…Sorry! I was just thinking of back in 2015. Back when it seemed Telltale had locked down the episodic choose-your-own-adventure genre by riffing off established IPs to tell new tales within the universe. Then Dontnod Entertainment swaggered in, thumbs in its trouser’s belt loops and stormed the scene with Life is Strange. Sure, it ended disappointingly, but it still came out the blue to dominate the genre with its humanistic writing, quirky choice mechanics and thoughtful discussions of complex subjects. I really do adore it.
So, when a prequel was announced, I was cautiously excited (I mean, could they really do it again?). When I found out it was another developer, and that an episode was only in a deluxe version, I was upset. I mean, Life is Strange was a pretty surprising achievement, could a developer whose most noteable recent work was a PS3 port of Ratchet & Clank Collection and Ratchet: Deadlocked write to the same standard? While perhaps not precisely to the same high standard, Life is Strange: Before the Storm does come close with its unique interpretation of the Life is Strange IP that leaves me raring for more.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is an episodic choose-your-own-adventure walk-n-prod title, where choices come with consequences. Set before Life is Strange (last chance before minor spoilers…Coming…Coming…), you play as 16-year-old Chloe two years before the events of Life is Strange as she befriends the currently-not-missing-or-dead Rachel Amber. The change in protagonist and time is not the only new folk around here, as Deck Nine is the developer this time around (replacing DONTNOD who did the original Life is Strange) and Chloe has been recast (due to a voice actor strike).
A new developer and new protagonist comes bearing the gift of a new mechanic. Gone are the days of playing with time; that’s old-hat and only came in after the storm. Instead, Chloe’s “special power” is being a gobshite. Sometimes she may be able to force people to back down by throwing what they’re saying back into their face, cherry picking their response depending on keywords by the opposition. It feels like it is a form of “verbal combat” that characterizes Chloe, offers time-pressure that isn’t just a QTE and fits within the conversation-dialogue format.
That said, I do have a little nit picking to do. Unfortunately, the difficulty for the backtalk feels a little easy. It always presents three options with one that feels clearly the right one. Maybe by fortune, I never failed once. Before the Storm’s version of difficulty was to make it less forgiving, giving the opposition less successes needed to win, rather than making the correct retort more obscure. Something that didn’t make things harder, but instead more potentially frustrating.
There is also a danger in presenting multiple choices and one requiring a backtalk challenge. I swear, if a game required me to work for my bad ending I’d go for it first. I’m hard-wired to travel the harder road, just because the fallacy that more effort automatically equates to a better pay off. So I picked options that usually I’d say no to just because of the backtalk attachment.
Speaking of choices, let’s talk of agency. Unfortunately, your choices seem to affect little. On one hand, Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a prequel; most of it is predetermined due to the events of Life is Strange. However, it is weird just how little your choices matter. Apologizing or telling someone to play in traffic still leads to a fight. Trying to show respect or trying to be honest leads to similar rabbit holes. Even wanting to be friends or something more leads to the same emotional moment. While there are two more episodes to go to show consequence (something an after-ending scene hints of), it is a shame I don’t feel much agency in this episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
That said, let’s get into where the meat of the marks lie: Writing. Fortunately, this is the episode’s strongest part by a long shot. Without spoiling what happens, episode 1 of Life is Strange: Before the Storm manages to flesh out and bounce off the original series. It nails the heart-felt Garden State feeling of the original, delivering the quaint charm people know-and-love, while also realizing it is about a very angry and upset 16 year old girl who finds a friend/partner. The episode not only expands on some parts of Chloe’s life the original Life is Strange glossed over, but also lends more depth to a frustrated teenager dealing with the loss of her father. This is also a three hour long episode, which in episodic circles is rather chunky.
My only grumble with the narrative is Rachel Amber feels a little too perfect. The popular girl with the rebel spirit who seemingly selflessly reaches out to the school outcast. I have a theory or two about Rachel having an ulterior motive, but as shown it feels like Deck Nine risks creating a character who is flawless and idealised almost to the point of being two-dimensional. If Rachel will begin to become as deep as Chloe is, even just in this episode, is something that’ll have to be seen.
The final score for Awake, the first episode of Deck Nine’s Life is Strange: Before the Storm, is an 8/10. If the backtalk mechanic was a little more polished, the choices holding more agency and Rachel Amber a little less two-dimensional, this episode would have been looking at an easy 9. After all, writing wise, it delivers what I wanted (i.e. a heart-felt tale about a frustrated female teenager finding a friend) and then goes beyond with plenty of charm, a lovely episode length and as a cherry on top has a mechanic that personalizes its protagonist. I hope episode two and three, Brave New World and Hell is Empty, escalate things and end up just as good as Life is Strange‘s episodes three or four (maybe with some commentary akin to those episodes). Perhaps unlikely considering how good those episodes were (and the topics those episodes handled), but then again life is strange.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
- Skilled writing that bounces off the original story but adds its own flavour
- 3 hour episode
- A lot of charm
- Mini game is an interesting twist
- A little on the linear side, partially due to being a prequel
- Mini game can encourage some behaviours over others
- Mini game can be a bit easy