Episodic narrative adventure Life is Strange was something of a sleeper hit. Created by French developer Dontnod (the team behind the poorly-received Remember Me), it won fans over with a slow-burn story full of emotion, intrigue, teen angst and a unique time-travel mechanic. Now that Dontnod have moved onto development of their much anticipated Vampyr, as well as a new Life is Strange series based on a completely different setting and set of characters, American studio Deck Nine have been brought on board to develop Before the Storm, a three-part prequel to Life is Strange.
Before the Storm focuses on Chloe Price, the estranged best friend of Life is Strange protagonist, Max Caulfield. Set in Arcadia Bay some three years prior to the original series in which the two are reunited, Before the Storm sees Chloe struggle with her best friend’s move to Seattle, her dad’s passing and her mum’s arsehole of an ex-military boyfriend. After sneaking into an off-the-grid metal gig and getting in trouble with some biker types, Chloe has a run-in with popular student Rachel Amber, and the two hit it off almost immediately. This first episode, titled Awake, follows the developing of the relationship between them and gives players a deeper insight not just into Chloe, but also Rachel. Without spoiling anything, Rachel is a pivotal component of the primary Life is Strange series, despite being a missing person throughout all of it, so the idea of exploring the origins of her character here is almost as enticing as spending more time with Chloe.
The stage will remember that
Just as in the last series, Before the Storm is a graphic adventure where players interact with the story by exploring the environments, talking to secondary characters and making tough choices that have a direct bearing on the events ahead. Whereas interacting with the world through the perspective of Max in Life is Strange meant having access to her ability to rewind time, Chloe has no such power and so Before the Storm lacks the supernatural bent of the original. Going in, I had concerns that taking away that central gimmick would result in a less engaging game, but that’s not the case here. Removing the safety net of being able to rewind and redo conversations or actions means that correctly navigating encounters is more important than ever, and not having to repeat entire sections multiple times to find a solution helps the game move at a more compelling pace.
Deck Nine have added an extra layer to the conversational experience in this prequel series though, in the form of the Backtalk system. At certain points during pivotal dialogue sequences throughout Awake, Chloe may enter a more heated back-and-forth with her peers. These conflicts take the form of a sort of mini-game where the player must listen for words or phrases in a person’s dialogue and then select a response that uses those words against them, eventually either winning or losing the argument. These moments are appropriately stressful, with a countdown timer to each response requiring quick thinking, but ultimately they detract from the idea of a branching narrative experience by offering a clear win/lose scenario. Rather than force players to live with the consequences of the actions they choose to take, it encourages them to simply reload the most recent checkpoint and try again. There are also a couple of instances where Chloe’s ability to backtalk her way out of a sticky situation comes off as too much of a stretch. In one scene, for instance, Blackwell Academy’s Principal Wells catches Chloe in possession of a bag of weed, and yet somehow Chloe manages to talk her way out of trouble by quoting the fourth amendment. It almost works on some level given Chloe’s history as a model student and her new anarchic, fuck-the-man personality, but the quality of the writing in Before doesn’t quite lend these scenes the authenticity they need to be believable.
Roll dice, not joints
As players of Life is Strange will no doubt be familiar with, the lack of polish in the writing is a staple of the series. It’s just as awkward here as it was before, but the overall storytelling is thankfully still as effective. Just as in Dontnod’s series, it’s the quieter moments that make the most impact here. Taking the time out to just lay in Chloe’s bed, listening to one of the handful of licensed tracks on her radio without being pushed to get back into the game affords players the opportunity to reflect and soak in the atmosphere of the moment. Outside of the licensed tracks, a bespoke musical score by British indie band Daughter perfectly complements the tone in every scene. A visual treat just as much as an aural one, Arcadia Bay and its residents are brought to life in the same engine and painterly art style as before, with evocative and cinematic camera angles and gorgeous lighting that put any of Telltale’s episodic efforts to shame.
All throughout my playthrough of this first episode of Before the Storm, my feelings toward it ebbed and flowed as thoughtfully constructed scenes tugged at my heart strings and painfully awkward writing took me out of the moment in equal measure. A particularly powerful sequence in the episode’s climax though really illustrates that an interactive medium like video games isn’t just good for immersing us in the tension of a firefight or the thrill of an adventure, it can heighten the emotional impact of any kind of moment by giving us a connection to the characters and their stories that can’t be duplicated on film or page.
Awake is better than the sum of its parts. Messy writing and a frustrating central gimmick aside, Chloe and Rachel are compelling main characters and the cinematic presentation and beautiful musical score make this a story worth investing in, especially for fans of the original series. I’m tentatively excited to see what’s next for Arcadia Bay’s troubled teens.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro