The final episode of Deck Nine’s interpretation of Life Is Strange reaches a conclusion that wasn’t overly satisfying nor particularly disappointing. That, I suppose, is reflective of my overall feelings about the game’s “middle of the road” vibes. I wanted to like this mini-prequel because of how hard I fell for DONTNOD’s time-bending episodic adventure. Ultimately, Before the Storm doesn’t offer many substantial revelations or shed new light on Arcadia Bay and Chloe Price. It’s not going to make you go back for another replay of Life Is Strange in search of a new meaning. What made Life Is Strange so fascinating was seeing how a young adult deals with a mysterious power given to her and how it affects other people’s lives. Without that mechanic, Before The Storm is a fairly straightforward story about a young teen growing up in a troubled household. As for Rachel Amber, it pains me to say that I found her more interesting as a MacGuffin more than anything else. Not that I want to diminish her trials and tribulations, it’s just that her disappearance did a better job of establishing the kind of person she was.
Hell Is Empty continues in the wake of an Amber family bombshell. In a twist worthy of a soap opera, Sera, the mysterious woman who Rachel caught kissing his father with during a secret rendezvous, is actually her birth mother. Her father James revealed that Sera was a bit of a wild child who eventually found herself involved with drugs. When Rachel was a baby, Sera was responsible for putting their daughter in danger via an ambiguous cutscene (is she OD'ing?) that led to James cutting Sera off completely, sending her money once a month in exchange for her silence and distance. But now she’s back, claiming to be clean and wanting to see her daughter. With the knowledge of her lineage in Rachel’s pocket, the episode focuses on Chloe’s work to facilitate a reunion between an estranged mother and daughter.
One of the central themes of the episode is the morality of lying. Hell Is Empty asks whether or not it is OK to lie in order to shield someone from painful truths. Is it right for James Amber to hide Sera from Rachel? Is it right for Chloe to lie about her meeting with Sera at the end of the game? Is it right for Chloe to lie to Eliot about... actually, we need to have a serious talk about Eliot.
Eliot is an ancillary student at Blackwell Academy whose presence is felt a few times in the game, either in person or over text messages. I never felt like I got to really know Eliot but his body language and speech pattern indicates that he has feelings for Chloe. Ultimately though, he is cast aside in favor of Rachel Amber, who Chloe has deep feelings for. Eliot's “barely there” status as a character makes things all the more bizarre when he suddenly shows up to confront Chloe in Rachel’s home (after following her). At this point, he turns into a whiny and dangerous asshole. This is jarring and confusing because up to this point, there was no reason to suspect that he would do something like angrily lock Chloe in a room with him. He even flirts with performing assault all in the name of “protecting” her. It’s a bizarre direction to take the character to and was one of the moments where I felt this game dropped the ball, narratively.
Getting back on track, Hell Is Empty challenges the player on whether or not they are willing to lie in order to spare someone else’s feelings. It’s easy to make this decision when you’re separated by the events that call for the choice, like watching a TV show you have no control over, but it’s different when you’re made responsible for the call. The last time I really anguished over a decision was the first season of The Walking Dead - and I’m not talking about giving Duck a high five. By the end of the game, Chloe (and the player) is given a huge burden and I found it a little unfair that a troubled teenager like Chloe is forced to make such a huge decision on her own.
Life Is Strange: Before The Storm has its moments but on the whole, it just didn’t do enough to capture my attention the way Life Is Strange did. Though easily a tumultuous period in her life, Chloe wasn’t as interesting as she was in the original game. The whole back talk mechanic isn’t an adequate replacement for Max’s time travel ability because I feel the consequences weren’t nearly as substantial. I might have liked the game better if you played as Rachel Amber instead so we could see how someone like her would end up hanging around Mr. Jefferson. The post-credit tag included at the end of the episode doesn’t do enough to bridge the gap and feels more like an afterthought. At three episodes and little payoff, I would have liked Life Is Strange: Before The Storm a lot more if it were more detached from DONTNOD’s narrative.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.