Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1 Review

Life is Strange was the cult classic of 2015; a story about growing up, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, learning to cope with both the everyday mundane and the horrors of the world, all while trying to sustain friendships and stay true to one’s self as one grows up. It was an absolutely amazing game. Cut from the same cloth as modern surrealistic media like Twin Peaks and Stranger Things, what started out as the life of an artistic teenage girl turned into a twisting supernatural world filled with mystical elements, horrible consequences, and death. It was an amazing game and one that I often find myself jumping back to on occasion, despite having played it altogether too much already.

2017 brought about a two-fold announcement for those interested in the series; a sequel, made by the same developers who made the original game (Dontnod Entertainment), and a prequel, developed by Deck Nine. Formerly known as Idol Minds, Deck Nine was responsible for games such as Pain, Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, and the Cool Boarders series. Going from those titles to a series focused on story telling and strong character development is a drastic change of pace from their usual fare, and I was definitely interested in learning more.

Before the Storm started with a bit of controversy before the game was released, however. The long and short of it is that SAG-AFTRA, the guild for voice actors, issued a strike to protect its workers in the industry. Ashly Burch, the original voice actress for Chloe (Max’s best friend and protagonist of Before the Storm), did not provide voice overs for the game since she was involved with the union. Deck Nine decided to hire a scab instead, actress Rhianna DeVries, to provide Chloe’s voice. This left a sour taste in my mouth, as it did for others, but the decision was already made. Burch stayed on the project as a consultant and writer, much to the relief of many.

So, the big question, after all is said and done, is this: does it work?

Episode 1, Awake, introduces us to a 16-year-old Chloe Price, three years before we first met her in Life is Strange. This Chloe is still experiencing the rawness of her father’s death while trying to cope with dealing with her mother’s authoritarian boyfriend David, her friend Max leaving Arcadia Bay, and the usual stresses and complications of teenage life. Chloe is rebellious, rude, and just does not give a damn for any rules or authority. I won’t ruin her introduction to the episode, but it sums her character up nicely.

The game immediately puts you in a situation to test Chloe’s mettle: getting into a 21+ concert as a teen. We’re immediately introduced to Chloe’s special gimmick for the game: Backtalk. Unlike Max’s powers to rewind time in LiS, Chloe harnesses the power of her give-no-shits attitude and snark to persuade/intimidate people to get her way. We’re given a trial run with a brief tutorial on how to use this “power”; it’s not a bad setup. If you’ve ever played Monkey Island and had to engage in an insult battle, it’s a similar principle; if you haven’t, you’re essentially playing “match the words” to what your antagonist is saying to trip them up. As a game-wide mechanic, it works fairly well; we see aspects of Chloe’s personality through these choices, and it’s fairly effective in twisting people around to see your point of view. Whether or not you’ve made the correct choice in using Backtalk is a different story, however…

The rest of the game plays out with you as Chloe, living her life in a typical day… more or less. After a particular event happens at the concert, Chloe’s life is suddenly changed, and the direction her life takes is altered drastically. We meet Chloe’s mom, the exasperated Joyce; David, Joyce’s veteran boyfriend; a handful of students from Blackwell Academy (including a couple of younger versions of characters from LiS), and, of course, Rachel Amber.

Rachel, the deuteragonist of the game, becomes the catalyst of change for Chloe. She becomes quickly attached to our sullen teen and they bond quickly over the course of the day, despite some serious setbacks. We ride a train with some picturesque views to nowhere, swipe some wine from innocent picnickers, see something we weren’t meant to, get into a hella fight, and somehow manage to resolve at least one of those things by the end of the day, which also concludes the episode.

 

There were a number of nice touches throughout the game that I thought was excellent. Sharp-eyed gamers will notice little hints of foreshadowing, pointing to events that will eventually occur in LiS. Where LiS had Max’s reclusion and thoughts, Chloe can choose to “ponder”, “sit”, or “smoke” at certain places throughout Arcadia Bay, revealing some of her inner thoughts and more of her personality. There are also a small set of “collectibles” that you can poke around and find as well; instead of taking pictures as Max did, Chloe can graffiti certain locations in the game, unlocking achievements (and she’s quite the artist, at that). You can choose to engage in a small variety of activities, including a completely-optional D&D-type mini game that was absolutely fetching. There’s a lot in the game that works.

