Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode One review: You can go home again
Arcadia Bay is just as enthralling the second time around.
Confession time: the original Life is Strange is one of my favourite games of all time. Max Caulfield's messy return to Arcadia Bay resonated with me like no game ever has, touching on topics like depression and isolation that hit incredibly close to home. I related to Max on a level I never had with a video game protagonist, and I'm not ashamed to admit that there were moments in Life is Strange that had me close to tears.
Despite this, when I first saw the announcement for Life is Strange: Before the Storm (PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC), I was kind of disappointed. First, it was going to be a prequel - a narrative conceit that too often falls flat (Star Wars: Episode I, anybody?). Second, it would focus on Chloe Price, Max's childhood friend who made for a compelling wild-card counterpart to Max's level-headedness but didn't seem like the best candidate for a game of her own. And finally, original developer Dontnod was handing the reins off to Deck Nine, a studio previously known for the PS3 ragdoll game Pain and the PS3 port of the Ratchet and Clank Collection. All in all, not exactly a recipe for success.
Nevertheless, my love for the world of Arcadia Bay eventually got the better of me and I decided to give the first episode of the three-part prequel a shot. Man, am I glad I did. After a shaky start, Life is Strange: Before the Storm proves itself to be every bit as riveting as its predecessor. Deck Nine, you're hella cool in my books.
Set three years prior to the events of the first game, Before the Storm explores the period after Max moved from her hometown of Arcadia Bay to Seattle, leaving Chloe to cope with her father's tragic death alone. Without diving into spoiler territory, Chloe meets up with Rachel Amber, the girl whose disappearance in the original Life is Strange formed such a major part of its narrative.
In Episode One of Before the Storm at least, this setup serves as a springboard for a more intimate tale than the previous game. There's no paranormal threat causing whales to wash up on the beach and birds to fall out of the sky, no sadistic villain on the loose kidnapping innocent girls to satisfy his perverted desires. Instead, the story focuses on Chloe and Amber's relationship, following them as they go from complete strangers to awkward companions to something… more.
The way Before the Storm explores the awkwardness of a new relationship is absolutely spot-on. Chloe finds herself thrust into unfamiliar situations where her only anchor is a fragile connection to a person she met barely a day before. Confused and frightened, Chloe constantly second-guesses her actions even as she attempts to come off as the cool and collected rebel her reputation pains her as. It's a scenario I remember all-too well from my time at high school, and small details like Chloe's conflicted body language and periods of extended silence sell the awkwardness perfectly.
One of my favourite ways Before the Storm captures the fear of forging a new relationship is with its reflection sequences. Scattered throughout the game's various scenes, there are places where Chloe can sit and soak in her surroundings. There were a few such moments in the first game, but they're far more plentiful here, and Chloe uses them as a chance to probe her current state of mind. Chilling on a park bench high up on a mountain trail, she worries that her whirlwind adventure with Rachel is going too well, that she's going to end up over-thinking it and ruin the moment by leaning into it too hard. Like so much of Before the Storm's depiction of nascent relationships, it's eminently relatable and easy to empathise with.
There are countless more touching moments I'd love to share, but to do so would spoil the joy of experiencing them first-hand. Suffice to say, I feel as connected with Chloe as I did with Max - and that's some of the highest praise I could offer.
Outside of the stellar story, special mention should also go to Before the Storm's new "Backtalk" system. With Chloe lacking the time-rewinding powers Max possessed, she turns to her sharp tongue to get her out of (or into) trouble. In certain dialogue sequences, Chloe can engage in verbal sparring with her conversation partner.
This takes the form of a surprisingly engaging mini-game where you have to pick the wittiest retort to your opponent's statement. You only have a short time to make your decision, and you need to pay attention to the specific words the other person uses so you can turn them back against them. For example, if Chloe's faced with an authority figure demanding respect, she can point out that respect has to be earned - and they most certainly haven't earned it.
It's remarkably satisfying to see Chloe tear her foes a new one with her silver tongue, and it feels like a natural extension of her rebellious personality. Here's hoping Deck Nine explores the Backtalk mechanic even more in episodes two and three.
If you can't already tell, I loved the first episode of Before the Storm, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention its shaky start. Chloe's first scenes in the spotlight are plagued by hit-and-miss writing that tries to sound "cool" but only comes off as lame and forced. Several conversations seem more like two people engaging in simultaneous monologues, and these stand in stark contrast to the excellent dialogue between Chloe and Rachel later in the episode. Still, if you can make it through to Chloe's arrival at Blackwell Academy and the absolutely fantastic D&D scene there (seriously, do not turn down the chance to take part in any RPG campaigns you may or may not stumble into), everything from then on is pure Life is Strange bliss.
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