When DONTNOD Entertainment released Life Is Strange back in 2015, it was a game I nearly skipped. Its subject matter was of no interest to me, and the prospect of playing a teenage girl in a TellTale-style adventure game didn't seem like something I would enjoy. Luckily, my sister (who was a teenage girl at the time) did enjoy it, and it's because of her recommendation that I gave the game a shot. In the end, I'm glad that I did because Life Is Strange is responsible for giving me some of the most powerful emotional experiences I've ever had in a game (you can read my review of the first season here).
And now we have Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. Set before the events of the first game (Life Is Strange is set in 2013 whereas this game is set in 2010), Life Is Strange: Before the Storm focuses on establishing the character of Chloe Price, the blue-haired rebel with a cause that served as your sidekick for much of the first season. This three episode season will serve to give fans of the first season some much-needed context for Chloe as a character while also providing the fans with something to tide them over until they release season two. Let's see if this mini season, which is developed by Deck Nine and not by DONTNOD, can hold a candle to the original.
Where season one protagonist Max had the ability to turn back time, Chloe Price is just an ordinary teenage girl. This means that, unfortunately, she has to live with the consequences of her actions like the rest of us regular folk. This makes the choices you make feel more impactful because you can't undo them either. The game also doesn't give you a way to (properly) save scum due to the inclusion of checkpoints over manual save slots, so whatever you choose is going to be the choice you'll have to stick and deal with. There is a hint of the supernatural at some point during the episode, but I'll leave it up to you to interpret what it means.
The gameplay is pretty standard fare for a Telltale-like adventure. Most of the time you're either talking to someone, on your way to talk to someone, or walking around in the various locales listening to Chloe's internal monologue as she comments on things you see and find. Whether you like that depends on whether you like Chloe as a character.
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm starts with Chloe wanting to drown her sorrows with some booze and live rock music. She's a young angry punk teen (brunette instead of blue) who is struggling to deal with the death of her father, while also dealing with the more typical problems a 17-year-old has to deal with. Authority, academic performance, and unchecked insecurity led to Chloe being a closed-off, brooding loner who regularly acts out.
She's more theatrical here than she was in season one, and while I sympathize with the things she's going through (I was an angsty, brooding teen too at one point), I do get the feeling her character is exaggerated a bit even though this doesn't work in the character's favor. I initially thought this was because of Rhianna DeVries replacing Ashley Burch as Chloe's voice actress (a strike forced Burch to step back as the VA although she did stay on as a writer for the character) but in the end, I'm convinced that the writing doubled down on the angst for dramatic effect. This leads to Chloe not always doing the logical thing, like just being difficult for the sake of being difficult. Which she is. A lot. People who disliked Chloe's character at the start of season one will probably dislike her for most of the first episode since her caustic attitude hinders her (and by extension you) more than it helps her.
True to form, Chloe can decide to talk back to people giving her a hard time. Doing so triggers a little minigame where you have to try to force someone to do something through the power of insulting or by being a smart-mouth. These parts don't work particularly well, with Chloe spouting one badly-worded one-liner at the other. While this mechanic can be used to force some sort of positive outcome for Chloe, picking the wrong choices might get you the opposite. When it comes to choices, a few of them aren't really choices at all since all options provided say pretty much the same thing, making you lord over how snappy Chloe says it.
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Luckily, the rebellious side of Chloe isn't the only side we get to see of her. In the intro to the episode, Chloe is on her way to some barn in the middle of the woods to attend a rock concert during which you get the chance to backtalk the bouncer, bump into some bad men, and hang out with Blackwell Academy rock star Rachel Amber. Rachel's influence on Chloe is felt throughout the entirety of the first season, and the first episode spends most of its time establishing why Rachel is so important to Chloe. I absolutely loved how Deck Nine fleshed out the relationship between the two characters, and Rachel Amber is instantly likable if somewhat Mary Sue-ish. The chemistry between the two characters is immediately apparent, to the point where I'm feeling preemptively sad for her imminent death, which kickstarts many of the storylines that saw their conclusion in season one. There is one specific sequence where Chloe and Rachel share a few quiet moments during a train ride that really hit the mark for me, and it's one of the most well-written and acted sequences in this episode. It shows that, underneath all that brooding, Chloe wants nothing more than to be liked and loved for who she is and she's dying for someone to confide in. It's an earnest and emotional moment that shows us a glimpse of the person Chloe is to become at the end of season one. Another moment I really liked occurred just before you go to class and involved you sitting down with two classmates to play some Dungeons and Dragons. It goes on for quite a while, which I loved. Not many games ask you to hang back and play some DnD, so this was a pleasant surprise that was pretty well executed!
