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

There is a lot of prestige attributed to Dontnod its Life Is Strange, but perhaps one of the best games in the series comes from somewhere else entirely.

There’s always a moment of fear when you deign to return to a beloved game. While films often emerge unscathed by the sands of time, gaming’s beholdence to rapidly advancing tech makes its classics age faster than everyone in that M. Night Shyamalan movie. It was with some trepidation, then, that I booted up Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, half a decade after I first fell in love with it. It turns out I needn’t have worried – because developer Deck Nine’s drama-filled debut is still just as endearingly emo as it was in 2017.

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

To those who don’t know their Max Caulfields from their Nathan Prescotts, Before The Storm is a prequel to the wildly successful college dorm drama, Life Is Strange. When Square Enix first announced unknown developer Deck Nine would be revisiting the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, the internet responded with a collective shrug. It’s hard to blame it, really; how often do prequels offer anything other than crushing disappointment? From 2020’s nothing-y big screen Sopranos tie-in, to George Lucas and Ridley Scott famously defecating themselves in prequel trilogy form, hopes for this Life Is Strange stop-gap weren’t exactly high.

Yet it appears that Lucas and Scott are simply no match for the storytelling prowess of the minds that brought us PS1 snowboarding banger, Coolboarders. Formerly known as Idol Minds, the gnarly studio decided to rebrand as Deck Nine interactive – drifting its way into the world of Life Is Strange and landing a totally tubular 180 of its own.

Focusing on the exploits of video game’s sassiest 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 original’s magic-powered protagonist firmly out of the picture, twee photographer Max is replaced by an altogether angstier avatar.

Borrowing the episodic approach of its predecessor, Deck Nine takes Life Is Strange’s TV inspiration one step further. Cutting 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 in order to bring this small town drama authentically to life. The best part? Before The Storm succeeds without resorting to using magical powers.

It would be 33% less edgy without the cigarette.

Where Life Is Strange’s relatable college-set drama was tangled up in a web of time manipulation and murder mysteries, Deck Nine wisely makes the case that life, as an ordinary teenager, is already strange enough.

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

It helps of course, that Chloe’s story is accompanied by an absolute banger of a soundtrack. Much like its singular narrative focus, Before The Storm is the only title in the series to offer an entirely 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 bring Chloe’s melancholy masterfully to life. With each major story beat hammered home by the haunting croon of Elena Tonra, this beautifully written soundtrack is just as vital 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 angst and misery – there’s also some sweet and life-affirming stuff lurking between the tumblr-ready navel gazing. Just as Chloe’s aimless rebellion sees her life unravel, she meets the beguiling Rachel Amber. Bringing joy, meaning and excitement into Chloe's world, this tale of young love and redemption is endlessly appealing.

It helps that these characters are the series’ most vulnerable to date. Put in the tattered trainers of a 16 year old outcast, this is a rare example of a game's pixelated protagonist having less freedom than most of its players. Burdened by the shackles of Chloe’s increasingly pointless-feeling education and the weight of grief clouding her judgement, the only weapon you wield in Before The Storm is teenage angst.

Where God Of War: Ragnarok turns teenage tantrums into eye-gouging-ly cringe encounters, Chloe Price swaps Atreus’ divine sulks for a middle finger and a snarl.

Manifesting in the brilliantly named ‘backtalk’ mechanic, Chloe’s highly-honed fury becomes the teenage equivalent of a foul mouthed jedi mind trick. Up against a timer, players must choose the kind of responses that will really push your target's buttons, getting them to lose their cool in the argument – and in the process – bending them to Chloe’s will.

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

And really, that’s what makes Before The Storm work so well. It knows what little shits teenagers can be, but simultaneously captures just how infuriating the shackles of adolescence can feel. Deck Nine shows the teenage experience with unflinching honesty, from the giddy joys of your first love to the frustration of not feeling heard by the adults around you.

Before The Storm also succeeds in giving the original game's shallowest characters some much needed depth. Take step-dad-cum-security guard, David. While the rage-filled gun nut is still very much a grade A 'douchecanoe', Deck Nine takes the time to carefully flesh out why he's the way that he is. Even the original’s creep de jour, Nathan Prescott is given a surprisingly sympathetic arc, shining a spotlight on just how loathsome his dad really is.

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

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

In the game, much like in life, you should cherish moments like these.

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

Shedding light on the mysterious Rachel Amber pays off dividends, too, with the character largely a blank slate for Deck Nine to sketch over. Her and Chloe’s chemistry is utterly entrancing throughout, their myriad of intimate interactions adding up to a quietly unforgettable experience. From the thrill of skipping school in favour of roaming the redwoods to hanging out at a disused junkyard, this game fills me with nostalgia for the kind of rural American adventures I've never actually had.

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

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