Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Episode One Review: Blast from the Past
There are a lot of franchises (not just video game ones) that don’t need sequels or prequels. The original works stand on their own and don’t benefit from any additional story added before or after. In fact, there are many sequels or prequels that detract from the originals.
That’s the danger that Deck Nine faces with their assignment to develop a Life is Strange prequel. The original Life is Strange was one of the best modern episodic / adventure games that created characters and a narrative with a depth and emotional resonance that the current crop of adventure games haven’t been able to match. Any follow-up has lofty expectations. Delving into the past of the first game’s most memorable character puts on added pressure.
The prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, puts you in the head of Chloe Price, the best friend / choice-dependent love interest of Max Caulfield who you played in the first game.
We’ve already seen Chloe from Max’s perspective after not seeing or talking to her for years after moving to Seattle while Chloe was stuck in Arcadia Bay. Now we get to see how Chloe coped with losing her father in a car crash and her best friend to another city in the last year-and-a-half while trying to handle school, a mother not prepared to be a widow and a new man in her mother’s life.
Because we already know Chloe’s personality and history from Season One of LiS, we have an idea of who Chloe is. By putting you in Chloe’s head, you get to know the real Chloe and not just who she is through Max’s eyes. A lot of the character remains the same in that she’s a rebellious, angsty, pissed off at the world teen but she’s also three years younger than when we last met her so she still has a lot of growing up to do to get to the point she’s at in Season One.
The first episode of Before the Storm focuses on Chloe meeting Rachel Amber, the most popular student at Blackwell Academy. We know a vague outline of Rachel’s story from the original game. We know that she was Chloe’s best friend / choice-dependent love interest. We know that she suddenly disappeared without warning. We don’t know, however, how Chloe and Rachel went from meeting at a secret concert to becoming best friends / choice-dependent love interests. That is what we’ll find out over the course of the game.
Much like Life is Strange: Season One, the game centres around friendships and relationships. LiS focused on Max and Chloe while secondary to that were Max’s relationships with her friends at Blackwell (especially Warren and Kate) with some relationships of tertiary importance. Before The Storm focuses on Chloe and Rachel. Just below that in importance are the relationships between Chloe and her mother and David Madsen (AKA step-douche). Max is still in Chloe’s life in a sense and it’s really kind of sad when you see how considering how close they were at the end of Life is Strange.
Unlike Season One, BTS doesn’t focus on any mysteries or coming of age story. Instead, it’s largely about grief and coping with it. Over a year after losing her father and her best friend, Chloe is alone in the world. Without anyone she would consider a friend, apart from her dealer, she’s prone to lashing out against everyone around her because she thinks the world is against her and there is no one there for her. This demonstrates itself in the dialogue options and actions available to you because Chloe exists with a chip on her shoulder that Max never developed.
This is where Rachel comes into Chloe’s life. We have an idea of how important Rachel was to Chloe but their relationship was never explicitly spelled out for us. What we get in this first episode is Chloe and Rachel meeting and heading off on a day of adventure together. It’s very reminiscent of Episodes One and Two of Life is Strange in that it establishes the friendship and shows the two friends (Chloe & Max and Chloe & Rachel in the two games) interacting for the first time (functionally in the case of Chloe & Max as they hadn’t talked in five years prior to the events of LiS).
I won’t get into too many details to avoid spoilers but the first half of the episode is more about Chloe and the second half is more about Rachel. We get to learn about Rachel rather than be left with this romanticized version of Rachel that Chloe and Frank tell us about in Season One. Unlike Season One where Max was the central character, I feel that Rachel will be the character that the plot revolves around more than Chloe. Even when Max was with Chloe, Max was controlling the action. I feel that Rachel takes the lead when she is together with Chloe in Awake.
The major challenge that Deck Nine runs into is that it has to establish its own story inside Dontnod’s story while having to separate its narrative from the original’s so they can tell their own story. The difficulty of that is most apparent in a scene when Chloe and Rachel talk about their rapidly developing friendship. I couldn’t separate all I know from LiS Season One from all I experienced playing Before The Storm. I feel as though my dialogue choices would have been different if I didn’t think I knew how their friendship played out. It makes Deck Nine’s task very difficult because their story has to stand up in isolation and combined with the greater Life is Strange story.
What does help Deck Nine is that they’ve kept the true Rachel a mystery for this first episode. Season One quickly established Chloe and how she felt after losing two best friends and her father in quick succession. We learn little bits about Rachel through her actions and some of what she says but, much like Chloe in BTS, we still don’t know Rachel.
Because you play as Chloe, the time rewind mechanic is removed from that game which puts a little more weight on your decisions since you can’t go back on them. As such, Chloe’s inner monologue doesn’t second guess herself after decisions but gives some insight into her thoughts both before and after major decisions. The inner monologue still helps you consider a decision’s consequences but also gives you Chloe’s head-strong perspective and her way forward rather than Max’s self-doubt. Granted, the self-doubt was there to encourage you to think about the consequences of a decision that you could change where you can’t do that with Chloe.
To the game’s benefit, removing the puzzle elements of the adventure allowed by Max’s time rewinding abilities results in a game that focuses solely on the human element. In my reviews of LiS Season One, I kept coming back to the characters and their relationships being the strength of the game. Without spending time focusing on (*sigh*) wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey, Deck Nine instead focuses on Chloe, her relationships with her family, friends and step-douche and how she interacts with a world that she doesn’t particularly car about being a part of.
