Review: Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Episode 1 “Awake” (PS4/XBO)

Developed by: Deck Nine
Published by: Square Enix

This review may contain minor details/spoilers regarding the plot of both the original Life is Strange and the first episode of Before the Storm. No major story spoilers are discussed in this review.

There’s no question that the original Life is Strange holds a special place in my heart. When I played through the game earlier this year, I immediately fell in love with the time-traveling tale. Max Caulfield and Chloe Price’s journey through Arcadia Bay is filled with teenage angst, identity searching, and plenty of mystery. By the end of the final episode, I didn’t want those final credits to mark the end of Arcadia Bay and these characters I’ve come to love. I’m usually content with standalone experiences, but Life is Strange felt different. There was plenty more to explore surrounding Arcadia Bay, Max, and Chloe.

With that said, Life is Strange: Before the Storm isn’t exactly what I expected out of the next entry in the series, but that’s perfectly fine. While Life is Strange leaves off on a cliffhanger that leaves you craving for a follow-up, it’s also understandable why these questions should be left unanswered. Before the Storm takes place three years prior to the events of the original game, starring Chloe Price as the main protagonist. The story being told in Before the Storm isn’t one involving superpowers or time traveling. Instead, it’s a story about finding meaning, a sense of home and belonging, and forging an identity, all through times of healing and crisis.

Dontnod, the developer behind Life is Strange, is not directly involved with Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Instead, it’s being developed by Colorado-based studio Deck Nine, a new team focusing on narrative-driven games. Undertaking a prequel to one of the most beloved games of this generation must have been a daunting task, but Deck Nine completely understands the heart of Life is Strange.

The main protagonist, Chloe Price.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, Chloe Price is the main protagonist in Before the Storm. Taking place three years before the events of the original game, Before the Storm aims to show Chloe at their most fragile state. After the passing of her father, Chloe is trying to figure out her path in life. She has strained her relationships with family and friends, skips schools, and finds refuge in the sound of rock music and smoke of marijuana. This is Chloe Price at her most lonely stage in life.

In the opening scenes of the first episode, we see Chloe traveling alone to a shady rock concert, which is filled with crooks and drug dealers. There, she meets an unlikely friend in Rachel Amber, a popular and successful girl who attends the same school as Chloe, Blackwell Academy. It seems these two characters have more in common than what’s found on the surface.

Chloe doesn’t exactly have a place where she can feel a sense of belonging. At home, her mother is dating a new man, David, who Chloe doesn’t approve of. This causes her home environment to become more strained and rigorous. School life isn’t much better, as Chloe doesn’t find any joy in attending classes or being a part of that culture. It doesn’t help that she doesn’t have many solid friendships in or outside of school. This theme of home and belonging is a driving force in Before the Storm. After seeing the relationships being established in the first episode, it becomes clear why Chloe is getting involved with people she shouldn’t be. A teenager going through a personal crisis might resort to anything, if it results in positive human contact and stability. Chloe simply wants a culture she can belong to and find meaning in.

Chloe has a deep connection with music that eventually leads to human connection.

Chloe’s best friend, Max Caulfield, isn’t physically present in Before the Storm, but she certainly plays a huge role in this story. Max is a significant source of Chloe’s anger at the world. She isn’t the absolute cause of Chloe’s troubles, but she does play a role, whether Max is aware of it or not. Chloe does occasionally write in her diary, when something significant happens or on her mind. The catch is, all of her diary entries are written in the form of letters to Max. After Max moves to a different state, Chloe is left alone to get through an extremely sensitive part in her life. Not only has her father left her, but her best friend has, too. It doesn’t help that Max doesn’t reply to Chloe’s text messages or even attempt to keep in contact.

I don’t think Max is aware of the grief she is causing, but it’s hard not to get frustrated at her. In this regard, it’s really easy to feel Chloe’s pain as you read through the text messages and diary entries. Not only is Chloe still trying to find a path after her father’s passing, but she’s also going through the toughest years of any teenager’s life. Wouldn’t anyone need a friend in such a time of hardship? Chloe especially does, but her best friend isn’t there. Chloe also isn’t a person that can move on from friendships easily. She can’t let Max slip away, and Chloe is bonded to her for life. When everything is put into context, you immediately begin to understand her frustration and confusion. This is the aspect that hit me the most in the first episode of Before the Storm. It’s brilliantly written and composed together in this first episode, and I hope Deck Nine continues to expand on Chloe’s bond with Max in the coming episodes.

