Welcome to the final non-comics game review of 2017. I couldn’t have picked a better way to button the year than with one of its most impactful stories.
A three-episode prequel to the surprise hit video game of 2015, Life is Strange: Before The Storm took the risk of slicing away narrative devices of time manipulation and supernatural disasters from the story fans loved in favor of its own stamp on the series. With the release of the series finale, “Hell is Empty”, every gamble and lingering thread is paid off. But does it satisfy? Here’s our review of episode three and the series as a whole.
LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM “Hell is Empty”
Developer: Deck Nine Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Available for: PS4, Xbox One, and PC
The first thing you should know about Life is Strange: Before The Storm; as a whole, it’s easily accessible to anyone unfamiliar with the original five episode series made by creators, Don’t Nod. Before The Storm is a prequel, developed this time around by Deck Nine Games, that deals a universally grounded tone rather than its predecessor’s Lynch-ian vibe. The fence is never too high here as this prequel speaks to the audience in a way that doesn’t take having a built-in fanbase for granted. By the end of this series’ first episode, we knew who these people are and why we should connect with them.
Players come into the life of the troubled Oregonian, Chloe Price. A teen you’ll meet in the midst of the lowest point in her life. She was a normal happy adolescent when she lost her father in a horrific car accident. Setting her on a downward spiral of drugs and rebellion without a cause. Chloe encounters a kindred spirit in the form of Blackwell Academy’s shining pupil Rachel Amber. The two cross paths in a time where each girl needs the other. Rachel’s family life is collapsing around her as she finds her parents may not be who she’s believed them to be all her life. A lie which sets the moral of the series in motion. Are secrets and loving someone mutually exclusive? As they embark on a literally firey path of delinquency set to one of the best music soundtracks of 2017, we watch these two girls develop a stand-by-me friendship built on the shattered glass that’s become their lives.
In episode three, we pick up from the fallout of the nuclear tension filled Amber family dinner where a dark secret about the family was revealed pushing Rachel past her breaking point and leaving the player (Chloe) to pick up the pieces. Rachel’s determination to confront the truth of her family’s lies puts Chloe in a guardian role both emotionally and physically. There are moments where you’ll try to defend Rachel from shady drug dealers, then other times the dangers are more emotional in trying to guide her through the minefield her life has quickly become with her dick father and the mysterious woman, Sera. You’ll need to get acquainted with failure as the game kicks your legs out from under you on every rung of its emotional ladder. Just when you think you’re on the right track in guiding your friend to her sought after reunion…Bam! Someone gets stabbed.
The developer, Deck Nine, clearly wants the decisions you’ve had Chloe make in episodes one and two to heavily weigh in the finale. In the hospital scene, a couple you encountered in the series opener makes a return appearance dropping hints that their lives are possibly shattered because you choose to mess with them or say something you shouldn’t have. There a number of different outcomes to that minor story but it’s a good reminder of the butterfly effect being played out before your eyes and something which is a touchstone to Life Is Strange in general.
Everything leads to one of the hardest emotional choices you should hope you’ll never have to make in real life. Do you perpetuate a lie to protect someone you love? Or do you have her face an unbearable truth that could ruin her life? As an emotionally cold person, every logical part of my being kept nudging me to tell Rachel every crippling truth I found out about her family but I just couldn’t. Because of the emotional bond I’d built with Chloe over the game’s first volume and this subsequent prequel, she needed a Rachel that could carry on, even if just for a bit. Maybe that was a selfish choice, but the fact that I’m here writing about it and you’re reading about it means Deck Nine did something right.
If we had to nitpick at something about our playthrough of episode three, “Hell Is Empty”, its pacing would be the only hiccup. While the episode starts in the aftermath of a tense scene, it feels as though it spends its entire first half beating you over the head repeatedly with what’s at stake versus simply letting it play out through Chloe’s actions and choices you’ll get to later on. While the finale’s third act picks up enough of the pace to make it all worthwhile, it’s hard not to wish it didn’t take soo long to get there.
Spoilers for the 2015 Life Is Strange game. In the end of the first series, that game’s protagonist Max Caulfield faced the ultimate choice of saving an entire town from a catastrophic storm by letting her friend die or saving Chloe Price and letting the town of Arcadia Bay be wiped off the map. In that game, Arcadia Bay was just a Gotham City with more trees. A place with an infection murderers and plain shi**y people, so I didn’t feel the least bit conflicted choosing Chloe over the entire town of Arcadia Bay. Life is Strange: Before the Storm was a much more agonizing choice because it made players ask themselves do you love someone enough to shoulder the weight of secrets they can never know? Or hoping that for better or worse, forcing them to bring a family’s darkness to light makes you truly their friend? Either way, I’m not 100 percent comfortable in the choice I made. That shuttering feeling is a special kind of resonance not many stories manage to leave audiences with.
Chloe Price’s story in Before The Storm manages to have some strong legs to stand apart from the 2015 game. Some people will for the first time meet a girl dealing with an entire world abandoning her after the death of her father, and feeling like she’s losing her mother to a new man in her life. Chloe feels as though she’s drowning in a world that’s telling her to simply “get over it” as she lives with a figurative cannonball sized hole in her stomach everyone tells her will close but we see those moments where sitting in car, eyeing a photo, or even looking at old clothes opens the wound by making her relive that unimaginable pain. Dealing with loss, change, and that feeling of the universe being against you is well… real.
Before The Storm took a grounded approach to its David Lynch-ian Oregon setting. Gone are the superpowers and murder mysteries, of the first Life is Strange series. In the end, it’s really not a matter of one being better than the other because both games are great stories for different reasons that stand up on their own. Should you be willing to go back and invest in the first series, you’ll find Life is Strange and LIS: Before The Storm forms a union that speaks to each other in hidden and rewarding ways that those bad Terminator movies intended to but failed.
8.0/10 Episode 3 “Hell Is Empty” starts out on a sluggish pace but thrusts you into an emotionally powerful finish that makes you question if you know what friendship even is anymore.
COMPLETE SERIES SCORE:
9/10– As an overall package Life Is Strange: Before The Storm Epiosde 1-3 shatters the ceiling of what grounded video game stories can be.
Also, just a quick note, this Saturday 12/23, your boi will be a guest on GeekChic’s weekly show Nerd Rage. Join me and the GeekChic crew as I finally get to tell the world why almonds in anything is bulls***. Check out their Facebook page at 3pm PST, Saturday.