Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1 “Awake” Review (PC)

Posted September 1, 2017 by Jean-Luc Botbyl in Video Games

Developer: Deck Nine

Publisher: Square Enix Holdings

Release date: August 31, 2017

Available on: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One

2015’s Life is Strange was a powerful experience for me; Max, Chloe, and the rest of Arcadia Bay will always hold a special place in my heart. Revisiting the setting, even in the context of a prequel story, was an exciting proposition. I had concerns, to be sure, but I have been looking forward Life is Strange: Before the Storm regardless.

Before the Storm’s first episode, Awake, left me feeling a wide range of emotions. Some stem from the game’s quality, others from my investment in the plot and characters. Ultimately, I’m conflicted. My first playthrough lasted about two and a half hours, and of that, I only loved about an hour.

I don’t use the term “loved” lightly, either. Once Rachel is introduced, about an hour in, the writing sees a spike in quality. This choice is a curious one, considering the marketing positioned Before the Storm as the story of Chloe’s relationship with Rachel. With Rachel not being a real character until halfway Awake, the choice feels like a mistake. Instead, the first hour or so is spent establishing Chloe and her existing relationships.

Often, this feels more like a recap than anything else. To people familiar with the original Life is Strange, Chloe is a familiar character. Her conflicts with her mother, Joyce, and stepfather, David, are well documented. We know about her rebellious urges. Rather than assuming anything, Deck Nine spends valuable time establishing these arcs for new players. Some of the arcs have potential, to be sure, but they simply do not pack the punch they did the first time around.

Time spent catching up new players means internal monologue from Chloe. I know Max had an internal monologue, but Chloe’s feels amplified to the nth degree. It’s also not particularly useful – Max used hers to communicate the possible ramifications of decisions to the player. Chloe’s is almost all exposition, all of which feels unwieldy and poorly delivered.

In fact, much of Chloe’s dialogue is poorly delivered. Losing Ashley Burch to the SAG-AFTRA strike was a real blow to Before the Storm. The new voice of Chloe, Rhianna DeVries, is inconsistent. Sometimes she’s a decent Ashely Burch soundalike, but not consistently. More importantly, she doesn’t deliver her lines with the same confidence as Burch. I know it’s unfair to compare the two, but Burch’s voice acting did a decent job of covering up some weak writing the first time around.

Here, it’s all on display, and Chloe doesn’t sound like Chloe for most of the game. Laying this entirely at DeVries’ feet is, of course, a bit unfair. Some of the blame certainly has to go to the writing team. The first scene is especially rough, and the writing falls flat every time the Back-Talk system comes into play.

Ostensibly, Back-Talk replaces Max’s time manipulation powers. But where that mechanic added an interesting wrinkle to puzzle solving and storytelling, Back-Talk feels inconsequential. It’s a brief mini game, and none of the lines feel natural. Rather than an interesting twist on the traditional adventure game formula, the system feels more like an obligatory addition.

Much like the other elements of Awake I didn’t love, Back-Talk fades into the background in the back half. At least, I tried harder to avoid it. Rachel replaces the supporting cast almost entirely, and the game is better for it. Chloe’s dynamic with Rachel is unique from her dynamic with Max, and a lot of fun to explore. If the scenes they share are emblematic of the quality of Before the Storm’s dialogue going forward, then I can’t wait for more.

Of course, knowing where the two characters end up makes the experience bittersweet. The moments they share feel even more special, especially since Rachel is immediately likable. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that I’m dreading reaching the end of Before the Storm, and what it inevitably holds. But hey, there’s no real reason to complain about great writing.

Technically, Awake is solid. It runs at a steady framerate, and looks gorgeous. For the most part, Awake retains the visual style of its predecessor, making for a striking experience. Occasionally, the animations will falter and the camera will cut to an odd angle. The lip-synching issue from Life is Strange also rears its ugly head from time to time.

In the long run, none of these technical difficulties are damning. Is it a bummer they’re in here at all? Sure, but none of them are experience breaking, and they occur infrequently.

Before the Storm also revamps the dialogue interface from the original. Rather than clicking and dragging the cursor towards the dialogue options, each option is bound to the keyboard. This makes for a much more streamlined, sleeker experience. It may be a small improvement, but it makes Awake much easier to play.

Overall, Awake is a fine introduction to Before the Storm. Some of its issues will likely be forced out, just by nature of the story’s progression. There’s enough here that I liked to recommend the game to those with interest, but just barely. Here’s hoping the next two episodes see a marked improvement.

About the Author

Jean-Luc Botbyl

Jean-Luc is a grizzled veteran of We the Nerdy. Most days, he just wonders why he hasn't been formally fired. Follow him on Twitter at @J_LFett to make him feel validated.