Warning: The following review contains spoilers for Life is Strange Season 1 and the first episode of Life Is Strange: Before the Storm.
When Life Is Strange was announced, I was initially very skeptical about the premise and feel of the game. Luckily, most (if not all) of my objections were thrown out of the window and the game quickly saw itself rise to become one of my favorites of that year. This was a passion project for the people at DONTNOD, something which definitely shows in the first season. A confirmation for a second season came some time after Season 1 wrapped up, with Life Is Strange: Before the Storm serving as a prequel to the first season in addition to making the gap between Season 1 and 2 way more palatable for fans.
This trilogy isn't being developed by DONTNOD, being developed by Deck Nine instead. I was skeptical of a different studio working on DONTNOD's passion project, but the first episode got me really excited for what was going to come next. Deck Nine has some big shoes to fill, but I think Episode 1 in this trilogy of prequels knocked it out of the park. The pacing was pretty well done, and the episode really took the time to give you more context to the character of Chloe Price, who acts as your sidekick in the first season.
The wounds inflicted by the loss of her father are still fresh at this point in the timeline. Chloe is adrift, unwilling and unable to accept her situation. In the first episode, we got introduced to Rachel Amber, the elusive catalyst driving Chloe forward in Life Is Strange. Spoilers ahead if you haven't played Episode 1 and Season 1 of Life Is Strange.
All this game has is its narrative. It borrows heavily from Telltale's games, meaning that you don't really do much besides walking around and talking to people with the (simple) odd puzzle thrown in for good measure. The story gets changed slightly depending on your choices over the course of the trilogy but you're ultimately going towards an ending that's already set in stone. That being said, your choices allow for some wiggle room with the established story because the first season is quite vague about the relationship between Chloe and Rachel so you get to customize what the relationship meant to Chloe herself in Brave New World.
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The start of the episode serves you and Rachel with some harsh consequences, courtesy of the latter's rage over her father's infidelity setting fire to a sizable part of the surrounding woods in the Episode 1 finale. The principal is threatening to expel Chloe for starting the forest fire (allegedly). This whole sequence includes the opinions of Rachel's parents and your mother, and it has to be among the weakest points of this episode. The back talk mechanic, which allows you to get gabby with someone else in order to force out a specific outcome, returns. These come paired with a variety of "witty" retorts to what mostly are pretty normal and valid questions. I get what they're doing here, and they do sort of subvert expectations by getting you into more trouble when you choose a response the video game seems to want you to take. The dialogue in this scene, as well as some of the reactions Chloe has in this scene missed the mark spectacularly.
Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. This remains relatively weak all the way into the second hour of the game, and has you do a few activities that can suffer from pretty bad delivery while feeling inconsequential. There is a sub plot featuring Frank, the drug dealer Chloe owns a large amount of money to in Season 1. It's a really bad excuse for a filler quest and it really takes the wind out of the sails of the momentum they gained in Episode 1. There are more examples of this, and while they're not numerous they do enough to be noticeable. The payoff will hopefully be coming in Episode 3, although I don't really feel like I need to know how some of these story lines end.
Luckily, this episode picks up a bit into the second act as the focus shifts again to the relationship between Chloe and Rachel. All their interactions involving just the two of them are great, and you really see the two of them growing closer in the second episode. I do really like the writing in these scenes, enhanced by the (still very beautiful) soundtrack by UK band Daughter that really hammers the atmosphere home. The licensed soundtrack also includes some decent new Indie songs which fit the tone and subject matter quite well. Also back again are the little breaks you can take listening to a song while Chloe's internal monologue comments on current events in her life. I liked these scenes a lot. Judging by the developers including a mixtape mode where you can have those scenes as a wallpaper on your TV with a custom selection from the soundtrack, it seems like demand for something like that was high. I like that they included it in the game as a little bonus. I think the cinematography is strong in these scenes, and the music really hammers the atmosphere home. The scenes between Rachel and Chloe give so much more depth to Chloe as a character. It makes the inevitable disappearance of Rachel and its effect on Chloe that much more heartbreaking.
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From a story standpoint, Life is Strange: Before the StormEpisode 2 is at its weakest when it forces you to be a difficult kid for the sake of being difficult. You get placed in situations that should have a pretty simple solution but are complicated (rather needlessly) by Chloe's urge to be a dick to random people for no real reason. I understand that the narrative needs her to be a rebel with a cause, but she rebels against people who don't logically deserve to be treated that way and you don't have the agency to change that in a meaningful way because the game just doesn't offer you the option in some situations. Chloe has moments of self-awareness where she shows growth in her character, but her attitude can still be a tad annoying.
Episode 2 also gives some more character development to minor characters like Nathan Prescott, one of the antagonists in Season 1. That season already gives you some details on his home life and his family, and Before the Storm is where Nathan's father finally shows up after a lot of hinting at his psychologically abusive treatment of his son. The man is just flat-out insane, willing to do just about anything to secure his legacy. It's not so strange to see where Nathan went up if he's had to live under his dad's regime with the developing psychological trauma. His backstory is utterly tragic, made worse by the complete disregard his father has for his wants and needs. Other familiar characters like Samuel the groundskeeper and Victoria Chase make an appearance, and Season 1 protagonist Max gets some lip service as well.
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What is conspicuously absent from the PlayStation 4 is decent texture quality. Everything from Chloe's eyebrows to post-it notes with barely legible text look smushed. I can't remember this being the case in episode 1. Animation also seems more wooden in episode 2 as opposed to episode 1, including facial animations in some scenes. It doesn't bother me too much, but I can totally understand if it bothers other people. It feels a tad rushed, and would've benefited from a few more weeks of tweaking and fixing. This was on PlayStation 4, though, so your mileage may vary depending on the platform.
Brave New World includes quite a few things worth seeing and hearing, but it also features some of the weakest scenes in the franchise that feel like directionless filler. My hope is that they can make lightning strike twice for the trilogy's finale since they have an interesting premise they proved they can work with in the first episode. The good things do outnumber the bad, although only marginally. The development of the bond between Chloe and Rachel is still developing in interested ways, and I'm invested enough to want to see what they do in the finale.
Life Is Strange Before the Storm Episode 2 - Awake was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on Steam and Xbox One.
A rather flawed follow-up to a fantastic first episode. There's plenty here to like, but it loses its momentum due to some weak writing and stiff animation that felt as if the episode was released too early. The relationship between Rachel and Chloe is the most interesting thing in this episode and it makes it easier to stick with it even with the dialogue being sub par in places.(Review Policy)
- Brilliant Soundtrack
- Well Done Cinematography
- Intriguing Relationship Building Between Rachel and Chloe
- Characters Make Some Questionable Choices
- Takes a While to Get Going