In retrospect, perhaps it isn’t much of a shock that a lot of video game enthusiasts saw pieces of themselves in Life is Strange‘s awkward yet affable Max or the angry, rebellious Chloe. The two girls’ journey through everyday teenage angst and Max’s extraordinary abilities was easily one of the most endearing games of 2015 and has had fans wanting more ever since.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is odd in the sense that it isn’t necessarily what fans would have wanted out of a second season. Life is Strange’s ending, spurred on by a heart-wrenching final decision, left a few questions unanswered that seemed like the too-perfect sort of loose threads that would be pulled on in the next game. Instead, Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a prequel set before the first season’s protagonist ever returns to Arcadia Bay, instead focusing on teenage punk Chloe and her relationship with the mysterious Rachel Amber.
Square Enix’s decision to shift away from the previous studio DONTNOD Entertainment to a new developer in Deck Nine means that a lot has changed behind the scenes for the series, too. It was always going to be difficult to unveil a character in Rachel Amber that had been, to this point, a mysterious girl who functioned almost entirely as a plot device for Max and Chloe – doubly so for a studio that was just starting its work on the complex world of Life is Strange.
Fortunately, Deck Nine has comfortably slipped into the lore of Life is Strange without missing a beat, and Rachel Amber is a myth realized that deftly captures everything fans would expect from the character. Rachel is equal parts intelligent and charming but comes with a caveat, a slowly stirring darkness inside of her that emerges in fits of rage, sadness, or rebellion. Rachel is the original game’s tornado personified, a clearly destructive force that appears targeted squarely at Arcadia Bay and the sleepy masquerade that hides its citizen’s secrets.
Yet for all of the allure of Rachel, it is Chloe – hair not yet blue, still unsure of her rebellion – that we get to inhabit. Part of Life is Strange: Before the Storm‘s Episode 1 success is just how beautifully Deck Nine manages to unravel Chloe’s persona during the events of the first episode. It would have been easy to deliver a ready-made Chloe, the same brash, angry girl that somehow made “hella” popular for a brief time two years ago, and simply tell a story using a vehicle everyone is familiar with.
Instead, getting inside Chloe’s head before Max returns reveal all of her insecurities about her family, her unease over her friendship with Max, and her confusion over her budding sexuality. Before the Storm’s Episode 1 is a deep dive into the psyche of a younger Chloe, and it genuinely feels as though we are playing through the most meaningful moments of her formative years – an impressive accomplishment, given that fans are already well-acquainted with just how impactful the future will be for Chloe as well.
That heavy focus on Rachel and Chloe does incidentally produce Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1’s weakest feature, however. There are always sacrifices that come with creating a narrative that revolves so heavily around two characters, and here it comes in the supporting cast. While a few familiar faces crop up here and there, the bulk of the episode – which took about three hours to complete – is largely about Rachel and Chloe beginning to explore their new relationship, whatever it may be.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean Episode 1 lacks a little of the charm that Life is Strange’s first season had in its minor characters. There isn’t really a Samuel or Alyssa type of character to flesh out the background of Arcadia Bay this time around – or, at the very least, it isn’t obvious who that might be just yet. That being said, a particularly entertaining rendition of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign is one of the single-best side stories Life is Strange has ever told, even if it develops Chloe’s character more than it does the two others involved. Make sure not to turn down the opportunity during play.
Perhaps the biggest change in Life is Strange: Before the Storm comes in the way players get to “play” the game. Because Life is Strange is a narrative-driven, choice-based adventure, the first season’s major mechanic of time manipulation worked very well with the story DONTNOD was telling. In Before the Storm, however, Chloe doesn’t have any special powers. Instead, she has the ability to “Backtalk”, which will enter players into a dialogue-driven mini-game that can reward Chloe with storyline progression or, at certain times, satisfying character development moments.
Backtalk is simple, but it’s a lot of fun, and it gets gradually more difficult when the hints it drops to players about which dialogue choice will be the most effective become scarcer or more obtuse. When Chloe picks a fight with someone who is in a position of authority or power, the mini-game is much less forgiving of mistakes. If Chloe backtalks her future step-dad, David, for instance, she has a lot of chances to mess up before the game ends because he isn’t overly clever, while a similar choice during a verbal duel with the principal of Blackwell Academy will end on a single error.
Ultimately, Backtalk is a much more fun and involved mechanic than the ability to rewind time, and Before the Storm‘s “Awake” episode is largely about presenting the familiar while making it more fun to play. The music, which has migrated away from the acoustic-infused indie tracks of the first season to a much more suitable punk rock soundtrack here, is sublime and catchy. The dialogue is the right mix of quippy one-liners and super awkward, exploratory conversation. No time rewind means no retries on conversations, too, which makes every choice in Life is Strange: Before the Storm feel even more important, despite there not being a town-obliterating disaster looming ominously over Chloe’s head this time.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1 is an incredible first look at the new season and promises much for the future. Deck Nine is clearly capable of taking over the reins from the excellent DONTNOD, and despite a switch in developer, a change in Chloe’s voice actress, and a new perspective on Life is Strange, the series is still unequivocally what fans have come to know and love – just amplified and refined, cranked up to eleven through its protagonists’ volatile and exciting relationship.