Arguably the biggest plus of the game is Chloe and her characterization. She tries to be tough-as-nails and be as off-putting as possible, but the facade is easily seen through by all of the adults in her life, and a few of the more perceptive students, including Rachel. It’s easy to forget that, underneath all of her bravado and attitude, there’s a young woman who is trying to cope with some very serious issues of grief and abandonment, and she’s not doing a very good job of it. It’s a testament to DeVries’ skills as a voice actress that she’s able to show such range with Chloe’s varying and turbulent emotions. Additionally, her character model is wonderful, especially when it comes to her facial expressions; sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, and always very well done.

Another big standout of the game is the sound design and score. The developers and sound team should absolutely be recognized for their work; subtle fade-ins/outs, nice use of Doppler effect, and wonderful ambient noises are peppered throughout the game, really making me feel as if I was there. The score was by Daughter, an indie band from England, and it fits right into the game perfectly. They’re a little indie, a little edgy – in short, all Chloe. One of the highlights of the original game was the musical score and selection, and I think Daughter & Deck Nine really managed to find a sweet spot for Chloe’s life.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all smooth sailing for Before the Storm.  There were a number of issues that immediately stood out to me which, while they didn’t ruin the overall experience, bothered me enough that I believe they’re worth noting.

The character models vary in quality: while I expect a great deal of focus to be on Chloe (and her model is nice), the other characters can range from anywhere between “okay” to “kinda flat looking”. Some of the movement can be janky and stiff, which throws me away from the immersion. The varying quality in character models is especially noticeable when comparing Rachel to Chloe – there’s a difference between the two that is difficult for me to exactly pinpoint, but feels very “off”.

Speaking of Rachel, I think Deck Nine put a little too much of everything into her character; she’s a rebel, an angel, a stellar student, an actress – she’s a little bit of something to everyone. She’s a teenager with deep introspection and insight into the human condition, and while this is handwaved as “my father is the DA and I’ve grown up around lies”, I don’t believe she has enough experience in the world to really make these kinds of connections yet. She comes across to me as a little *too* perfect when she’s in an environment surrounded by people with character flaws. She obviously has her issues, and these are explored a bit in the game, but she’s more or less put on this pedestal that makes her a little too untouchable. Additionally, her relationship with Chloe is developed entirely too quickly; they almost immediately establish a deep connection that should take some time to develop. The pacing of their relationship seems rushed, as if to say “look at how perfect they are together! They immediately connected!” We know via the previous game that Chloe and Rachel have a deep connection and love for each other, but setting them up in this way is a touch too forced.

While I praised DeVries’ voice acting skills earlier, it’s not without some flaws. Chloe’s “voice” can vary greatly, sometimes throughout the same sentence, and I’m not sure if that was intentional (puberty), or not. She can provide a great performance, but there have been occasions (particularly when speaking with Joyce and David) where her voice and enunciations were flat and dry.

There are also a handful of technical issues that haven’t yet been resolved. The biggest issue for me has been the lack of controller support; at the time of this review, my Logitech Gamepad F310 was not recognized by the game. There are a couple of unofficial fixes suggested by the Steam Discussion forum for the game, but neither of them worked for me. Others have reported numerous crashes or glitches, but I’ve yet to experience those problems.

 

With everything I experienced, can I say that I had a good time? Honestly, yes. I had a great time exploring Chloe’s life, and comparing and contrasting her to my experience with Max. I suspect that some of my concerns about characterization may be addressed in the remaining two episodes (three, if you count the extra fourth episode with Chloe and Max included in the Deluxe Edition).  If you enjoyed Life is Strange, particularly the music and characters, you’ll find more of the same to love here. And with the next episode about 2 months away, there’s plenty of time to get caught up if you’ve yet to play Life is Strange or this first episode.

Overall: Recommended, at the moment. This will be updated as subsequent episodes are released.

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