Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
This review will avoid plot spoilers for Before the Storm and Life is Strange.
The original Life is Strange was released in 2015, and told the story of two friends, Max and Chloe, dealing with emotions, mysteries, and the apocalypse in the town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. A major part of that game's story was the disappearance of a student named Rachel Amber, one of Chloe's closest friends. Rachel didn't actually appear in that game, but her presence loomed large over the plot, and every character you encountered seemed to have some story about how much they had known, admired, and loved her.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a prequel to the original story, and centers on the burgeoning friendship (and possible relationship) between Chloe and Rachel. The game will eventually consist of three episodes, and Episode 1: Awake sets the stage for the story, introducing us to places and characters series fans have seen before, but have never seen quite like this before.
Gameplay and plot are both minimal in this first chapter, and it's clear this is going to be a narrative adventure game driven primarily by charater, emotion, and relationships. That will work well for those who enjoyed these aspects of the original game, but for anyone used to a more plot-focused story with lots of interactive gameplay, Before the Storm might be less appealing.
I'm going to reference the original Life is Strange a lot in this review because, honestly, it just doesn't make sense to play this game without having played the original. Both titles are good games in their own ways, but a large part of the appeal to be found in Before the Storm relies on what you gain from the experience of playing the first game.
Chloe and Rachel
Before the Storm is all about Chloe Price, who is the sole protagonist here after serving a (just slightly) secondary role to Max in the original game. The Chloe we see here is regonizable as the same character, despite a different hair color and voice actress. The new voice is similar enough to go unnoticed after your first hour or so with the game, but it's likely I'll always have Ashly Burch's voice in my head as the "real" Chloe.
The world of Before the Storm feels as if it has been in action before we as the player arrive on the scene. There's existing tension between Chloe and her mother's boyfriend that we don't need to see the origins of to instantly understand, for example, and we get glimpses of Chloe's one-sided friendship with the absent Max via journal entires and text messages.
Chloe's interactions with her mother, her mother's boyfriend, and the students at Blackwell Academy make up much of this first episode, and provide a good grounding for the character and a look at who she is at this time, before Max arrives in her life again. An extended, optional game of Dungeons & Dragons you can play with two other students is a definite highlight of the episode, offering laughs and hopefully establishing some characters we will see fleshed out in greater detail in the next two episodes.
Rachel's character is difficult to grasp in this first episode, and I was reminded of how she seemed to be everything to everyone as an absent character in the first game. She's popular at school and gets good grades, but immediately encourages Chloe to ditch school with her and seems to be the one pushing Chloe towards greater acts of rebellion and risk. It's clear by the end of the episode we'll be learning much more about Rachel as the next two episodes unfold, and I'm looking forward to getting a better understanding of this complicated character.
The original Life is Strange's naturalistic teen dialogue, and specifically the use of the word "hella," is likely what it is best remembered for in the gaming community at large. As someone who grew up in Northern California saying "hella" all the time this part of the first game never seemed anything but perfectly authentic to me, and Before the Storm matches the same writing style. The game's dialogue is occasionally painfully awkward, but it's always full of emotion and usually sounds like something a teenager would actually say. Chloe's insults, often delivered through the not-very-effective "backtalk" mechanic, might have you rolling your eyes, but it's not hard to imagine a teenager echoing her words.
Warning: The following information about Before the Storm's use of the word "hella" might not be interesting to anyone except me, but I'm going to talk about it anyway because it's bothering me. If you're upset about this and find it to be self-indulgent, definitely don't read the whole article I wrote about whether Swamp Thing in Injustice 2 is male.
Before the Storm makes the point of showing that Rachel Amber introduces Chloe to "hella," and when Chloe remarks on the oddness of the word Rachel excuses herself by saying "it's a Cali thing." That's fine, sure, but Rachel also talks about growing up in Long Beach, California, and they absolutely do not say "hella" in Long Beach. "Hella" is a Northern California thing, and they will make fun of you in Long Beach if you say it. I know this because that is what happened to me.
This is a very, very minor thing, but since Before the Storm decided to so explicitly address "hella" in this way, it struck me as odd that they would get this detail wrong. Maybe Rachel also lived in the San Francisco area for a while, and doesn't mention it? Or maybe Life is Strange takes place in an alternate universe where they say "hella" in Long Beach?
Anyways. Moving on.
Gameplay and Choices
The gameplay in Before the Storm is stripped down compared to what we saw in the first game, which itself was less game-y than your average Telltale adventure game. There are very few objects to collect and no significant puzzles. Instead, you'll be motivated to explore your enviornment and interact with things purely to uncover more about the world and unlock more dialogue options.
Before the Storm places more emphasis on dialogue as its own reward than any other game I can remember. Searching Chloe's house to find a record of appraisal for her mother's wedding ring, for example, doesn't have any impact beyond allowing Chloe to bring up the issue of selling the ring with her mother. The game trusts that players will care enough about the characters and the world to explore in search of these additional details, though not everyone will be so motivated. Those that decide to could rush through this opening episode in under two hours, avoiding extraneous dialogue options and hunting for the critical path and the game's handful of diverging choices (none of which get a pay-off in this first episode), but it's clear that the way the game is intended to be played is at a more leisurely pace.
One of the central appeals of Life is Strange was the game's time manipulation mechanic, a supernatural element that allowed Max to rewind time to choose different dialogue options and make different choices. This was a fascinating and highly effective blend of narrative and gameplay, and Before the Storm suffers from its absence. Chloe's "backtalk" segments, which involve listenting to the words other characters choose in order to deliver insults that have the greatest impact, aren't particularly fun or satisfying.
Max's time rewinding also allowed players to see multiple different branching paths in a single play-through, getting fascinating glimpses of alternate futures before choosing the one they liked best. All of that is missing in Before the Storm, and the result is a much more straightforward narrative game experience.
Welcome back to Arcadia Bay
Life is Strange was full of memorable locations, and coming back to them in Before the Storm really reminds you of just how powerful these places are. Arcadia Bay is packed with gorgeous natural scenery, and the game makes great use of lighting and color throughout to craft interesting set pieces. The game opens with an introductory sequence in a concert full of purple light and neon accents, and after a detour through Chloe's room and Blackwell Academy it ends up in the woods surrounding the city. Of course many of these locations are given additional power thanks to the roles they played in the original game, so those who haven't played that title will be missing out on a lot of what's going on below the surface. Once again, you really need to play Life is Strange before giving this game a spin.
The music in Before the Storm is flat-out phenomenal, and much of that is thanks to the original score from the British folk band Daughter. Several musical interludes unfold as you play, and you're often given the chance to sit and enjoy the ambience for as long as you like before eventually pressing a button to advance. That's a great encapsulation of the game as a whole, really: it's stylish, emotional, driven by ambience, and if you rush through it then you're doing it wrong.
The setting and characters drive this episode, and the plot that unfolds is light on actual narrative development. The story this first chapter is setting up is clear to be smaller than what we saw in Life is Strange, but with strong characters and emotion at its core it could be just as powerful in the end.