Life is Strange: Before The Storm – Episode One: Awake PS4 Review
“Awake,” Episode One of “Before The Storm,” Life is Strange’s prequel sidestory, delves into the life of someone once out of reach and mysterious – Rachel Amber. It’s a venturous move to make for the narrative adventure series as that air of mystery she had during the original Dontnod penned episodes, released over the course of 2015, gave her an air of importance. Now, in late 2017 we get to know more about her – even though most never asked. With the choice made to reveal the secrets she once held, something substantial must take their place. Thankfully, new developers at the reins, the Colorado based Deck Nine, have good ideas. We now know Rachel Amber is a growing teenager tackling the problems life throws her way. That does not sound too exciting, but it is simple, relatable, and most importantly, it works.
Before Rachel enters the frame we’re swiftly reintroduced to the rebellious tendencies of the once self titled sidekick – who’s now our new protagonist – Chloe Price. She may be a tad younger than the last time we met, but still has an inclination to give any-and-all authority figures a two-fingered salute. She has reasons for lashing out, as she’s coping with loss in its various forms. It has hit both her friends and family, and she is working through the broad spectrum of emotions that brings to the forefront of your life. Loss seems to be a running theme at the core of this episode (and likely series), as almost everyone you encounter is missing an aspect of their life that would make them more complete. Life is Strange is still willing to approach the darker facets of life head on. That is good to see – even if it is sometimes painful to digest.
Chloe’s rebellious attitude is backed up by gameplay mechanics as well. Unlike the original, where you had control of a quizzical Max Caulfield (who also happened to be a burgeoning time traveler), Chloe lacks any fantastical supernatural power to aid her. With no time travel to fall back on, she has the less fancy ability to get into an argument with most people she talks to. In game this pseudo-skill is called a “Backtalk Challenge,” where dialogue options are used to throw insults and argue to get what you want. Initially this can feel like a clumsy minigame slapped atop a narrative adventure, but as the game progressed I began to appreciate it more. Later interactions showcase the mechanic with greater aplomb, hastily losing the minigame moniker and beginning to fit with the context of the rest of the game.
Personally, I felt these challenges are not to be seen as a direct replacement for time travel but a more fitting inclusion for Chloe. Time travel was a match for Max as she felt unsure of herself. Having the chance to reevaluate the choices she made suited her somewhat mousey personality. Chloe is usually a more bullish character than Max so arguing suits her well.
Chloe was always a person who needed saving (many, many times…), but rarely came across as vulnerable. Perhaps she was scared to show that side of herself to Max? When in the company of the correct people she is less afraid of that emotion here. Sometimes she responds tepidly, in case she says something wrong. It’s interesting to see the nervous side of Chloe, and contrast it with who she grew up to be three years later. This side of Chloe is also the one willing to accept love, which might actually be the most supernatural ability of them all.
Although Awake deals primarily in how experiencing loss can affect a person it’s also very much about that aforementioned love, and how differing people, experiencing similar issues, can form a bond. It’s most emotionally impactful scenes are tender moments as Chloe and Rachel get to know each other, and struggle to find the right words to express themselves. Rachel is certainly the more confident of the duo but still has her own problems to deal with. We know Chloe and Rachel’s story does not have a happy ending, so enjoying their happy moments with them is bittersweet. Nevertheless, it is heartwarming to see something this real, refreshing, and simple getting airtime.
Like Max, Chloe journals her thoughts as the episode progresses – which players can pause to read at any time. Many of the early entries see her take an antagonistic tone towards Max, who Chloe believes abandoned her for adventures in Seattle. Other entries are much more intimate, with Chloe pondering her own sexuality, wondering if she gets more aroused by Deckard or Pris from Blade Runner.
It’s worth noting a large swath of the characters have had their voice actors recast this time around – which stems from an actors strike taking place during development of the game. The new actors do their job well, and their only failing is that they are not the old actors. Regretfully, for an emotional series, with a highly invested fanbase, any change, even if it is well intentioned, cannot be perfectly executed. Before The Storm makes the best of this bad situation, and even the biggest change – losing Ashly Burch as the voice of Chloe – was not as offputting as I feared after becoming accustomed to the new voice.
Life is Strange always had a dry sense of humor, and it is still on show here – perhaps even better executed than before. Chloe asks “Where do those stairs go…” Only to get the answer “…up.” It got a chuckle out of me. These little jokes continue as the game progresses, but not all are part of the main narrative. Like the original, extra story detail, narrative foreshadowing, and other visual niceties can be seen if you dig around in locations long enough. For those unafraid to take things slow one of the more interesting chats with side characters lets you play through a dungeons and dragons-esque board game, with a wordy improv script and detailed figures. Sure, you can run through environments if you wish, and only talk to the people the game makes you, which will cut away huge chunks of playtime, or choose to revel in taking in the many environmental details and extra dialogue to get a better understanding of the overall story.
Licensed music makes a comeback with “No Below by Speedy Ortiz” being the standout track this time around. All songs used fit in well, giving many scenes an added tone of importance. Licensed music will probably make Let’s Players panic and freak out over copyright strikes, but hopefully it does not scare them too much. Watching Life is Strange Let’s Plays is important. I need to feed off the emotions and tears of others!
Before The Storm looks set to be a thorough examination of the character of Chloe Price, with an eye to inform players of the journey to what she became three years later. Choosing to peel back the layers of Chloe was not something I ever thought the character needed, but in hindsight is seems to be the perfect tale to tell fans wanting more of that world. Like previous episodes, Life is Strange might not always hit the perfect note at every turn, but I felt it was a series that always did right by its characters. Before The Storm, well the first episode at least, continues this streak of creating well rounded likable characters worth caring about. One episode in and I am already fully invested.
Like Chrysalis, Awake once again feels like the beginning of something great. It is referential for sure, it has to be, but it’s never wholly reliant on what came before. This is a markedly assured debut for new developer Deck Nine, who have confidently executed the core elements that made the original so well liked, but also put their own spin on the world to weave a new tale. Before The Storm is set to be a nostalgic trip back to a home away from home that many thought they’d never get to visit again. I’m delighted to once again be part of this world – if only for a little while.