The prequel season of Life is Strange gets off to a fitting start as Chloe heads out to The Mill - an old, worn down place where a band called Firewalk is playing that very night. Within minutes we tag some graffiti at the back of an RV, backtalk our way past a bouncer, get into an altercation with two scary-looking dudes, and meet the mysterious Rachel Amber, the missing girl from the original game (Life is Strange's answer to Twin Peak's Laura Palmer) and Chloe's soon to be best friend (or maybe more?).
With original developer Dontnod Entertainment busy working on a sequel, a new narrative adventure with Bandai Namco, and the action-adventure Vampyr, publisher Square Enix tasked Colorado-based Deck Nine Games (formerly Idol Minds) with developing a three-part prequel season, set three years before the original Life is Strange and focused on the relationship between Chloe Price and Rachel Amber, which is a premise that makes sense. Knowing what happens later we get to experience why Rachel meant so much to Chloe and what made her the person she is when Max meets her at Blackwell years later. But while the premise makes sense it also feels a bit odd to the player who played through the original. Without spoiling anything, you're going to have different feelings towards Chloe going in, and it wasn't without a slight sense of guilt that this reviewer began the adventure.
Deck Nine has managed to capture the visual language of Life is Strange, and although there are some changes, as the backdrops for example have a more painterly feel, overall it feels like the Arcadia Bay and Pacific northwest we grew to love a couple of years ago, which will no doubt be appreciated by fans of the series.
It's not easy to follow in the steps of giants, but Deck Nine has done a solid job so far of working within the same concept established by Dontnod, while sprinkling in some changes at the same time. It doesn't feel as innovative, since it lacks the rewind mechanic or an equivalent, but it still manages to give us lots of hard choices, and succeeds in making us give hella fucks about someone who is at a collegiate level of giving zero fucks.
The first episode is clearly meant to primarily establish Chloe, her home situation, her school situation, and create a bond with Rachel, but this also means the episode is a bit lacking in terms of direction and drama. There's no ominous storm coming to Arcadia Bay, no impending doom, just the troubled life of a teenager who lost a parent and isn't dealing with it in the most healthy of ways, and given this lack of a major conflict, it's the relationship between Chloe and Rachel that takes centre stage. After having played this first episode, we're a bit conflicted about Rachel, as at first it felt a bit contrived how everyone was talking to Chloe about Rachel, but towards the end of the episode when Rachel opened up and we got to know her a little, it felt more grounded. Hopefully the season will make us care about Rachel just as much as Chloe does at the start of Life is Strange.
In many ways, it was the things to the side that entertained us the most in Before the Storm's first episode. There's a great scene, for example, where you play a table-top game with Steph and Mikey, and it's a chance to soften up Chloe's persona or have her be just as cold and blasé towards her nerdy friends. We also liked how text conversations played out and just how the menus, Chloe's letter to Max, and other such things were presented. Another neat touch is how Chloe's current objective is written on her hand, a totally Chloe thing to do. It's easy to see a lot of care went into this part of the presentation, and the first episode also provided us with several opportunities to zone out, listen to music and such, with the soundtrack being very good once again. Perhaps it isn't as memorable as in Life is Strange, with more rock than before, but it's still interesting, different, and something that provides the game with a character of its own.
Without the time mechanic, there's a new mechanic in play called "backtalk", where Chloe can resolve a conflict using witty comebacks. It's a neat way of actually making her attitude manifest in gameplay, but it's also perhaps not as dynamic as we would have hoped, as it basically just plays out as a dialogue tree where there's a fail state.
One thing that we relish about Before the Storm is the old characters we run into. Whether it's Joyce and David (step-douche), Nathan or Victoria, or even Frank, it's interesting to see where these figures are now in their lives. We also get to learn more about Chloe's father, William, this time from Chloe's own perspective, and all of this works to inform our understanding of how these lives played out in the first game.
In some ways, it's a little hard to shake the feeling that this season was invented more to bridge the gap between the release of the original and its sequel and to let players go back to Arcadia Bay, which a sequel most likely won't allow for, but if you disregard this you'll see a very interesting game in its own right. The first episode is a little slow, though we got to see some indication towards the end of where the major drama may lie, and naturally, Rachel is at the centre of this. With the season just spanning three episodes, we're interested to see how this continues after a relatively slow start and its many set ups. There's a lot of promise here, but we're still a bit unsure.