Life is a series of struggles we can’t avoid. The original Life is Strange explored the concept of rewinding time to ease conflict and create different outcomes, but Life is Strange: Before the Storm is focused on reality. In this prequel, you have no special powers. You are forced to face life head-on and confront its painful plights. New developer Deck Nine uses Awake, the first of three planned episodes, to emphasize choices and emotional turmoil. Awake retains the essence of Life of Strange (with plenty of callbacks to the original), but now you play from the perspective of Chloe and see her budding friendship with Rachel Amber. The result is an episode that pulls at the heart strings despite some stumbles.
Before the Storm takes place two years after the death of Chloe’s father (and three years before she reconnects with Max), and she’s still grieving. Her depression has taken a toll, causing her to rebel and not care much about anything or anyone. Playing as a younger Chloe is a nice change of pace, as she isn’t completely the confident free-spirit she was in the original. She’s still figuring herself out, and has more naivety and vulnerability that makes her more sympathetic. Rachel Amber is on the opposite end of the spectrum; she’s popular, gets good grades, and has a financially stable family. The pair meet at a concert and embark on a complicated friendship, as they’re both facing their own trials.
This episode is a slow burn, gradually introducing you to Chloe’s world. You travel to familiar places like Blackwell Academy, and to new locales like a punk club. One of my favorite aspects is seeing Blackwell students from the original game, like Victoria Chase to Nathan Prescott. However, you see younger versions that foreshadow their future. Yes, Victoria is still a stuck-up brat, but you start to see the beginnings of her concern for Nathan, while watching Nathan deal with his own difficulties from his father’s influence.
This episode also sets up Chloe’s conflict with her mom and new boyfriend David well, providing insight into why Chloe’s so angry and distraught. It also doesn’t forget to show the impact Max had on her life, which was the focal point of the original game. Max is mentioned a lot to show Chloe’s hurt that she moved away, and isn’t there to help her through the hardest time of her life.
Even with several parts that feel genuine, Chloe and Rachel Amber form their friendship at unnatural speed. They’ve only known each other for a day, so their interactions can feel forced. In their second time hanging out, you can already decide if you want to tell Rachel Amber if you want to be more than friends. That being said, they have some fun bonding moments, such as playing games like Two Truths and a Lie and observing people and making up stories about their lives. The most authentic part of Awake is how Chloe mourns the loss of her dad (dream sequences heighten this), and Rachel Amber’s reaction to finding out some disturbing news about her father. Both girls are recognizing harsh realities together, and I felt for both of them in their anger and sadness.
Without the rewind feature, you’re mostly exploring and making choices. The change makes sense for the story, and I didn’t mind it. Dialogue plays a larger role, and Deck Nine does a good job creating interesting interactions, such as Chloe playing D&D and allowing you to pick her moves and responses. The only new aspect that didn’t entirely jive with me is Chloe’s backtalk option. During certain conversations, you can talk your way out of things by being brazen. You need to pick a string of “correct” dialogue options that relate to what the person just said and goes with the tone of the conversation. Mostly, this is Chloe throwing insults and threatening people, including talking back to her principal to get out of an after-school visit and convincing a bouncer she’s tough enough to enter a shady music venue. Sometimes Chloe’s insults are so over-the-top, I didn’t believe she could have gotten away with talking to any human like that. When it beats you over the head with Chloe’s rebellious side, Awake feel disingenuous.
As you explore, interacting with certain items can open up dialogue options, and Chloe can tag special places with graffiti akin to Max taking extra photos in the first game. Some areas also have obstacles that you must get past, like finding a way to steal wine or getting a jammed quarter out of a machine. These sequences never go on too long, and I enjoyed the focus on the story and characters. As this is the first episode, I can’t say for sure how far-reaching the choices are, but you do have plenty of decisions, including how you treat other characters, whether to steal money, and even what clothes Chloe wears, which characters notice. I wish this episode had a few tougher choices, but hopefully future episodes have more agonizing ones with satisfying payoffs.
Awake shows you a broken Chloe – someone at her lowest. Everyone hits those trying times in their lives, and what Awake does best is illustrate how much another person can make a difference in those situations. The emotional pull is strong, and the story’s strength is its relatability. This first episode has me intrigued at how Chloe and Rachel Amber will make it through their distress, and it also has me rooting for them.