Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake

ONE OF MY FAVORITE recent videogame surprises was 2015’s Life is Strange. I went into the five-episode adventure not expecting much, and was rewarded with an unexpectedly moving story of a teenage girl who suddenly discovers she can rewind time in small doses. One minute, Max Caulfield is trying to deal with the mean girls of her private Oregon academy, the next she’s having weird visions of her town being destroyed in a freak storm while trying to solve the mystery of a missing student. Twin Peaks and Degrassi might not seem like obvious inspirations for a videogame to borrow from, but it worked.

A sequel was inevitably announced, but I was a little disappointed to hear it would feature a new cast of characters, rather than continue Max’s story. If I had any major complaints with Life is Strange, it was that the two main endings were a little unsatisfying, something I hoped a sequel might address. Instead, for those of us looking to journey back to Blackwell Academy, there’s Before the Storm, a prequel series focusing on the backstory of Max’s friend Chloe. The third and final episode released just last week, just in time for the annual Steam holiday sale, which is where I picked it up and wasted little time diving in.

THE FIRST EPISODE, “Awake”, makes it clear this is Chloe’s story. An angst-ridden teen living in the fictional Arcadia Bay, Chloe is still coping with the death of her father and her mother’s douche of a new boyfriend, and not doing a good job of it. She’s far more interested in drinking, smoking, ditching school and smart-mouthing everyone she meets than anything else, so you know it’s only a matter of time before things go completely off the rails.

Which of course it does, when Chloe goes to see one of her favorite bands play an underground show at an old mill out in the middle of nowhere. She picks a fight with the wrong guys, when she’s is unexpectedly rescued by one of Blackwell’s supposed good-girls, Rachel Amber. There’s an immediate attraction between the two, but neither seems completely sure how to deal with it, as Rachel lures Chloe into playing hooky the next day.

Because Chloe doesn’t have Max’s time-rewind ability, her gameplay is tweaked slightly from Life is Strange. This time, to “win” arguments and push the story forward, you have to listen for keywords from other characters. Otherwise, the gameplay is almost identical: the first episode is made up of about ten scenes to explore where you try interact with everyone and everything you can to unlock pieces of the story. The puzzles in the episode are pretty simple, so it’s more about experiencing the story than wracking your brain.

WHILE “AWAKE” is a welcome return to Arcadia Bay, the first episode is also pretty short. My first playthrough clocked in under three hours, and it wouldn’t surprise me if others finished it under two. It’s worth interacting with everything you can, to try and milk every piece of the story available, and afterwards you can review your choices and compare them to other players.

Knowing Rachel’s eventual fate, and the eventual return of Max in Life is Strange, it’s a little weird watching the evolving relationship between Chloe and Rachel. And the writing, particularly the dialogue, is a little clunky and unconvincing at times. But the bones of a good story are here, and for a $12 return trip to Arcadia Bay, that’s good enough for me right now.

(More on the way as I dig into episode 2, “Brave New World.”)