Life Is Strange took the industry by storm back in 2015, pushing players through the ringer with themes of suicide, love, and the power of friendship. Its critical and commercial success meant we were always heading back into the teen world of Arcadia Bay, but American developer Deck Nine’s first outing with the franchise is a bit hit and miss.
Before The Storm takes place three years prior to the events of Life Is Strange, and hands you control of 16-year-old Chloe Price. She’s mourning the death of her father, and also attempting to cope with the fact that prior protagonist Max has departed for Seattle and left her behind. On top of that, her mother has started seeing David, the strict and uptight sergeant from the original games.
These things are changing Chloe from the nice girl she once was into something noticeably different. Her attitude is souring, her desire to do well in school has faded, and she’s purely focussed on finding ways out of the real world through drugs, smoking, and skipping out on what used to be important to her. The wildfire we saw in 2015 is starting to grow and fester, and watching this transformation happen is fascinating.
Throughout its two hour duration, Awake places all of its cards on the little things. From a 10-20 minute Dungeons & Dragons adventure with schoolmates on a picnic table to Chloe’s first real encounter with Rachel Amber, it wants you to become enraptured with its world through its characters. For a good portion of the episode, I felt actively involved, and enjoyed making choices whose results, in typical Life Is Strange fashion, probably won’t show themselves for a little while yet.
While placing your cards on little character interactions and events can work, by the end of the episode, I still felt puzzled as to what I was really sitting through Awake for. The episode’s plot didn’t feel like it moved in any meaningful direction, besides setting up some key character interactions and motivations. The original Life Is Strange's debut referred to an oncoming storm and left me wondering what was to unfold, but there is no such signposting here.
That said, lengthy interactions with Rachel make Awake feel somewhat meaningful. They lend more significance to Chloe’s actions and reactions in the original series, and finally allow Rachel’s character to come to the forefront. Interacting with Rachel and understanding her as a character allows those who ventured through all five episodes of Life Is Strange to finally grasp what made her so special to Chloe, and perhaps even more importantly, what made her so influential as well.
One glaring thing Before The Storm lacks is Max’s time-rewinding power. That makes it play like a Telltale title; decisions primarily shape your story, and there's no chance to go back and experiment or correct anything. This makes the game feel much less groundbreaking than the original, but that’s expected given the monstrous events seen in Max’s original adventure.
Deck Nine has introduced a couple of neat new features into the game though, the most notable of which is the Backtalk challenge. This allows Chloe to challenge and intimidate anyone who talks down to her or a friend, and it essentially functions like a small game of tug of war: you listen to what they say, choose an option that reflects what they’ve said back on them, and back and forth you go. These verbal battles aren't too difficult, but I appreciated having something different to pursue over the basic conversational options seen in almost every other game of this type.
In true Life Is Strange fashion, Before The Storm has its soundtrack tell some of the game’s story, and this works to a T. Instead of being crammed with slow moving alternative hits from bands like Alt-J and Angus & Julia Stone – which were reflective of Max’s personality in Life Is Strange – Before the Storm elects for fast beats and punk rock tunes from bands like Pretty Vicious and Speedy Ortiz, and these cuts are more reflective of Chloe’s impressionable attitude and style.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Awake is a tale of two tapes. It’s nice to revisit Arcadia Bay and see younger versions of the characters we spent time with in Life Is Strange, but the removal of time manipulation results in little more than a relatively standard choice-based coming-of-age story. Awake has exposed some fascinating character motivations, but whether they bear fruit and have an impact is entirely up in the air at this point.
I’m totally invested in Chloe and Rachel in this prequel series, and intrigued to see where their characters go and what they’re willing to do for one another. But Awake burns too much time setting up its characters and friendships, and doesn't reserve enough fuel for its plot. A third of the way in, I'm still not sure where it's headed.