly crafted rage, which manifests itself in the brilliantly named “backtalk” mechanic, becomes the teenage equivalent of a foul-mouthed Jedi mind trick. Against a timer, players must choose the kind of responses that really push your target’s buttons, causing them to lose their cool in the discussion – and in the process – and bend to Chloe’s will.

With Max out of the picture, Chloe takes center stage.

And that’s really what makes Before The Storm work so well. It knows what a little shit teens can be, but at the same time captures just how irritating the shackles of adolescence can be. Deck Nine captures the teen experience with unwavering honesty, from the dizzying joys of your first love to the frustration of feeling unheard by the adults around you.

Before The Storm also manages to give the most superficial characters of the original game some much-needed depth. Take stepfather cum guard, David. While the rage-filled cannon nut is still a grade-A “shower canoe,” Deck Nine takes the time to carefully flesh out why he is the way he is. Even the original’s ghoul, Nathan Prescott, gets a surprisingly sympathetic arc, shining the spotlight on just how disgusting his dad really is.

The only real criticism I have is that the ending of the story feels a bit abrupt. Where Dontnod’s original split its ambitious yarn over five episodes, Deck Nine’s story unfolds in just three, leaving a few arcs frustratingly unresolved.

Still, the choices you must make, while brief, are some of the strongest in the series. Thanks to carefully layered relationships, there’s a real attempt at nuance and moral ambiguity that flows through every facet of Before The Storm. The third act also takes some pretty unexpected turns, raising the stakes for this teen drama to hair-raisingly tense levels.

In the game, as in life, you have to cherish moments like this.

Equally impressive, Deck Nine’s debut feels satisfyingly self-contained. This is perfectly playable as its own terrifying little entity, while also quietly enriching what came before.

Shedding light on the mysterious Rachel Amber also pays off, as the character is largely a blank slate for Deck Nine to sketch over. The chemistry between her and Chloe is extremely mesmerizing throughout, their countless intimate interactions adding up to a quietly unforgettable experience. From the thrill of skipping school in favor of roaming the redwoods to hanging out in a disused junkyard, this game fills me with nostalgia for the kind of rural American adventures I’ve never actually experienced.

If you loved the original and passed this by, or if you’re just looking for a way to get into one of gaming’s most celebrated adventure series, this month’s addition of Before The Storm to PlayStation Plus is a story that is worth it. You never know, it just might have a bigger impact on you than anything else in the series. Life is so strange.

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