Life Is Strange was an episodic adventure game released in 2015 that took me completely by surprise. It came to me after I had grown weary of the format, popularized by the numerous releases from Telltale Games. Instead of adapting a popular media franchise, DONTNOD’s game told an original story about an eighteen-year-old Maxine Caulfield who, out of the blue, was given the power to control time. Through the course of five episodes, Max struggles to understand a power that is often fleeting while at the same time reconnecting with her childhood friend in a story that, despite its fantastical elements, felt grounded in reality. This poignant story of friendship became an obsession of mine and easily secured my top spot for Game of the Year.
The journey of Life Is Strange was a heart wrenching, emotional story that wrapped up nicely no matter which ending the player chose. As such, I felt dubious about the announcement that Deck Nine was tapped to put together a three episode prequel/sequel about a young Chloe Price and her connection to Rachel Amber, a relationship that lies at the center of Max Caulfield’s adventure. In Before The Storm, we see Chloe as a rebellious teenager struggling to cope with her father’s tragic death from an automobile accident and angry at the world for moving on without her.
Before The Storm’s first episode, “Awake,” spends its time setting the stage for the events of the mini-series. Set some time before Max returns to Arcadia Bay, we find that Chloe Price is not in a good place. She is a rebellious teenager, one that sneaks out past curfew to attend a pop-up concert in a seedy-looking barn occupied by tough guys and drug dealers. The thing is, Chloe is understandably angry--at her mom for dating another man, at the unfair loss of her father and most of all, at Max for moving to Seattle. During her nighttime escapade, she is rescued from a pair of toughs by Rachel Amber, another student at Blackwell Academy and the apple of Arcadia Bay’s eye. The encounter doesn’t go unnoticed, as the students at Blackwell--including Victoria Chase--want the full scoop as to why the town’s darling is hanging out with a social outcast. As it turns out, these two women have a lot more in common than anyone might expect.
Deck Nine has painstakingly recreated the look and feel of Life Of Strange and from top to bottom, it will be strikingly familiar to anyone that played DONTNOD’s game. Each scene has that same dream-like serenity through picturesque scenes of Oregonian nature and wildlife set to the sleepy strums of Pacific Northwest indie rock. Chloe can interact with her surroundings, looking at and manipulating objects as they pertain to the task at hand. This is adventure game light, so the game places less emphasis on creating difficult puzzles and situations in favor of letting the player craft their own narrative. Chloe can talk to people in ways they will remember and have unforeseen consequences that can positively or negatively affect the direction of the narrative. Max Caulfield dealt with this by rewinding time to correct her mistakes and change the outcome of an encounter. Chloe doesn’t have that luxury, which makes the player’s decisions feel more significant because she can’t take them back.
In lieu of time travel, Chloe can use a new “back talk” mechanic designed to let her verbally eviscerate her antagonists. Not unlike The Secret of Monkey Island’s insult sword fighting, the player must listen for verbal clues to help deliver a crushing win and take control of the conversation. Taking the time to explore the area before a verbal sparring match has its benefits, giving Chloe additional responses to steer the conversation her way. Although this mechanic feels a little contrived I like that it offers a stronger sense of finality, making me think twice about letting Chloe say something cruel.
As far as first impressions go, “Awake” establishes a place and the characters that live in it. Ashly Burch’s absence as Chloe Price is notable, but she is responsible for writing Before the Storm. And though hers is a voice I don’t hear from Chloe, the words spoken by Rhianna DeVries definitely sounds like Ms. Burch. She writes Chloe as a girl who suffers but doesn’t have the right outlet to express and confront her rage. There was a moment that I wondered if the game could replicate the emotional gut punches that defined each Life Is Strange episode, and I wasn't disappointed. The one thing that has me feeling unsure is the weight given to Rachel Amber’s character. Everyone in this story puts her on a pedestal and whenever someone mentions her name, people speak of her with such reverence that you’d think she was the Virgin Mary. Her characterization in Life Is Strange was perfect despite not even being in the game. She was a vehicle for showing how people tend to react whenever someone of prominence goes missing or murdered. It showed a subtlety that, as far as this episode goes, Before The Storm lacks. However, this is only the first episode. There’s more story to tell and more potential for Rachel Amber to be brought back down to earth.
The first episode debut of Before The Storm will make returning Life Is Strange players feel like they never left Arcadia Bay. The characters might be younger but all the familiar locations, tone, and controls are pretty familiar (except the camera controls of which I am not a fan because it’s too fluid for its own good). As a first episode, “Awake” performs its task of setting things up for the adventure ahead, one that I really curious to see its direction. The original game used time travel to create a story with all sorts of unpredictable twists, turns, and emotional trauma. It would have been nice if Deck Nine didn’t religiously follow DONTNOD’s design but all the same, I want to see what Chloe Price got up to during a moment in time she needed a best friend the most.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.