Developers: Deck Nine
Publishers: Square Enix
Plot: Rachel Amber is reeling from the fact her biological mother is a dangerous drug addict but pleads for Chloe to find a way to bring them together.
Online, there is a bit of an outburst between the final episode we got and the final episode that didn’t actually make it to the press. Apparently, originally, Deck Nine were meant to be making Chloe’s spin-off series, Before the Storm, a five-episode run, much like the original Life is Strange. For whatever reason, that plan was scrapped and the writers were forced to whittle down their plot, most of which was already animated, voiced and prepped. As a result, the fans, after playing Before the Storm out to its end, are now looking at “what could have been” and wishing that that was what they received instead of Hell is Empty. Some of the plans do look intriguing with the supernatural element explored more thoroughly, the relationship between Chloe and Rachel getting more intimate and side characters getting more to do. But, looking at the Hell is Empty episode that we did end up getting, there is a case that this disproval of Deck Nine’s writing choices is a case of the ‘grass being greener on the other side’, rather than an actual disappointing close to Before the Storm.
Knowing the original five-episode plan does make a few pacing developments in the third episode feel a little more noticeable. Hell is Empty does feel like Before the Storm suddenly got shot with narrative adrenaline. The previous two Before the Storm instalments were character-based, first introducing us to the inside of Chloe Price’s head and how she differed from the timid Max Caulfield and then giving us a slow-burning romance (or friendship), between Chloe and Rachel Amber. Suddenly with Episode Three, as soon as the writers explain that jaw-dropping cliff-hanger, the script rarely takes a breath. Rachel Amber’s DA father explains that the woman Rachel saw at the overlook was her biological mother, who he left when her drug addiction put Rachel’s life in danger. Only now is she looking to reconnect with her estranged daughter. Using Chloe’s connection to the drug dealer world that Rachel’s mother resides in, Rachel pleads for Chloe to track down her mother, named Sera, and try to arrange a meeting between the two of them. What follows is a, surprisingly absent from Rachel and more focused on Chloe going it alone, thriller as Chloe suffers back-stabbing, danger and heartbreak. While the final episode of Life is Strange ruined the pacing slightly, Hell is Empty feels more confident. It is still that point and click gaming style we like, with mini-games such as using the correct tools to fix a car, and quieter moments where we get a chance to explore a new area for secrets and opportunities to graffiti the background of the game. There are also touches of artistic direction such as the episode starting off with a surreal trip back in time to explain a flashback or Chloe dreaming that her personal life is depicted in a theatre production. But at the same time, it is faster. Perhaps it is to do with five episodes being condensed into three, but events happen more quickly. A stand-off in the scrapyard between Chloe and this season’s main protagonist, Damon Merrick, provides the most shocking moment of the series. There are some really superb moments too, such as background character Eliot suddenly becoming prominent, even if it is just for a single scene, and a tense text conversation where Chloe pretends to be Rachel Amber’s father and using her quick wits to fool the person on the other end of the phone. The villains of the game are definitely interesting too. Damon Merrick is the face of the antagonists this time around, but Episode 3 slowly sees one character transform into, if not a bad guy, an obstacle. People are calling him nastier than Mr. Jefferson from Life is Strange, but the truth is that this villain is far more real, and more three-dimensional. You understand his motives clearly, which makes him all the more dangerous. You never know how far he is going to go to protect his ideology. And if your choices go a certain way, he might get away with it all, an exciting prospect to close Before the Storm on. This might not be the five episodes we were, at one point, promised, but what we have is pretty solid gaming.
In reference to the cut elements of the game, yes, they are slightly troublesome to the enjoyment of the game, but not disastrously so. For example, Eliot, Nathan Prescott and Drew North are all interesting characters, but it feels that the growth of their arcs became stilted as the episode run was reduced significantly. Eliot is interesting, but it is a left-field shock that could have done with either more foreshadowing or more ripples, when the truth came out. Other complaints are the supernatural side. It has been hinted that Rachel Amber is in control of the forest fire and while the game continues to prove that theory (you hear firemen chatting that throws a scene into context wonderfully), it never confirms this train of thought. Neither does the suggestion that Sera also has powers. But the vague nature of the supernatural element does give Before the Storm, and Life is Strange in general, a sense of finesse. At the end of the day, the rewinding time and control of fire added intrigue to the game, but it was the characterisation that truly mattered. Sometimes less is more. There is also grumbles about the lack of diversity your final choice brings to the game. As you make a final, emotional decision, you are treated to be a montage that wraps up the game and then brings it to a close. Sadly, spending time seeing what our choices brought to certain key relationships would have killed the smooth finish Hell is Empty strives for. And being a prequel series, there was never going to be an earth-shatteringly different ending. Half of the emotion of the three episodes we have been given is the fact that we knew where this fleeting love story was headed. The biggest problem for me with Hell is Empty that probably had something to do with the cutting of story, but also feels a little contradictory to cut from the final piece. As the final confrontation between Chloe and Damon Merrick takes place, the game shies away from showing you the full set-piece. It means that while the game gets the emotional pay-off it was looking for, it doesn’t really get the narrative one. I was not expecting an action movie close, but something more exciting than what Deck Nine gives us would have been greatly appreciated.
Final Verdict: Before the Storm might never have hit the perfect game mark, but it remains a thoroughly solid, and truthfully more consistent than Life is Strange, piece of episodic gaming.