I keep it no secret that I wasn't a fan of the first Life Is Strange. Despite its earnest intentions, I could never look past the clumsy, embarrassing dialogue. Luckily with its prequel—developed by a new team that isn't Dontnod, now under Deck Nine's gaze—a lot of my misgivings about the original are (mostly) sidestepped. But as with the Life Is Strange mantra, it still has some major stumbles.
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm is a prequel to the main series. Now the angsty Chloe is the star instead of Max, and gone are the rewind powers known in the original game. Chloe isn't wholly familiar though, she's younger (16) and she's got a new voice actress backing her (but worry not, she captures Chloe's anarchic spirit just as well, and even sounds eerily like original voice actress Ashly Burch too).
Just as I felt when playing the original game, Before the Storm's opening made me feel a lot of second-hand embarrassment. The opening shot sees Chloe standing in front of a moving train, only to skip out in the nick of time. This is Chloe in her early rebellious stage, sneaking out of her house, hiking an hour in the wilderness to a middle-of-nowhere venue to catch the band Firewalk. (A pretty obvious Twin Peaks reference, if you ask me.) She hops over a fence, only to turn around and flip it off... like teenagers do? When she arrives, she has to concoct a way to sneak into the 21-and-up concert, before finding herself graffiting the back end of an RV with only a Sharpie. Then she approaches the bouncer, thinking she can talk her way into the concert.
Good news: she totally can, with a special ability on her side. Instead of the ability to rewind and see different outcomes of choices as with the original Life Is Strange, in Before the Storm Chloe is outfitted with a special "Backtalk" ability. Backtalk is almost like a mini-combat system. You pay attention to what the other person is saying, choose a hint of dialogue that's at least somewhat related, and reframe it as an insult to fling back in their faces. It rewards clever players who pay attention, and it's never overly abundant in the game so it's a nice mini-challenge when the chance pops up. It also feels authentic to Chloe's character, just as the rewind ability felt perfectly tuned to the feelings of uncertainty and nervousness that often clouded Max.
Before the Storm has an awkward start as Chloe fumbles her way through an unrealistic "punk" venue and her chance first-genuine encounter with Rachel Amber (the missing girl who jumpstarts the central mystery of Life Is Strange) just sorta happens—she pipes in after a dude threatens Chloe with a broken bottle, then I had Chloe fight back while they were distracted, resulting in an edgy black eye on Chloe's behalf. Then Chloe and Rachel dance the night away, take a selfie, and move on with their lives. Seemingly.
It all feels incredibly rushed. Luckily, that odd pace doesn't stay for long. Soon you're prowling the grounds of the familiar Blackwell Academy, talking to familiar students like the ever-bitchy Victoria Chase. There's also new characters like Steph and Mikey, two fellow outcasts seen playing tabletop games far away from the rest of the school. Chloe joins them briefly, first only to borrow a copy of Blade Runner: The Director's Cut. (In Chloe's journal, she even notes that once when she was "rubbing one out" that Pris popped in her mind instead of Harrison Ford's Deckard. How prescient.) The three end up playing a round of a Dungeons & Dragons-esque campaign, an enjoyable romp that shows Chloe spouting her more silly, creative side as she makes up a character as they go along, rooted in the tabletop setting. It's a pleasant moment, one that feels like it's over far too soon unfortunately.
The game really gets rolling once Chloe meets Rachel Amber for real-real, and the two ditch class to hang out. Rachel convinces Chloe to hop onto a random train, and then the two are out in the world: stealing wine, spying on random people in the park, and so on. Their bond feels natural, just as Max's and Chloe's was. It's obvious that Chloe is yearning for attention. The wound of her dad passing away two years prior is still fresh, in addition to the fact that she doesn't get along with her mother's new boyfriend (again, a familiar face if you played the first game). Her best friend Max (the hero of the later game) has also ghosted her completely after moving far away.
While Chloe loves Max, she also seems to hate her during this time. Skimming through Chloe's phone, there's a whole lot of one-way messages sent her way. As someone's who has lost many friends as a kid since I moved around a lot, I relate to Chloe's anguish in this. It's a painful reality: one where Max has moved on in her life without Chloe's spot as her BFF, and she has to reckon with that. To help herself heal, Chloe writes one-way letters to Max, slotted in her own personal journal. "One day we'll read this and laugh," she suggests to an audience of one.
Then Rachel Amber comes along. Fiery, friendly, and able to engage with Chloe's darker side because she has one of her own, and it seems like she finally has someone.
Bad opening and occasional crummy dialogue aside, Before the Storm is shaping up to be a worthwhile entry in the Life Is Strange canon. Rachel Amber is moved from being an almost mythical presence. Instead, she's real and alive here, with baggage of her own. And just like Chloe, she needs someone.
Episode One: Awake of Before the Storm is a surprisingly promising entry for the short three-episode series. There's the right amount of callbacks to the series that made so many fans fall in love with Chloe and Max in the first place. While I still wish the dialogue wasn't as teenager cringe-y in a not-realistic way, there's far more of it this time around that plain isn't. Hell, even Chloe's eventual over-usage of "hella" is explained in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the future. For everyone who was worried about Before the Storm's authenticity under the reigns of a new developer: don't be.