Dontnod Entertainment did a wonderful job with Life is Strange. They weaved together an excellent narrative with many tough subjects and introduced genuinely interesting characters players sympathized with. While the series was enjoyable from start to finish, there was always one element that held it back: the protagonist's sidekick, Chloe Price. Despite story justification, she dragged down each episode with her everybody-hates-me attitude. It was this element that made entering Before the Storm worrisome. The game could have been a train wreck thanks to a terrible protagonist, but some changes made it an enjoyable journey.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a prequel series set three years before that will span three episodes and explores the story of Chloe and Rachel Amber, the “perfect” girl from Chloe's school. This story is referenced during Life is Strange, but in Before the Storm it is in full view, and players may see all the development of these characters and their bonds with each other.
It helps that Before the Storm has a more likeable Chloe. She clearly feels pain from the death of her father and from being abandoned, more or less, by Max, but we haven’t reached the point when Chloe will be put over the edge. For now she comes across as someone who doesn’t care but, deep down, still wants to. Her less whiny attitude in Before the Storm makes her more enjoyable to play as and see the life of.
Part of this is because Before the Storm’s developer, Deck Nine, cast a new voice actress for Chloe. The original voice actress, Ashley Burch, made Chloe whiny and unlikable. Her new voice actress, Rhianna DeVries, has more range. During moments of grief Chloe does not just sound whiny, and happy moments are genuinely powerful. There are less moments when you want to tell Chloe to shut up and you sympathize her. Near the episode’s conclusion is a notable scene that plays out perfectly. Awake has dramatic moments that build sympathy for Chloe by exploring her mindset, such as a moment where Chloe smashes a camera over frustration with Max.
Awake starts out at an old mill as Chloe heads out to see a band play. Chloe accidentally gets herself into trouble with some dangerous people but is saved by Rachel. After a night of drinking and dancing to the band, they cement the bond that carries them through the events of the episode as Chloe opens up and accepts Rachel as a friend and perhaps more.
The episode fleshes Rachel out as a character. Due to her situation in Life is Strange, we were unable to learn much about her. We heard slight recounts from Chloe but never got the full picture. It’s great to be front-and-center to the story and properly understand why Chloe was so attached to her.
The episode explores how Rachel is a girl of many faces: the intellectual actress at school and the rebellious party girl outside of school. The episode explores Chloe’s fascination with Rachel and how the two girls come to find so much meaning in each other. Considering that this bond will be the cornerstone of the series, it’s great that Deck Nine illustrates Rachel as an interesting character.
The draw between Chloe and Rachel is that they end up with similar stories. Their friendship seems more genuine than Max and Chloe’s because neither uses the other for personal gain. Chloe often wanted something from Max, but in Awake Chloe and Rachel are two girls who are hurting and need a friend.
The game does lighten up and show the joy of youth as characters play games like Dungeons and Dragons or two truths and a lie. These comic relief moments are where the game shines most. Some of the optional conversations are funny, like those had when playing Dungeons and Dragons. Chloe's responses to the game are hilarious.
Decision-making is more difficult as the game lacks Max’s rewind ability. Before the Storm takes a Telltale-like approach, forcing you to make decisions in the moment. Many of the choices in episode one of Before the Storm determine how open you are with Chloe, deciding whether she is shut off or open about her feelings. Although there are some choices that seem like they might cause problems for Chloe down the line, many don’t seem like they are going to affect much.
The unique new mechanic for Before the Storm are backtalk sequences. In these you must choose the correct responses to opponents’ dialogue. This is done by carefully listening to and selecting the comment that will best match what has been said. For example, when called a child you may respond about being at a playground. These tie into Chloe’s stubborn personality and fit the game well, though are used too often.
The Before the Storm series is off to a great start thanks to Awake. The episode did well to reacquaint us with the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay and Chloe, delivering many deep and surreal moments. Awake forms a better Chloe and succeeds in introducing Rachel. It also ends on a cliffhanger that promises a thrilling second episode.