Life Is Strange: Before the Storm - Episode 1: Awake Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
In taking on a prequel to the BAFTA-winning darling of 2015, Deck Nine had the unenviable task of creating the backstory for a character whose history and relationships were only touched upon sporadically. Before the Storm switches its focus from Max to Chloe, back before she became the tattooed, blue-haired force of nature you remember from the original Life Is Strange.
Ashly Burch took the difficult decision not to reprise the role of Chloe in solidarity with the ongoing SAG strike, but Rhianna DeVries has done an admirable job of filling those shoes. While the change may come as a blow to those who followed Chloe’s journey through five episodes, it has proven a benefit to the prequel since it gave Burch the time to write this episode herself, and the result is a marked improvement. Yes, there are occasional moments of oh-so-hip speak, but the dialogue flows a lot more organically than its predecessor — with one notable exception covered later.
Although teenage angst may feel like a cliche subject to tackle, Awake is a tale of loneliness and trying to find a place in a world which often ostracises those who don’t fit neatly in, and it does so in a believable manner. Chloe is a seething mass of resentment — to her father, who had the selfishness to die in a car crash a couple of years earlier, to her mother who is finally moving on when Chloe can’t, and to David, the new boyfriend and potential stepfather who won’t put up with Chloe’s crap.
While Max was a relatively clean canvas for you to paint your decisions upon, Chloe’s identity is stark. She is a rebel, first and foremost, giving the middle finger to anyone in authority and blazing a path to a destination she has no idea about, so long as it gets her there. Sneaking into an underground rock concert introduces her (but not those who played the original game) to the infamous Rachel Amber, a like-minded soul who proves to be the episode’s fulcrum.
The way Chloe and Rachel’s relationship develops over the unusually lengthy running time is where a lot of the game’s enjoyment can be found. Whether it’s dealing with developing feelings as Chloe helps Rachel during a theatre rehearsal, or bunking off class to take a train ride to a place Rachel is fond of visiting, the simple act of choosing whether to share a set of earphones has surprising power. And teenage girls being who they are, there are plenty of moments of conflict too, as the pair’s history and repressed anger at their respective families comes to the fore.
That isn’t to say Awake is all emo grief and smashing stuff up with a baseball bat. In one particularly well-written segment, Chloe spends time playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons with two high school nerds, and the amount you decide to invest in how much she invests in the game makes its climax as touching as the real world problems she faces. At her heart, Chloe is a bit of a geek and a lover of science, so watching her roleplay a barbarian warrior is a joy.
With Max’s time-bending abilities out of the picture, Chloe has to rely on her smart mouth as an alternate superpower and the new Backtalk feature makes use of Chloe’s feisty personality to argue her way into or out of situations. By listening carefully to what the other party is saying, she can pick up on specific words which can then be thrown back into their face. These are also time-limited, so you’ll need to pay close attention to pick up on the best response — though it really isn’t as difficult as it could be. Furthermore, although there are only a few segments utilising this mechanic, they feel at odds with the rest of the game’s dialogue. You’re essentially being coerced into being a dick to whoever you speak to, and while it might feel nice to rail against your mother’s boyfriend, doing so to a bouncer prompts a frankly unbelievable response. How many people do you know that have been let into a club by repeatedly insulting the doorman? Similarly, even if David strikes a more apologetic tone, the Backtalk options don’t take this into account which results in a bizarrely one-sided argument.
While it may be obvious to argue that Before the Storm is a game that really didn’t need to be made — especially with a full-blown sequel already announced — its arrival, at least in our minds, is deserved. Rachel Amber was a peripheral character in Life Is Strange, the unseen figure that is known to everyone but never actually seen, like Ugly Naked Guy, or Wolowitz’s mother. Here she’s a living, breathing character who has a significant impact on the person that Chloe will become, and filling in those narrative gaps may help you appreciate the story that follows it. That said, we would strongly recommend you play through the five chapters of that game in order to fully appreciate the difference between Chloe’s portrayal, as this story’s impact on newcomers would certainly be enhanced by prior exposure to Arcadia Bay, especially when familiar faces make an appearance.
As with the first game, the music is deserving of credit for hitting the right emotional beats, and though the visuals haven’t really improved in the last couple of years, it’s by no means an ugly game. Unlike most titles of this ilk, there aren’t many crucial decisions to make you wring your hands over and prompt a second playthrough. After completion, Collector Mode offers a chance to revisit chapters of the game and complete your graffiti over the town’s willing walls, but otherwise the chapter stands up on the power of its writing. It’s less a point-and-click adventure, and more an engaging and often poignant look at how depression, loss and the simple act of growing up can affect teenagers, and while the ending feels rather muted, it does enough to make us wonder where the next chapter will lead.