When Dontnod Entertainment released Life is Strange in 2015, it had a surefire hit on its hands. By combining the choose-your-own adventure style made popular by Telltale Games and a dark, compelling story, Life is Strange still holds the top spot on my list of games that made me cry. Though Dontnod is currently at work on a sequel, developer Deck Nine is working on taking the franchise to the past with Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Be aware that the following review contains a few references to Life is Strange which could be considered spoilers for some.
Episode 1 of Before the Storm, entitled Awake, begins with Chloe sneaking into a rock concert in an abandoned mill. This scene serves to introduce us to the core mechanic of Life is Strange—choices. In traversing the story, Chloe has to make a number of choices that will determine how the other characters will interact with her. Sometimes, the consequences of these choices are immediate. How do you get into the concert? Will people appreciate you trying to help or will they be mad because you interfered?
Many of these choices have long-lasting consequences as well. One of the choices you make early on actually branches throughout the entire episode if you make the appropriate choices in the right places. There are also a number of major decisions you have to make that will carry on through the later episodes. Unfortunately, these episodes aren't out yet, so it remains to be seen exactly how they'll play out.
Fun as it is, you don't play Life is Strange for the gameplay. You play it for the story and characters, and this is where Before the Storm really shines. The game takes place three years before Max's adventure with Chloe in the original title. Unlike in the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?", there isn't a calm before the storm. In fact, for Chloe Price, the storm has already hit. It's been two years since her father's death, but Chloe is still having trouble dealing with this monumental loss. Her luck changes when she runs into Rachel Amber, one of the most popular girls at school. With Chloe's struggles and Rachel's family issues, the two soon form a friendship that will change their lives forever. This relationship was strongly referred to throughout the original game, but Before the Storm allows us to see it develop first-hand.
Deck Nine did a fantastic job developing the characters in Awake. The phrases Chloe uses, the ways she handles things, it all feels very much like the angsty teen we came to know and love in the original Life is Strange. In keeping with this character, a new mechanic has been introduced to certain social situations. In Life is Strange, Max could rewind time and use information she learned to change the course of a conversation. Though Chloe doesn't have this power, she can pick up on key words and phrases she can use to backtalk people. This starts a conversational challenge wherein saying the right things at the right time can lead to the outcome you desire.
There are a number of times this mechanic gets used in the story, but my favorite of these was actually during a side plot. As Chloe went to school the day after the concert, I noticed a few classmates off on the side playing Dungeons and Dragons. Being the experienced adventurer I am, I guided Chloe in that direction to play a game. What I found was a small, 15-20 minute gold mine of comedy. For one of the encounters in this mini-campaign, you are tasked with retrieving the key you need to free some prisoners from their cells. The problem is that a dragonkin has the only key and he locked himself in a cell for protection. Using your superb backtalking ability, plus a little DnD magic, you can convince the creature to turn it over to you.
As for the other characters, it can be a little jarring to see the people we've come to know and how they behaved beforehand. Take Nathan Prescott, for example. In Life is Strange, we see Nathan as one of the jocks, as the king of the school, and as one of the key players in the events that take place. In Before the Storm, however, Nathan was a theater nerd who was just starting out on the team. Strange as it is to see Chloe of all people stand up for Nathan as he was getting bullied, it also felt like the right thing to do. There are a few new characters too, but they seem pretty forgettable at this point aside from Rachel.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm so far has been a solid entry into the Life is Strange franchise. When I saw this game at E3, Deck Nine was very adamant about wanting to capture the characters made the original so lovable, and I think they've done a great job so far in accomplishing that. Awake is a bit slow to start, but as this is just the beginning of Chloe's story, that's to be expected. If you loved the original Life is Strange, you'll feel right at home with Before the Storm and you'll get a lot out of your return trip. If you haven't had any experience in the world of Arcadia Bay, however, you'll find a great starting point and hopefully one that will convince you to play the original. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the season (and hopefully more Dungeons and Dragons games)!
A copy of Life is Strange: Before the Storm was provided by Square Enix for purposes of this review.