The lengths we’ll go to
The very first episode of the very first Life is Strange was titled Chrysalis. Through that name, we’re supposed to infer that its characters are vulnerable and wrapped in cocoons, but that they’ll eventually metamorph into beautiful butterflies. Without question, Life is Strange has always been about adolescent struggles and heartbreakingly tough circumstances.
Calling that episode Chrysalis had another effect, though. It set in motion one of Life is Strange‘s most consistent themes: Protecting what you hold dear. Time and time again, these characters have gone to extremes to shield whomever they value most. Max defended Chloe right until the bitter end. David does whatever he can to protect Joyce’s fragile family life. Chloe, whose only real care is for Rachel, has dropped everything to help her friend cope.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm: Hell is Empty (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: December 20, 2017
MSRP: $16.99 (includes all three episodes); $5.99 (just the third episode)
This thematic harmony across all of Life is Strange makes itself most apparent in Hell is Empty. It keeps everything rooted when the plot escalations get to be a bit much. The conclusion to Before the Storm can feel like a narrative mess at times. An ancillary character turns into a primary antagonist. People with little character development are suddenly crucial to the story. Everything’s humming along until it’s suddenly moving 100 miles per hour.
Honestly though, I don’t mind much. This has always been Chloe and Rachel’s tale and none of the stakes-raising takes that away. Whereas I merely accepted the ending to the original Life is Strange, I’m content with how Before the Storm wraps. My Chloe was true to herself, doing everything in her power to protect Rachel.
What’s truly fascinating about Hell is Empty isn’t necessarily how many characters act as guardians but rather the lengths they’ll go to. One, who’s working with pure intentions, will go as far as ruining another person’s life. Another will quit chasing what they’re after for their loved one to stay happy. A third example (and the weirdest, most out-of-nowhere case) was only in it for themselves.
While Hell is Empty is strong enough to overcome whatever pacing and plot issues it created, its biggest problems are unique to its prequel nature. My Chloe made serious inroads in her relationship with her stepdad. (This is true for an overwhelming number of players judging by the end-game statistics screen.) Yet, we go into Life is Strange without any mutual understanding, like none of these experiences happened. Drug dealer Frank is a similar scenario, as he ends Before the Storm feeling like an entirely different character.
Even though Hell is Empty stumbles at times, it’s never enough to actually fall down. It’ll intensify things in ridiculous ways because that’s the stuff that makes for grand conclusions. But it’s grounded in Chloe and Rachel’s relationship — their struggles, their mutual escapism, and their sacrifices — and that’s more than enough to keep us invested. The quibbles are easy to overlook when the core feels that authentic.
Three years ago, we were introduced to Chloe as she was a desperate and lost young woman. We were told that Rachel meant a lot to her, but we didn’t know the half of it. Before the Storm provides that context and it’s immensely successful in the way it tells that story. In my favorite scene from all of Life is Strange, Chloe was willing to don a silly outfit, get on stage, and stammer through Shakespeare to protect her friend. That’s about as un-Chloe as it gets. Rachel clearly means the world to her.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]