Writing prequels to a story is tricky. On the one hand, you have to take details from various backstory clues and try to weave them together without contradicting the existing story we already know. On the other hand, you still have to tell a story with its own beginning, middle, and end. If you don’t do this right, you get the Star Wars prequels. If you do it well, you get a compelling tale like Better Call Saul or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
I’d also put Life is Strange: Before the Storm in this latter category. It’s a compelling look into the past of Arcadia Bay through characters we all know and love.
In Episode 1: “Awake,” we meet Chloe Price at age 16, as she sneaks out at night to attend a Firewalk concert outside the town limits. A sudden encounter with some local toughs and Rachel Amber changes her life forever. Rather than face the ugly truth of her mother Joyce dating David Madsen, or her decline in school attendance at Blackwell Academy, Chloe latches onto the elusive Rachel. Of course, mysteries love to stack onto each other, and this first episode ties together the girls’ fate with their relationships to their respective fathers. For Chloe, it’s about confronting her father’s untimely demise, and for Rachel, it’s dealing with a parent who wasn’t what he seemed to be.
When I first played Life is Strange back in 2014, I didn’t love Chloe Price as a character. But in the episodes that followed, she grew on me. In Before the Storm, I’ve actually come to enjoy playing Chloe as a protagonist over Max. The key difference, I think, is that Max could be easily shaped by how you rewound time and what choices you did or didn’t make. Here, Chloe always has an agenda. She always has a way to get things done, but it’s more of a question if she’ll be quiet and then subvert the System later, or if she’ll get in someone’s face with sarcasm and a few keen insights. It makes Chloe stand out more, even while she’s burning bridges with the principal and making good impressions with the local D&D nerds (and by the way, did you know you can play a short Dungeons & Dragons game in Episode 1?).
On a meta level, I also respect the fact that Chloe Price isn’t being voiced by Ashly Burch, owing to the SAG-AFTRA strike. I love that Miss Burch is still involved as a writing consultant who can bring Chloe back to life, and I think Rhianna DeVries does a fine job as her vocal successor.
Meanwhile, we get a closer look at who Rachel Amber is and what makes her tick. I must say, if you’ve ever played or heard of the fan-made game Love is Strange, then I think you won’t be surprised at how similar their interpretation of Rachel is to the real deal. Or, at least, that’s how I see it. Rachel likes being an enigma, but I get the sense that she’s playing it up to cover for something deep and painful—not unlike how Chloe plays up the deliquent factor to mask her abandonment issues (which we get to see in dream sequences and one heartbreaking junkyard scene).
Besides the character depth we get to explore for both Chloe and Rachel, I love the new mechanics in this series. While Max’s time rewind powers were fun to play with, I also found them very stressful and sometimes they clashed with the plot. Instead, what we get with Chloe is Backtalk and Graffiti. With Backtack Challenges, you can basically shut down an argument with someone else through skillful wit and sarcasm. And, of course, like with any choice in Life is Strange, “there will be consequences.” Except, here, the consequences feel like they mean something now. There’s no way to undo it when Chloe loses an argument. She just has to move on.
And I love, love being able to write graffiti wherever I can. Seriously, I know it can be difficult to develop, but I’d love to see more games that let me change around the environment like this. Even if it has nothing to do with the actual story content, it’s just a fun little exercise.
I don’t think Before the Storm is a perfect game (the constant AMD driver crashes on my end certainly didn’t help me with the gameplay experience), but I find it’s an improvement over some of the criticisms leveled at the original Life is Strange. Chloe’s character arc is compelling, her interactions with Rachel and other students are meaningful, and there’s room for all kinds of plot development and new game mechanics in the next two episodes. It’s amazing how a little jaunt into the past can sometimes open up a bright new future.
Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: August 31, 2017.