I’m a huge fan of Life is Strange. A few years back when the original was released I had a surprisingly good time with it, as the episodic-driven opus focused more on story and player-decision, rather than traditional gameplay design. It was one of those games where I thought everyone in the world would hate it, mainly because it’s more full motion video-structured, meaning empty on movement, rather dependent on choice, with a hint of choose-your-own-adventure. The game basically didn’t give you much freedom to move outside the box it created and wasn’t ashamed at being so linear. Generally, that’s a sign of terrible game, but this game wasn’t terrible. It seemed a lot more engaging and endearing, especially with the beautiful soundtrack that accompanied it, than most games with huge budgets. To my relief, my feelings on the game echoed through the gaming community and the very narrow gameplay design it contained was indeed overshadowed by the exceptional storytelling and intriguing characters that carried it. In short, it was a great game that deserved the praise it received.
Because of this praise, and I’m sure financials had something to do with it, a sequel was given the ‘okay’ to pursue. And pursued it was.
Deck Nine took the reins on Life is Strange: Before the Storm and pulled back the time to show what happened with secondary character Chloe and her best friend/more-than-friends Rachel. To change things up even further, Max the protagonist from the first game, at least as of now, and her power to turn back time (cue 80s song) was not involved in this prequel, nor her power. So, what you get with Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a straight-up story of two girls trying to figure out their feelings about life and about each other. Completely story-driven with singular choices that affect the outcome of said story. In other words, you need to tread carefully on your story direction.
In addition, multi-layered conversations were introduced into the mix. There are points in the dialogue between characters where you would have to keep the conversation going in a specific direction to get a specific outcome. It was a neat addition to the gameplay design of the second game and it made up for the lack of time control that Max had in the first. It certainly gave the gameplay more depth. For example, if Chloe is trying to convince a security guard to let her into a building, she would have to create an argument through multiple question/response methods to get to the point where she is let into the building. That doesn’t mean you will get it to that final satisfaction in the conversation, but it does offer up the option to make choices to get there. It’s a fascinating and welcomed addition to the gameplay mix.
Anyway, in this review, we’re going to breakdown the first episode of the game briefly, because it has been more than two months and you don’t really need an in-depth review of it, and then carefully breakdown the second episode in more detail. Let’s get cracking!
Episode 1: Awake
I’ve always had a strong opinion that for a story to have a successful structure it would need to focus on three acts that provided a set-up, crisis and pay-off. Without those three pieces, the structure simply couldn’t hold. The first episode of LIS: Before the Storm, Awake, focuses on explaining both Chloe and Rachel’s characters, as well as bridging a bond between the two.
Right from the get-go, Chloe paints herself as the black sheep of her family, as the episode begins with her sneaking out to a biker bar to see her favorite band. During her sneaking, and her various choices to get into the bar that is WAY too mature for her to take part of, she gets into trouble with random guys and ends up nearly getting killed. In the process, she finds help from Rachel Amber, who is also attending the concert, and they both share a beautiful evening enjoying music they love, as well as each other’s company.
As the story continues into the next day, we see the full-force of Chloe’s broken life since the death of her father, with a mother struggling to connect with her and a stand-in brute of a stepfather that is protective of Chloe’s mother. The game shifts from home life to school life, where she is reunited with Rachel and the spark they found during the concert slowly starts to stoke into a flame. It gets even more serious when the pair skip school and head out on train into the mountains.The story continues with the duo seeing something they shouldn’t in regards to Rachel’s father and then caps with Rachel starting something that could only end in terrible destruction, but also something beautiful at the same time (don’t want to give it away).
The story choices in episode one seemed a bit linear in nature, more so than usual, as the conflict that Chloe runs into seem to have quick and easy solutions to get beyond. That’s not to say that Awake doesn’t offer up some sort of redeeming value in its many story choices, but the obvious ones seemed to be laid out in front of the gamer with little wiggle room to choose otherwise. I’m fine with that, especially knowing how the second episode goes, because Awake presents a wonderful amount of character development and introduction to Chloe’s world and whom/what is involved with it. This is the first act to a multi-act play, so as long as they set up the rest of the story through this episode and then stretch out the choices to be more impactful in future episodes, then it’s brilliant, as well as forgiven. Deck Nine did a great job with that in the first episode and it works beautifully.
Now, before we move onto episode two, let me just say that the first ends on uncertainty and a clear pathway to trouble for both girls. There is no real cliffhanger, but there is a strange sense of change, progression and trouble, which is beautiful. This is where episode two kicks in.
Episode 2: Brave New World
I was impressed with how loose this episode played choices and how impactful those choices turn out to be in design and respect with the rest of the story. The episode starts with Chloe and Rachel in the principal’s office in Blackwell Academy. Chloe is on her way to expulsion, while Rachel is about to find herself suspended from being in the school play The Tempest (an obvious parallel to the story unfolding between the two girls) due to the duo skipping the day prior. Your job, right at the beginning of the episode, is to get one of the girls out of hot water, as you can’t save both. It’s a tough choice, as one path will lead to the end of Chloe’s school life, while the other might mean even worse for Rachel. In addition, whatever choice you choose either adds another layer to their newly budding relationship and whether it will survive, or takes it away. On top of that, the choice also affects the two girls’ relationship to their families. One is certainly going to be damaged and the other is going to survive (maybe), but the choice you choose dictates which way it will go.
This is the design of the second episode and it’s already a lot deeper than the first. Throughout this episode, leading up to the grand finale, which is spectacular and shocking, you’re going to find yourself sweating just a bit about how to handle certain confrontations. This isn’t as easy as the first episode and it will really affect the outcome of the rest of the story. Certainly not as linear. If you pick the wrong choice, and there isn’t a wrong choice honestly, then there will be consequences. Sometimes the choices are determining what consequence is worse than the other. The choices are amazingly deep and methodical in design.
As for the actual story, it’s one of the most endearing and heartfelt parts of the game so far. I’m sure, as the previous game noted, there is tragedy to come, but as it stands you’re really pulling for these girls to get out of their current lives and be happy with each other somewhere other than the hellhole created for them to fail. Rachel’s pain from her deceptive, fake father is evident throughout. Even though she is the popular and proud girl in the pair, she still carries a lot of scars and it shows through her dialogue and story.
On the flip side to her, Chloe is dealing with her own demons, as cryptic interactions and flashbacks with her father show that she hasn’t fully moved forward in dealing with his death. To make things worse, she is constantly seen as a troublemaker and someone who is nearly permanently broken in the eyes of her school teachers, friends and family. What’s even worse than that is that she has to work with a drug dealer at some point, which doesn’t present a lot of good choices.
Both characters are dealing with a lot of layers of complication and the only way they can seem to get rid of them, at least in this portion of the story, is to be with each other. It’s a well-built relationship through story, visuals and dialogue from Deck Nine. It’s incredibly believable and engaging. How they’re going to top this episode in part three is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly a huge step up from the first episode in this game.
As it stands, Episode 2: Brave New World is far and away the best of the two episodes so far and has already made this game something special. Deck Nine did an absolutely fantastic job of creating a beautiful story and wonderfully tragic characters to make this type of dialogue-driven game a force to be reckoned with, especially when compared to the first game. It will certainly leave you hanging at the edge of your seat without apologizing for the drama and stress it creates.
That’s the mark of a good story, folks.