Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 3 review
A terrific conclusion to one of this year's best surprises.
They did it. After two episodes of rocky starts building to strong denouements, the folks over at Deck Nine have delivered a consistent and cohesive conclusion to the game I never knew I wanted. Life is Strange: Before the Storm doesn't have any right to be as brilliant as it is – it's a prequel to one of the best self-contained stories of 2015 made by a completely different studio; it stars a girl who seemed a little too apathetic to serve as a likeable protagonist; and it nixes all the time-bending mechanics that played such a critical role in the original Life is Strange gameplay and narrative.
Yet for all that, Deck Nine has crafted a deeply affecting tale of love, loss and lies that stands alongside its inspiration as one of the most genuine and touching narratives I've experienced in nearly three decades of video games.
In Hell is Empty, the third and final episode of the trilogy, I found a curious parallel between the game's narrative and that of the game itself: namely, both highlight the folly in first impressions and the importance of looking beyond the surface before making assumptions about the world around you.
For that alone, Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a game well deserving of its namesake.
If you've read my reviews of the first and second episodes of Before the Storm, you'll be glad to hear that there's no slow burn to Hell is Empty. It picks up right where the bombshell ending of episode two left off, using some slick cinematography and neat nods to past episodes to set the stage for what's to come. There's no regression to hokey writing or stiff dialogue here: in fact, the characterisation is a significant step up from previous episodes, with Rachel Amber's parents James and Rose shedding their awkward personalities from episode two and acting far more like the family they're supposed to be.
It's in this opening scene that Deck Nine makes good on the first of the game's episode-spanning arcs: James, who came off as little more than a pretentious twat in episode two, earns sympathy in a way that doesn't involve any flip-flop personality shifts or convenient heel turns. Without spoiling it, there's a believable explanation for his standoffish attitude, one that paints him simply as a man trying to make the best of an awful situation.
This is a constant theme throughout Hell is Empty. As Chloe's tale advances towards its conclusion, she begins to peel back the layers of those around her, discovering a depth to their actions and attitudes that not only humanises them but also helps Chloe herself grow and mature. Looking back on the Chloe that picked fights with burly bouncers back in episode one, it's impressive just how deftly and naturally her character has evolved. I'd never have thought Chloe could carve out a place in my heart alongside Max from the original game, yet here we are.
Of my few complaints with the previous episodes of Before the Storm, the most disappointing was the uneven writing. While scenes like The Tempest play in episode two were marvellously crafted, others like Chloe's interactions with Principal Wells felt stiff and unnatural. Hell is Empty suffers from none of this inconsistency. In fact, the writing in general hits a higher standard than it has previously, with moments both mirthful and miserable handled with a delicate touch. Whether it be Rachel's naked vulnerability in the face of her whole life turning upside down, or Chloe's legitimately hilarious one-liners as she's cleaning gunk out of a fuel filter, the cringe-worthy awkwardness of episodes one and two is completely gone.
The narrative stakes reach new heights, too, as Hell is Empty cashes in on the emotional attachment built up over the course of all three episodes. Up to this point, the consequences of both yours and Chloe's decisions have been predominantly personal: meaningful, yes, but of a scale that had little impact on the wider world. All that changes in Hell is Empty. Chloe finds herself in numerous life-or-death situations that carry more weight than other games' most cataclysmic confrontations – Chloe and Rachel are simply so much more relatable and endearing than any virtual populace or generic squad mate ever could be.
All these raised stakes and narrative improvements culminate in a scene that actually delivers on the meaningful consequences that so many choice-based adventure games promise. Like the original Life is Strange, everything Chloe – and, by extension, you – has done is cast into a fresh light, calling into question the wisdom of your actions and making a convincing case for what would have seemed unthinkable just hours prior.
So thorny was this climactic decision that I spent a solid five minutes staring at the pause screen while I mentally debated the merits of each option. Even once I settled on a choice, my mind was far from settled. Second guesses and uncertainty gnawed at my conviction, much like they did when making some of the biggest decisions in Telltale's lauded The Walking Dead series. I wasn't the only one struggling with the choice, either, as the end-game stats screen showed a 49%/51% split between players worldwide.
Few games deliver satisfying endings – even fewer when that ending has to abide by the constraints of a prequel story. The fact that Before the Storm accomplishes this without treading on the toes of its forebear, a game I consider one of the best I've ever played, is testament to the talent of Deck Nine, and I cannot wait to see where the studio goes from here.
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