This Review Contains Spoliers
An Imperfect Yet Emotional Send Off
Hell is Empty, the third episode in the Life is Strange prequel series Before the Storm is the finale of Chloe Price and Rachel Amber’s story. It doesn’t quite hit on every level; in fact, it’s probably the worst episode of the three, but it does enough things right to send off these characters on a high note.
If this prequel series has done one thing its subvert expectations and the conclusion upholds this with the story ending in ways I did not anticipate. I don’t mean that all the fan theories were squashed or anything like that, but rather that some very strange (pardon the pun) decisions seem to have been made. Some plot points felt rushed and other felt extremely out of place or last minute, like Elliot’s stalker status, Rachel’s absence from the whole second half of the episode, and everything with Sera at the mill. These beats weren’t bad as such, but something just felt a little off.
The episode also suffers from some pacing issues, and it’s somewhat obvious that the story overall might have benefitted from being more than three episodes long. Portions of the story are skipped over and left to the imagination when it really felt as if they should’ve played out on screen.
For example, Chloe comes into the burned down mill to confront Sera and Damon, it feels as if the story is reaching its climax. Frank even shows up, and a fight breaks out. Chloe is hit and passes out, but when she wakes up, Damon and Frank are nowhere to be seen. Sera is sitting at the table smoking. It’s one of those moments that feels mishandled; why build up to this point and not show it to us?
Perhaps even more detrimental however is that this moment undercuts itself by immediately making me think that it’s one of the game’s many dream sequences. If the story paths revealed at the end game are to believed, everything that Chloe sees in the mill actually took place, but this also is a game deeply steeped in mystery and unanswered questions. It unnecessarily muddies the waters of what should have been a tense and exciting moment for the story.
Despite the questionable choices regarding plot, in the end, Deck 9 still manage to pack the emotional punch we’ve come to expect from Life is Strange. The montage before the credits is gut-wrenching, and, in this case, a happy ending is almost certainly worse than a sad one. I kept thinking, incorrectly I see now, that this story would end with Rachel’s disappearance and eventual death. It doesn’t. It ends with Chloe and Rachel hand in hand, smiling, and given the context of the series that’s incredibly depressing. That final shot in the Dark Room, after the credits and statistics roll, is one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced in gaming.
The final choice the game presents you with was nearly as hard as the last choice in the original Life is Strange. I sat staring at the screen with the controller at my feet literally pulling my hair for a good three minutes before I even dared to pick an answer. If the end game stats are any indication, most players found this choice equally difficult (PlayStation players were split 49% to 51% on it). Just like in the original game, everything leads up to a choice that is somewhat binary, but, in the truest sense of the phrase, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. My experience with Before the Storm felt unique and in going back for the collectibles, I almost didn’t want to explore the other options. The game has a unique knack for making the way you experience the story feel like the only way it could or should have been told, and that’s admirable.
In total, there’s now eight Life is Strange episodes, and Hell is Empty is by far the least interactive one of them all. Aside from a couple sequences, many in locations we’ve been to already, the story simply unfolds, prompting you to make a choice every now and then. There are fewer choices and there’s less gameplay. I encountered only one Backtalk Challenge in my playthrough (there is another that I missed originally), and even in it, I was left wondering if I could even fail it, as there appeared to be only one direction for the story to go. It’s not a terrible problem given how much I was invested in the story by this point, but at times, Hell is Empty seems far too concerned with railroading you to its end than it does with anything else.
One thing of note that has stayed consistently great across the episodes is the soundtrack. The designers know just how and when to use their selected songs, and the music is often wistful and nostalgic, matching the emotions in the scene perfectly.
I’ve said it from the beginning, but Life is Strange: Before the Storm is the epitome of fan service. I would never recommend Before the Storm to someone who hadn’t played the original game, and, quite honestly, I would never recommend it to someone who hadn’t also thoroughly enjoyed it. You should probably already know going into this game whether or not you’re going to enjoy it. So, while it is a fully-fledged game of its own, Before the Storm reminds me quite a bit of DLC in this way. It’s extra content that you can pay for if you want your experience from the base game to continue, but no one buys DLC for games they didn’t enjoy.
However, this aspect of the game presents an interesting conundrum in judging its quality. For fans of the series, including me, the good in Hell is Empty (in the all three episodes for that matter) far outweighs the bad. For people who didn’t like the original game or were on the fence about, it may likely be a very different story. And that’s okay. Life is Strange’s world isn’t for everyone, and that, perhaps, it what makes it so special.
Hell is Empty somehow left me satisfied, despite its flaws. It’s not quite the ending I would’ve hoped for and some aspects of the story were a bit of a letdown, but as a conclusion to a pair of already strong episodes, it’s certainly commendable. It fills in the blanks where I wanted it to, and it connects to the original game in a gripping and substantial way. Ultimately, the story is about Rachel and Chloe, and their stories and arcs are strong. I want nothing more than to live in the world of these characters forever, and I’m sad to see them go.