Life is strange... to many of us. To Chloe Price--self-avowed delinquent and purposeful outcast--life seems distant since the tragic passing of her father. We first meet Chloe lighting her cigarette, staring down a train... a metaphor for the direction that her life has led to. In her attempt to distance herself from reality, Chloe finds solace in loud music, smoking up, and attempting to one-up her own left middle finger with her right. To players following her through Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, Deck Nine's sequel/prequel to Dontnod's 2015 instant classic Life Is Strange, Chloe's adolescent response to the whirlwind in her life is understandable, even familiar.
When Life Is Strange debuted in 2015, the Point & Click genre was experiencing somewhat of a renaissance due to Telltale Games episodic series, including The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. Life Is Strange offered a counterpoint to broader storylines in many other episodic P&Cs, instead weaving an intimate tapestry of the relationship between the shy Maxine and her friend Chloe as they face a physical maelstrom that served as a metaphor for the tumultuous emotions they (and we) feel during adolecence.
Deck Nine has taken the reins and created a story that (so far, since only the first episode, "Awake," has been released at the time of this review) stands on its own without relying on connections to the first. For those players worried that they have to play Life Is Strange first: don't be. Characters do reappear here, but any knowledge of them isn't necessary to follow the story. The more important question I found myself asking was whether Before The Storm could stand on its own without the (fully emotional) heart of the first, the innocently endearing Max Caulfield. So far, it seems to do just that.
It feels rather impossible to discuss Before The Storm without comparing it to its prequel/sequel. Much of what made that story so compelling was due to Max's wide-eyed innocence in contrast to Chloe's brash confidence. Here, we see Chloe in a different light, a bit more vulnerable since we now view the world through her eyes. She is clearly more broken than she led Max to believe, but most of us watching from outside understood that much of Chloe's bravado was a response to the tragedies that she faced. In many ways, Chloe's emotions mirror those of the now-absent Max, who lingers like a ghost over Before The Storm, just as the absent Rachel Amber did over Life Is Strange. Make no mistake, though: Rachel Amber is most definitely present in Before The Storm.
Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, like its predecessor, is foremost a story. In many ways, it is less of a game and more of an interactive story than similar P&Cs, including LiS. Chloe's "superpower" has always her hella good sass, and these are used in the story as time-limited backtalk challenges, where players must choose the best response to their adversary to demonstrate their cunning linguistics and win the argument. Other than these challenges, however, you remain primarily on autopilot, with much less ability to wander around your environment. Instead of simply observing and photographing your environment as Max did (and which Chloe comments about), you spread your wit around town with quick work of your graffiti marker. These, again, offer the only non-story based achievements.
A major strength of the first series was its indie rock soundtrack, providing as much of a soft backdrop to the story as did the forests of the Pacific Northwest. For this series, the soundtrack was composed by English trio Daughter, whose songs "Youth" and "Smother" have made the rounds on indie rock stations. (If you're in the mood for something unexpected, look for their cover of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky.") However, the jewel in the soundtrack for episode one, "Awake," is "Through The Cellar Door" by Lanterns On The Lake. Just as Foals' "Spanish Sahara" crushed us in the last episode of Life Is Strange (well, at least those of us who made one crucial decision at the end), "Through The Cellar Door" feels pitch perfect for a midday train ride through the Oregon woods to who-knows-where. So central was the music to Life Is Strange that Before The Storm offers a "Mixtape Mode" for Deluxe Edition purchasers of the game, allowing players to select songs from the soundtrack to play during certain cinematic pauses, where sitting on your bed or watching the scenery might just be the most important thing in the world right then.
(An aside... Before The Storm currently offers three ways to buy: Episode 1 ("Awake") alone, episodes 1-3 together, or a Deluxe Edition with episodes 1-3, Mixtape Mode, special outfits... and an as-yet-unreleased short with Max and Chloe entitled "Farewell." For those of you looking for the full 100%, you're going to need that last bit for a 100 GS achievement.)
In all, Life Is Strange: Before The Storm offers the same insights into adolescent angst as the original, albeit through a slightly different lens. For those who didn't like the first, this probably won't change your mind. But if you were as entranced by the first as I was, the first episode, "Awake," will likely leave you anxious for the next to be released. Whether the series is able to rekindle the fire that the first one left us is still up in the air.
Life is still strange, and yet oh, so beautiful.