Episodic games have become the home for narrative driven games that care more about their story than anything else. Life is Strange was a standout title in the genre which combined the traditional branching story structure with a supernatural time rewinding ability and a remarkably compelling and dramatic story. Now, Life is Strange: Before the Storm rewinds the clock to a period years before the initial title, and focuses on a different character, the sidekick of the first title's hero. While much has changed in this version of Life is Strange fans of the series are still going to find the compelling character drama that made the first game a winner.
Episode 1, titled "Alive," is set three years before the events of Life is Strange. Max, the player character from the first game, has left Arcadia Bay, and isn't responding to texts from her her former best friend Chloe Price. Chloe is keeping herself busy by skipping school, smoking pot, and making life difficult for her mother and her mother's boyfriend. Chloe's dad has been dead for two years, but she's still dealing with the experience and clearly is still grieving.
The game opens with Chloe sneaking into a secret performance of a band she likes. While there she has a run-in with a couple of "skeevy" guys which has the potential to go very badly, before Chloe gets rescued by a girl named Rachel Amber, a name that Life is Strange fans will recognize (spoilers). From there, we follow the budding friendship (or more?) between the two girls as they get to know each other, and go on an adventure together, which leads one of the girls to discover something she probably wishes she hadn't, which appears to be inciting incident of the larger story.
Fans of the first game will also be treated to a series of Life is Strange easter eggs as objects and characters from the first game are here to remind you where the story will eventually go. Some of the supporting cast is exactly who you remember, others are very much not.
If you've ever played an episodic adventure game then the gameplay of Life is Strange Before the Storm will be familiar. You control Chloe, interacting with other characters and her environment. Picking up items, making dialogue choices, and otherwise influencing the world around you, and in doing so, you direct the story in a particular direction.
While Before the Storm is short one-time rewinding mechanic from the first game, Chloe Price isn't without her own superpower of sorts. Chloe's superpower is that she's a smart ass. Several times throughout "Alive" you're given "backtalk challenges." In these interactions, another character makes a comment to you (usually an insulting one), and you have to pick the response that's going to best leave the other person speechless. If you pick the right response the correct number of times, you win the challenge. The best comparison I have is to the insult sword fights from the classic LucasArts Monkey Island games. The backtalk challenges are all pretty funny and they're by far the highlight of Episode 1. I assume we'll see more of them in future episodes.
There's also, for reasons that are not made clear, a side quest of sorts which sees Chloe join a Dungeons and Dragons-esqe tabletop RPG. It doesn't need to be there by any stretch of the imagination, but that doesn't make it any less fun. Dungeon Master's will approve.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is only a three episode arc which means that the plot is going to move at a breakneck base, and that may be the biggest problem that Episode 1 has. Story is king in Life is Strange and so judging Before the Storm means judging that story. While everything that we get is solid, it's what we don't get that left me a little disappointed. The old creative writing adage is "show, don't tell" and, unfortunately, Episode 1 has to tell us a lot that it would have been better off showing. It tells us that Rachel Amber is the most popular kid in school and that the world is her oyster. Chloe is absolutely awestruck by her very presence. But we never actually see that side of Rachel because the story apparently can't spend the time showing it to us. It would have been nice to have been introduced to Rachel at an earlier point, so that we could see this version of the character that everybody else knows. That would have allowed the audience to feel more when things begin to change. Keeping the length of each episode, as well as the three episode arc, short enough was probably the reason we couldn't see this, but from a storytelling perspective, it really needs to be there.
While there is nothing obviously supernatural in Life is Strange: Before the Storm, I'm not convinced that there won't be something that pops up before the story is over. A couple of moments in Episode 1 certainly look like there might be something more going on. We'll have to wait for Episode 2 to see if there's more to it or not.
Overall fans of Life is Strange will certainly find something to like in Before the Storm. I'm certainly interested enough to want to see where the story goes. Plenty is being teased for Episode 2 at the end of Episode 1, we'll be here when that next episode arrives.
This review based on a Xbox One copy of the game provided by the publisher.