All in all, the good outweighs the bad and Chloe becomes way more palatable as a character in the second act of the episode where she loses some of the attitude and opens up more. So, is the dialogue still cringy? Yep. Personally, that doesn't bother me (outside of the aforementioned badly worded oneliner) because I remember myself when I was 17, and I can find similarities in my own teenage years that make it easier to accept it as part of its charm. Show me anyone that hasn't done puberal, cringy stuff during their teenage years. I do get that that'll be a huge turn off for some people and that's fine too.
Graphically, the game looks virtually identical to the first season, with some minor improvements here and there. Most notably, the animation has been improved and the lip syncing this time around is much, much better than it was in season one. However, even with these improvements, the lip syncing does miss the mark every now and then, as does the animation. It's a marked improvement, though, and one that will make characters more believable now that their mouths are actually opening and closing when they should. While photography as a subject doesn't really play into Chloe's character, the game still has beautiful cinematography in spades, and the lighting system is still more than capable of creating stunning images.
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Despite not being written and directed by Life Is Strange's original team (excluding Burch who consulted), it still has the same melancholy vibe, look, and feel of the first game and the attention to color balance and framing that made the franchise as a whole stand out to me in the first place. The atmosphere is spot on, not in the least because of the soundtrack, written by UK indie band Daughter. The music has that same mysterious and ambient sound to it that Jonathan Morali's original score had, albeit with more of a focus on rock over acoustic folk. Warm, drawn out electric guitars and haunting melodies make this a soundtrack that is as nice to listen to outside the context of the game. Originally, I was skeptical when I saw that Morali wasn't returning for the prequel, but I'm really glad that that skepticism had no basis in reality. The episode also has a host of licensed tracks on the ticket that are (very well-used) during specific moments and sequences.
Most of those times are used during calm moments of reflection where Chloe gets the opportunity to hang back a bit and take the moment in. Usually, these sequences can go on for as long as you want, leaving Chloe free to reflect on current events while listening to music. They are a nice break from the regular gameplay and add a sense of poignancy to the game, made even better by the great choice of songs. A neat little addition is the Mixtape Mode, which lets you create a playlist of licensed tracks and plays it for you while you're watching an animation of Chloe just hanging out on her bed listening to the music.
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Life Is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1 - Awake is the compelling start to a story we already know the conclusion of, but it's still a thing fans of Life Is Strange should definitely give a go. The relationship between Chloe and Rachel Amber is heartwarming in a surprising way, and to be reunited with characters from season one is a treat, even if the writing doesn't always work. I also wish the episode was a bit longer, taking me about 3.5/4 hours to complete from start to finish. Like with all Telltale-likes, there is some replayability in the form of branching storylines, but these will only change small or insignificant elements of the story. You're playing a narrative that is pretty set in stone to begin with, so don't expect the ending to change a lot depending on your actions, not in the least because we know how the story ends. I don't mind that, personally, but you might. The story has some interesting hooks and a sense of pace that make the experience compelling, making the flaws its writing has a bit easier to overlook. In the end, it comes down to this: if you thought the first season was good, you'll love this one as well. If you didn't, you'll find nothing here that will convince you to reconsider your stance. I'm excited for whatever comes next, and I'm glad that Life is Strange: Before the Storm didn't lose what made the first season great in the first place, which is always a concern when the studio developing it changes.
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1 - Awake was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the developer. The game is available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
An entertaining origin story that raises some questions I would love to see answered while also telling the tale of Chloe's origin story.
- Visually as beautiful as season 1
- The soundtrack is fantastic.
- Some great vocal performances and acting
- The protagonist can be a bit too much in the first half of the game
- The episode feels a tad too short.
- DeVries does a good job at replacing Ashley Burch as Chloe's VA, but Burch's performance is still better.