Prequel Quells Concerns
Game: Life Is Strange: Before The Storm Episode 1: Awake
Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
Let me start by immediately saying that in just one episode Deck Nine have successfully allayed many of the fears that immediately struck me when I first heard that a prequel to Life Is Strange was on its way. Not only was I concerned because Life Is Strange is one of my favourite games of the last decade, but said prequel also wasn’t even being developed by original creators DontNod, but by a completely separate studio. Thankfully in the first portion of Before The Storm, the new team have done a great job at bringing Arcadia Bay back to life. Not a perfect job, but a very good one nonetheless.
We get to play as rebellious outsider Chloe Price this time around (instead of the quiet, introvert Max) three years before the fateful events of the first game. Chloe is suffering from the raw wounds of her father’s death in a car accident, the loss of her best friend and a deteriorating relationship with her mother, and the life she was once comfortable in is now starting to fall apart. Rachel Amber, however, is introduced as a light in the darkness. Despite her problems, Chloe has a new friendship blossoming with the mysterious Rachel whom we never got to meet in Life Is Strange, despite her still playing a big part.
Whereas the relationship between Max and Chloe was key previously, now the one between Chloe and Rachel drives everything forward. Their dynamic is instantly compelling, and we want to see how things develop; despite knowing the ending of their story, just what did happen to get them to that point? The start of the episode feels somewhat ponderous, but thankfully things intensify towards the end, as Awake manages to cleverly weave together both new and existing story points to form an intriguing web, whilst also managing to create a truly warm and exciting emotional connection between the two central characters.
Throughout the episode, we revisit several familiar locations, such as Blackwell Academy, the ominous Junk Yard and Chloe’s family home – as well as exploring some entirely new ones. There are also a selection of returning characters, all of who feel important in the story, rather than just being shoehorned in. What is immediately apparent is that the atmosphere of the first game has been recreated deftly – everything feels familiar, even though there are a whole new set of relationships and events to explore.
The way in which you decide to play as Chloe will help her character develop far more fully than she was ever allowed in the original title – making her feel like a much more well-rounded creation. Even when she is angry or frustrated, we get a much clearer window into her mind, to see the motivations behind the person she becomes. These elements are quite fascinating to the returning fan, and the way that Deck Nine have scripted her development seems very clever so far. In another welcome move, facial animations have even been improved, allowing for more expressive characters – helping lend extra weight to the emotional impact of key scenes.
We only ever saw the friendship between Max and Chloe from one point of view, but now being able to see how their friendship grew apart from the opposite perspective is a sad and sobering experience which actually allows players to bond more with the new leading lady. Chloe still has obvious feelings of rejection and anger simmering below the surface, and when playing as her, they feel all the more justified. Her anger comes out in the gameplay through the new Talkback feature. Whilst the absence of Max means that time travel isn’t an option, Chloe can use her quick-wit and sharp tongue to try and talk her way out of, or into, certain situations.
You will need to choose your words wisely, as without the option to rewind time it is far easier to make a mistake and talk yourself into trouble. There are no absolute dead-ends in the episode, but the shadow of actions “having consequences” will always weigh upon you, leaving you to wonder if you could have handled certain situations better. Sadly the Backtalk feature is nowhere near as interesting a mechanic as the time winding was. True, it fits well with what we know about Chloe’s personality, but it feels a lot less like an actual game without the time travel, and Awake does feel a bit like a visual novel at times; a choose your own adventure for Millennials.
On the whole however, Deck Nine have done a commendable job at taking us back into the game world that DontNod first created. I always felt like I was playing an authentic Life Is Strange game, from the perfectly-chosen Alt-Rock soundtrack, to the teenage dialogue that is sometimes a little clunky. It managed to hit a few strong emotional notes, whilst also leaving a lot of questions unanswered. Awake begins a bit slowly and takes some time to really get into its emotional swing, but the foundations are definitely laid for this three-episode mini series. Our knowledge of where Chloe and Rachel both end up of course hangs over the entire series, but it seems like Deck Nine have plenty of twists up their sleeve yet