It was hard to imagine feeling more skeptical about a project this year than Life is Strange: Before the Storm. A story-based prequel from a different development team about a supporting character without the aid of the rewind mechanic that helped make the original game stand out above its contemporaries? It was tough to envision such a thing working out. But Deck Nine has brought some of its own unique ideas to the table and they help Life is Strange: Before the Storm get off to a phenomenal start.
Set three years before the original game, the first episode 'Awake' re-introduces players to Chloe Price. She's the sharp-witted, smart-mouthed second banana of the original, but one that proved to be flawed in some key ways. Before the Storm doesn't shy away from any of these flaws and does a great job in not only explaining how Chloe's personality came to be, but also utilizing that personality to fuel some interesting new mechanics.
Both newcomers and fans of the original game get to know Chloe right away. She's a troubled teenager, finding relief through rebellion following her father's untimely death. She has a knack for angering the wrong people and digging herself into deeper holes with her mouth. Deck Nine doesn't aim to "fix" Chloe's issues, but rather runs with them and makes her a fine flawed protagonist.
Chloe's loquacious wit opens up a new series mechanic called Backtalk. The idea is that certain dialogue choices open up a pseudo minigame, in which Chloe takes words thrown at her and uses them against her arguers. Chloe has to make a certain number of comebacks to achieve success, but only gets a certain number of misses, with that number seemingly decreasing over the course of the episode. Backtalk is used to get out of troublesome situations or shamefully silence her detractors. The thing to note about Backtalk is that it's easy to fail a sequence if the timer runs out or if the player doesn't pay attention and makes a wrong selection. This introduces an element of skill into the game. It rewards players for their observational skills and quick reflexes, while also fitting perfectly into Chloe's character, making it an ingenious addition to the series.
The other thing to note is that there seem to be many more consequential decisions this time around and without the rewind mechanic, there's an air of critical decision making throughout the game. The short preview for the next episode indicates that things would go wildly different if an early game decision had gone the other way. This encourages some replay value, though it doesn't appear to be easy to access previous save points. Once a choice is made, the player either has to live with it or start the episode from scratch and the latter is a tough ask.
The last of the new mechanics involves Chloe's wardrobe, which opens up new dialogue possibilities depending on what she wears. This is one that will drive completionists crazy, simply because Chloe has a multitude of wardrobe options. Worse yet, some of her outfits are locked behind the Deluxe Edition, which is an unfortunate way to lock away certain lines of dialogue.
The crux of this story involves Chloe's new and developing friendship/relationship with Rachel Amber, Blackwell Academy's ideal student. She's the popular kid, a drama student, a bright young mind, and somebody that's beginning to develop her own urge to lash out at the world. The interaction between Chloe and Rachel provides a bulk of the first episode's best moments, offering heartwarming dialogue exchanges, some moments of unexpected humor, and also some tearjerking sequences. It's difficult to be a teenager, but it's much harder when dealing with loss and genuine, life-changing traumas. Before the Storm capably dives into this with both Chloe and Rachel, while also leaving room to compare and contrast the two in such a way that both characters find conflict and comfort in one another.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm starts off as a beautiful story of growing up, but one with the potential for tragedy. It's a story of knowing that things may not necessarily get better, but about moving forward and finding comfort in the right person at the right time. Chloe's journey looks to be a mess, but Deck Nine is making it both enjoyable and relatable. It's tough to gauge where the next episode goes from here, but it'll be interesting to see where Chloe's sharp tongue gets her next.