Rachel Amber is the most mysterious character in this story. Rachel is an honor student beloved by her friends, family, and teachers. She is talented, hardworking, and pretty. Rachel is what you would call the ideal student.  So, why is she hanging around Chloe Price, a troublemaker with a family background full of tragedy? “Awake” doesn’t go into too much detail regarding Rachel’s true motives, but it’s definitely apparent she lives a double life. Her appearance at the concert is much different than her casual outfit and this “rock” lifestyle isn’t something new to Rachel Amber. But why does she want to get involved with such a controversial style of life, especially when she has everything going for her? I was left with more questions than answers regarding Rachel in “Awake.” Rachel isn’t as fleshed out in this episode as Chloe is, but Deck Nine has two more episodes to answer these burning questions.

The bond between Chloe Price and Rachel Amber is somewhat suddenly applied, but in reality, this is how new friendships begin at times. I found it innocently sweet that the two characters begin a new friendship and alliance over their love of music. The scene on the train, when Chloe shares her headphones with Rachel, is one of my favorite moments of the game. Music connects these two characters together, but yet there is still something deeper bonding them. I won’t talk specifics, but “Awake” definitely shows more moments of Rachel’s emotions and people skills than her motives as an individual.

In comparison to the original Life is Strange, there are less notable support characters to discuss. Of course, there are plenty of returning characters, such as Nathan Prescott and Victoria Chase, but there are a few new characters worth talking about. In fact, one of the first episode’s most striking moments is during an optional side conversation with Steph and Mikey, two new characters introduced in Before the Storm. If you choose, Chloe can participate in a game of Dungeons & Dragons with them, going through multiple scenarios. This is such a great moment, showing a softer, more playful side of Chloe. It’s an optional moment you don’t want to miss out on. There’s also Skips, Blackwell Academy’s security guard. Skips is the often typical “cool” security guard in a high school. He looks out for the students and tries to help them where he can. Skips also shares a love of music with Chloe, even trusting her enough to show a demo his band composed. While there isn’t a lot of interesting new side characters in Before the Storm, the notable ones that are introduced are likeable and worth returning to. I hope Steph and Mikey get Chloe to play another tabletop game with them.

This scene is simply fantastic. I definitely recommend going through with it.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm is, at its heart, a narrative-driven game, but it’s still a video game with mechanics to implement. Since Chloe doesn’t carry around a camera or have the ability to reverse time, Deck Nine has decided to replace those mechanics with new ideas. Instead of taking pictures, Chloe can find spots around Arcadia Bay to graffiti. There’s also a new conversation mode called Backtalk, which can be used to get out of certain situations. Pay attention to specific words and pick the best comeback line. If you get enough correct answers, you can win the conversation. This is used to bribe people, end conversations, or get out of uncomfortable situations. Backtalk can be quite useful and it really keeps dialogue constantly interesting. It’s quite a fitting conversation option for such a feisty character like Chloe. This is definitely the best addition from Deck Nine, in terms of gameplay.

An important part of Life is Strange’s identity is celebrating great music, and Before the Storm definitely doesn’t forget that. Accompanying “Awaken” is an assortment of licensed tracks, and brand new tracks from independent British band Daughter. This is a great mixture of music that fits the style of Life is Strange. The tracks that are set to each scene fit the mood and provide a wonderful atmosphere. If you find a track you particularly enjoy, you can listen to the soundtrack from the main menu.

My only real complaint with Before the Storm (so far) is the game’s framerate and loading between cutscenes. Running on popular engine Unity, Before the Storm does experience occasional frame drops, especially between loading scenes. Characters may also stutter while moving or picking up objects. It also doesn’t help that Before the Storm isn’t the most graphically impressive game, making these stutters even more noticeable. Since this is a game mostly focused on story, this isn’t much of an issue, but still something that really stands out at times.

The first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm serves as a wonderful introduction to Chloe Price’s past and current emotional state, while also introducing promising new characters. This dive into Chloe’s mind gives players a proper understanding of her actions and world view. I do wish more was explained about Rachel in this episode, but there are two more episodes to accomplish that. Overall, Life is Strange: Before the Storm is off to a fantastic start and it’s obvious to me that Deck Nine understands this series well. I absolutely can’t wait for the next chapter to release.

Final Verdict: Life is Strange: Before the Storm is off to a promising start, brilliantly establishing Chloe’s current state of mind and intriguing new characters in this first episode. Life is Strange: Before the Storm was played on PlayStation 4 for this review.

[Note: This product was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review]

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