Despite us never meeting her, Rachel Amber played an enormous role in the inaugural season of DONTNOD’s teen thriller Life Is Strange. Very much the princess of Arcadia Bay, the original five episodes cast her as the coolest girl in school, and while protagonist Max Caulfield was only ever able to meet her vicariously in the wake of her mysterious disappearance, it’s clear that she left the largest impression of all on the rebellious Chloe Price. New developer Deck Nine Games has a huge challenge on its hands with prequel Before the Storm, then: it needs to demonstrate exactly what made Amber the boss of Blackwell Academy – and what she did to put Chloe under her spell. Fortunately, just one episode deep into this mini-series, we already suspect that the studio's going to be successful.
Episode 1: Awake is all about a chance encounter and a blossoming relationship. After strong-arming her way into a sleazy concert, Chloe hooks up with Rachel in the mosh pit, and their story begins there. While the two-and-a-half hour chapter does peek into other parts of Price’s life – such as her tumultuous relationship with her step-dad, who’s clumsily trying to fill the shoes of her deceased father – it’s her interactions with Amber that steal the show.
In a short amount of screentime, the developer effectively demonstrates just why Rachel left an enormous impression on everyone in Arcadia Bay – but before long, Chloe’s prickly exterior is able to expose her new pal's underlying vulnerabilities. There’s a really great arc to the character building here: Amber starts out as an enigma – but by the end of the episode she seems very human. The “twist” towards the end of the instalment is predictable, and the pace at which the pair's relationship grows can feel the teensiest bit forced, but the dramatic ending brings the episode to a crescendo on par with some of the very best moments in the first season.
Of course, you will have to put up with some trademark cringe along the way – but the series embraces that side of its writing these days. One drawn-out sequence midway through sees you playing a table-top RPG with two of Blackwell Academy’s biggest nerds, and the scene is excellently shot and brilliantly written to boot. The episode can take a while to really get going, but once it breaks into a sprint it keeps running, and we can’t imagine that Deck Nine Games will be pumping the brakes anytime soon. It does feel a little bit like the developer’s trying to push you down a particular path with Chloe’s character at times, but what the heck – we’re eager to see where it all goes.
And while the tone of the title is very similar to the first season, with its exaggerated use of bloom and floaty soundtrack bringing a dream-like quality to the presentation, it does have some key differences. Chiefly, the absence of Max and her time-travelling prowess means that Chloe’s story just goes – and any decisions you make cannot be changed. This adds consequence, and while it is mostly an illusion, we appreciated how the end of the episode managed to contextualise our choices in a powerful exchange between the lead characters.
Price being more of a tearaway means that the photo opportunities from the first game have been replaced by graffiti, and once again some of these require multiple actions to complete. It’s not exactly head-scratching stuff, but it forces you to interact with the surprisingly detailed environments, which may be small in scope but are chockfull of optional world building for you to drink in. Sure, the controls feel looser than we remember them being in the original game, but given the leisurely pace of the title, it’s not exactly a big deal.
And just a quick note on the voice acting: Rhianna DeVries has done a bang-up job of filling Ashly Burch’s shoes. While we were initially worried that the change in actress could affect Chloe’s character, she does a great job of capturing the edgy teen’s rebellious spirit. No more is this obvious than during Backtalk sequences – a new insult system that the game introduces where you need to verbally spank your opposites using Price’s pointed wit. It’s a simple mechanic, but it’s obviously a great fit for the game.
Deck Nine Games has gracefully hurdled the obstacles in its way, with a rip-roaring episode that pulls back the curtain on Rachel Amber and begins a chain of events that we can’t wait to watch unwind. Life Is Strange: Before the Storm recaptures the spirit of the first season, but by framing the story around fan favourite Chloe Price, it has a much more rebellious vibe. And while that means there’s still plenty of cringe to work through, Episode 1: Awake pitches the moments that matter perfectly – we can’t wait to see what happens next.