Instead of time manipulation, Chloe’s unique ability is Backtalk. Marked on a dialogue tree by blue speech bubbles, Backtalk allows Chloe to talk her way into and out of any situation. This brings you to a dialogue tree where you have to hone in on key words that the other party to the conversation says and bounce them back at them to deflect or diffuse their argument. If you one-up the other person enough, you win the Backtalk and things go your way.
I should mention that there aren’t many puzzle segments to the game outside of Balktalk. There is only really one traditional puzzle to solve in order to progress. Before the Storm relies largely on dialogue, including Backtalk, to carry the action. I also liked that action selection is a click and push the WASD key in the corresponding direction. I would have liked to do the click-and-drag like the original in addition to the WASD selection option but the ability to use WASD in selecting action and dialogue makes it better than the latest Telltale games which stopped caring about keyboard users when they started focusing development for the mobile market.
Don’t think that the lack of puzzles shortened the episode by much, though. My playthrough of Episode One was about three hours which is in line with a Season One episode. I think that playtime can vary by about 15 minutes either way. I think there were a few conversations that I missed but you could still skip some to expedite your playthrough. I don’t know why you’d want to go through any more quickly, though.
The good news is that the strength of the writing and characters carries the game as much as it did in the original. The dialogue and character interactions are in line with the quality I remember from the original. I actually think that the dialogue is a little more realistic to teens and we get a little easter egg thrown into the game to explain one of the more memorable words used in the original.
While we’re only three hours into what will end up being a nine-plus-hour adventure, the characters introduced are pretty memorable. We do get some appearances from some secondary characters from the original game but they’re left to the side for these new characters. I see that as a net positive as it leaves us with our memories of the original characters and adds to the universe.
The bad news is that because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, all of the returning characters have new voice actors. Ashly Burch, who was the award-winning actress of Chloe, is the biggest missing piece from the game (though she works as a character consultant for the game). While Rihanna DeVries does a perfectly good job most of the time, the direction of her acting was missing at times, especially when Chloe is yelling and most noticeably in a scene in the junkyard from LiS.
Deck Nine also composed a game that looks like the original without cloning the original’s style. The use of light, shadow, focus, aperture, colour, contrast and framing in Life is Strange mimicked (and I still think intentionally) the hallmark elements of photographic composition because Max was an aspiring photographer (a point Chloe reminds you of a couple of times in this episode). While the characters and environments match the hand-painted aesthetic of the first game, it doesn’t look the same as the first game.
Obviously, the visual composition of Life is Strange reflected Max. Before the Storm feels less focused on artistic framing and places its visual focus front and centre, kind of like how Chloe is forthright in how she deals with the world.
As much as I miss the beautiful attention to detail that Dontnod put into the composition of Life is Strange’s visual component, it’s completely understandable. Max was the artist. To use a more artistic composition for the cutscenes or cinematics wouldn’t fit Chloe’s character. Her idea of art is graffiti, not photography, so framing the game like an art class photo doesn’t make sense in BTS.
In addition to the updated visual style and the change in voice actors, French indie band Syd Matters has been replaced by British indie band Daughter in scoring the game. The sound of the music hasn’t changed much as both bands exist in the indie folk/rock genre. This time out, the music is a little more bass-heavy than the Syd Matters soundtrack with a decrease in the peaceful synth sounds that Syd used.
Again, that speaks to the difference between Max and Chloe. The Max music is more about friendship and youthful naiveté. The Chloe music speaks to her more rebellious streak while subtly highlighting that she isn’t as happy-go-lucky as Max is when we meet her in Life is Strange. Both soundtracks and scores are very good though I prefer the original’s so far but that’s probably because I’ve been listening to it on and off for the last two years.
There are a few concerns that I have moving forward for the remaining two episodes. My biggest concern is that I have read that Before the Storm apparently takes place over three days. While the short timeline didn’t really detract from the original, considering that we know the major story beats that could be hit during this game, it seems like a very short period of time.
The reportedly short timeline (in game-time and real-time) also means that we might end with a lack of insight into Rachel’s character. I went back and checked my reviews and found that it wasn’t until the third of five episodes that LiS did a deep dive into Chloe’s character. I described Episode One as world building, Episode Two as a reunion and exploration of Max’s power and Episode Three as the first episode to focus on Chloe and grow her character. As I mentioned, we still don’t know Rachel and I think a deep dive into her character is needed to get the full emotional impact of her story.
Also, the game advertises that other characters will react to your outfit. I didn’t see any evidence of that in Awake. Maybe that’s something that they have planned to ramp up in future episodes. I’ll wait to see how it impacts the game and interactions with other characters as we play the next two episodes.
When looking at the review score of Episode One, it’s typical for me that the score for the first part of an episodic game is lower than the rest. Premiere episodes tend to focus on establishing the world and characters for the whole story and the other episodes prosper from being able to build on the first episode. For example, Life is Strange started with a 7.0/10 for its first episode and I gave Season One a 9.5/10 after it was all said and done.
No, LiS:BTS Episode One isn’t perfect but I would be worried if it was because where could it go from there. Deck Nine is establishing their world and their story. Sure, they had a boost from the building blocks that Dontnod left them from Season One but Deck Nine is fleshing out the world and Chloe’s place in it before Max returns to her life.
I was nervous about letting a new developer with no experience in narrative-focused games get their hands on an award-winning game universe for a prequel that no one asked for. Much like Dontnod succeeded despite their inexperience, Deck Nine has managed to pull off a fantastic start to their own addition to the Life is Strange universe and Chloe’s tale. I can’t wait for the next episode!
Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Episode One: Awake was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and how much you loved the original Life is Strange.