There’s a lot to talk about this weekend with PAX and PWG wrestling, but first up is the return to the alternate dimension Twin Peaks little cousin town of Arcadia Bay in Life is Strange: Before the Storm. A new studio following up a critical darling of a game is no small challenge. The team behind Before The Storm, Deck Nine, have been open about not wanting to xerox the formula created by Don’t Nod with the original Life is Strange yet give its dedicated fanbase something familiar. Does it succeed?
LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM – Episode 1 of 3
Developed by: Deck Nine
Published by: Square Enix
Available for: PlayStation 4 (Also available on Xbox One, PC)
(Note: Review key provided by publisher)
For the benefit of those without Wikipedia:
In 2015, Square Enix released the first Life Is Strange game. An episodic series developed by studio Don’t Nod which put players in the shoes of a young girl named Max Caulfield. She’s an aspiring photography student with a kind soul and an indie rock heart. Did we also mention she has the ability to travel through time? In her David Lynchian town of Arcadia Bay; Max had to solve the mystery of a missing girl, stop a murder, win a photo contest, face a quantum tornado set to destroy her town, and repair an estranged relationship with her best friend Chloe Price.
It was one of the best stories in gaming which ended with players having to make Sophie’s choice. Save the entire town of Arcadia Bay from the destructive force of nature or the life of her best friend. Personally, I chose to save Chloe. The poor girl had been through enough.
Which brings us to this new game. Before The Storm is a three episode prequel series developed by a different studio. The game puts you in the role of Max Caulfield’s best friend Chloe Price. In the original game, players learned Max had left her friend’s life at the worst possible time. Chloe’s father had been killed in a car crash sending Chloe into a spiral of angst and depression made worse by her mother’s new boyfriend. Before the Storm takes players back to the early days of the hardest part of Chloe’s life. With her father gone, on the brink of dropping out of school, and feeling like an abandoned puppy on a freeway; Chloe Price goes to a dark place. In the new series’ first episode, “Awake”, the young teen is on a rebellious warpath. We pick up her story as she tries to sneak into a barn for a concert by the band Fire Walk. It’s a part of the story that immediately highlights the differences between playing as Max Caulfield in the original game versus Chloe Price this time around. Where Max had a supernatural ability to help her avoid trouble and make decisions you were ultimately comfortable with because you could see both paths, Chloe is an entirely different animal.
Her gameplay is about rebellion and manipulation of a situation. To get into the barn for the concert you’ll need to argue your way in past a bouncer who won’t budge because a cute girl bats an eye. Most of Chloe’s obstacles in the game will see players use this “Backtalk” mechanic. Your dialogue choices will either get her to her objective or affect her relationships with other characters later on in various ways. One relationship will be key above all other in this series. Your budding friendship with the troubled popular girl, Rachel Amber. Fans of the series will remember Max and Chloe having to solve the case of her disappearance in the first game.
Episode one of Before the Storm is centered around building your relationship with this important character. Will you choose to open Chloe to Rachel or keep her at arm’s length? Speak up or keep quiet? Encourage her to leave Arcadia Bay or give her a reason to stay? The narrative of these girls will be shaped to an extent by the player. Much like with Telltale games, this story driven genre are like coloring books. Everyone is given the same illustration but you decide what goes in between the lines.
Those lines are surprisingly interesting for Rachel Amber. Players of the original already know her fate to come but Deck Nine manages to give her a meaningful back story and promises this isn’t simply a story of her kidnapping. As they’ve stated the series’ will end three years before the events of the first Don’t Nod game. For better or worse Rachel becomes Chloe’s true north. Someone in Chloe’s life who goes through similar feelings of betrayal by the people she holds closest. Rachel is directing Chloe’s anger as a vehicle for her own family issue. Most poignant among their scenes is the train car ride to the junkyard. It’s a part of the game that best depicts what the overall arc of the game is: Can one person truly make a difference in your life?
This prequel game has a more grounded tone making it an emotionally heavy story. Chloe’s performance in the game never falls into a teenage angst trope. Her struggle is real on multiple relatable fronts. Anyone who lost their parent at a young age or had to watch a divorcee bring a new invading stranger into your life can relate to what Chloe Price is going through.
Mechanically, Before The Storm gives you some powerful moments to play through but they aren’t heavy on action. That’s never been the strong suit of any Life Is Strange game and it’s not something Deck Nine put much change into. However, the new play mechanics exclusive to Chloe feel more vital than the time travel you did with Max. How you steer Chloe feels like it has more weight. Players could easily choose an argument which will leave you with a “what if” feeling in your chest for the rest of the series as these paths with people in her life unfold. The other part is the visuals of the game. Arcadia Bay is just as gorgeously rendered as it was before, but improving upon Don’t Nod’s work is the character models in Before the Storm. Chloe’s interactions with Rachel, RPG nerds, and her soon to be stepfather David have more animation in the dialogue. It was one of the small things that bothered me about the original Life is Strange and good to see it improved upon here, even if it’s minuscule.
Once again, music is the soul of this game. It’s the last way Chloe has left to connect with the world around her. Why else would the game begin with a concert? Deck Nine puts in the same level of extensive care Don’t Nod did in the original’s music but keep it unique to the character. Max’s soundtrack was very indie as if she’d been listening to Dashboard Confessional all her life. In Before the Storm, Chloe’s personal dark cloud is projected using tunes with heavier tone that fall somewhere between radio punk and Thrice. The band, Mother, does the score for the entire game. It’s a sound fitting Chloe’s world of holed jeans and studded leather bracelets to the letter.
Just as Chloe must decide whether or not to once again let people into her life, players will have to decide if they have room in their hearts for Deck Nine’s game. It’s always okay to be skeptical when a new studio takes over something that felt personal. Rest assured, while this studio is giving you a game full of differences, including not playing up supernatural elements so far, the deep resonating story of Chloe Price’s downward spiral is something any fan of the original Life Is Strange will be entertained by.
9/10– Life is Strange: Before The Storm- Episode 1 “Awake” is a shining example of what good storytellers can do with video games, even in a world they didn’t create. Comic book people know that challenge all too well.
Because John Stewart isn’t around anymore. Here’s your moment of zen:
You go girl!