Deck Nine, formerly known as Idol Minds, is a Colorado-based development studio founded in 1997. Their most notable titles of the last decade or so include Pain, an early PSN game, and the PlayStation 3 version of the Ratchet and Clank Collection. Re-branding themselves as Deck Nine early last year, this signals their shift to more narrative-driven experiences. Life is Strange: Before the Storm is the studio’s first game under this fresh label. Does Deck Nine do justice to the source material?
Before the Storm is significantly more low-key than its predecessor. Life is Strange‘s basic plot was fueled by Rachel Amber’s disappearance and an impending storm looming over Arcadia Bay’s horizon. Several other subplots and one major plot thread revealed themselves through the course of the adventure, but it establishes two distinct conflicts by the end of the first episode. Before the Storm is an “origin story” of sorts for Chloe Price. A few subplots unravel as the season progresses, but Life is Strange: Before the Storm is ultimately about Chloe’s mundane day to day and her relationship with the troubled teen, Rachel Amber.
Deck Nine is constricted by the three-episode runtime as opposed to Dontnod’s five episode arc. This truncated length doesn’t give the writers enough room to develop Rachel and Chloe’s relationship naturally enough. It feels like a constant race against the clock to make sure the title ends on a specific note by the end of the third episode. There are genuinely organic character-defining moments here, but they’re buried underneath plot contrivances. Blackwell Academy’s play, in which Rachel Amber plays the leading role, is the prime example of this.
One of the other key actresses is unable to make it on the night of her performance while her understudy is also incapable of taking the helm. Rachel nominates Chloe to take this woman’s place despite the fact that she has no acting experience and has also already been expelled by this point. The theatre director/teacher questions nothing in spite of the fact that earlier scenes explicitly paint him as an artistic perfectionist. His eager approval does not fit the character. Chloe also happens to be a perfect fit for the actress’s costume because of course she would be. This inexperienced random edgy teen is expected to memorize her lines within under an hour? The pay off is grand, with one of the most heartfelt moments in the franchise playing out on stage between Rachel and Chloe, but the events leading up to this were a little too convenient to resonate completely.
If Before the Storm categorically improves anything over the original, it’s the lip syncing. While Life is Strange was an emotional work of art with intelligent use of diegetic sound and cinematography, some of that emotiveness was lost due to lip movements rarely matching the voices. Most performances were good, but the lack of proper lip syncing acted as the storm from the first game, constantly looming over everything. Before the Storm fixes this, making it slightly easier to connect with intimate moments.
Unfortunately, Before the Storm‘s engine can’t quite keep up in other respects. While you’d be hard-pressed to notice a difference if you played the two games years apart, side by side comparisons highlight the stark degradation. Lighting, one of the most visually arresting elements of the first game, is much flatter. The reduction in lighting quality and accuracy makes it more difficult for Deck Nine to rely on carefully framed compositions to elicit a response from the player without resorting to dialogue between characters.
With Life is Strange: Before the Storm’s more grounded approach, Max’s time travelling prowess is replaced by Chloe’s edginess. In select conversations, players have the option to “talk back”. This initiates an interesting conversational system that requires the right responses based on the subject of the last sentence. It’s an oddly engaging mechanic that makes conversations more active. It’s a shame it is used so sparingly.
Puzzles are virtually nonexistent. The maybe two real puzzles in the whole game barely qualify as such. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows the narrative to take center stage while on the other, it allows the narrative to take center stage. It’s never a good feeling when an invested player is pulled out of an engaging story because of some obtuse puzzle. The problem is that Deck Nine’s script, despite some great moments, isn’t as accomplished as Dontnod Entertainment’s offering. It’s not because Deck Nine lacks talent. The best scenes between Chloe and Rachel and the interactions between David and Chloe shine. A lot of it doesn’t, though, and it’s because this passionate team is constrained by adhering so closely to the source material.
The soundtrack is still excellent, but its integration with scenes lack the same weight as Life is Strange. Every licensed track in the first game felt perfectly calculated to fit the scene it existed within, whereas Before the Storm feels more content with playing a song that sounds great because “oh hey, it’d sound cool here”. Deck Nine’s licensed soundtrack lacks the precise integration that Dontnod Entertainment basically perfected. Episode 2’s title sequence and the bonus episode’s ending are the team’s best use of music.
Speaking of that bonus episode, Farewell is a neat addition that amounts to nothing substantial. Hardcore fans will get a kick out of seeing Chloe and Max as pre-teens. Chloe’s portrayal is the more interesting of the two as we get to see her before she morphed into the rebellious teen whose actions got her expelled from Blackwell Academy. Farewell features inklings of her hyperactivity in the opening scene, whereby her and Max blow up a bunch of dolls. This experiment is fueled by Chloe’s scientific curiosity – A curiosity she started dissociating from after her father’s death. Farewell isn’t an integral piece of the Life is Strange puzzle. It’s fanservice more than anything and at that, it succeeds in a way the core season doesn’t.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a sporadic fit of emotions. At its peak, Deck Nine produces some of the best scenes of the entire franchise, but that brilliance is infrequent. Much of it is muddled by inconsistent writing and character motivations/actions that don’t add up. Baffling plot contrivances further hammer in Deck Nine’s self-inflicted restraints. Life is Strange: Before the Storm is at its best when it slows down and lets the writers just write without the pressure of forcing characters to reach a stilted narrative arc. Chloe’s dungeons and dragons game with “the nerds” is one of the most entertaining scenes in the series. By the same token, Chloe and Rachel’s genuine on-stage performance impresses. Here’s hoping their next project is a new intellectual property.