May contain spoilers for previous episodes of Life is Strange.
Wrapping up a short series of three episodes, I expected Hell is Empty to be an explosive one. And while it isn’t totally lacking in moments of action, it’s an episode filled with thought and reflection more than anything else.
Episode two left us with the revelation that Rachel’s mother isn’t actually Rachel’s birth mother. Rachel is, of course, left in turmoil, and Chloe is there to pick up the pieces. It’s up to Chloe to help her new best friend however she can – whether that means offering her a shoulder to cry on, or putting herself in danger in order to track down her real mother.
From being a story about Chloe, Life is Strange: Before the Storm has gradually pushed Rachel into the limelight, leaving Chloe to feel more like a vessel for storytelling than our lead protagonist. And while we see less of Rachel in Hell is Empty than previous entries, she’s very much at the forefront of everything that happens, from start to finish.
Episode 3 opens up by giving us more information about Rachel’s parents – how they came to be together, and why her real mother is no longer in the picture. It’s a dark cloud over Rachel’s so-far seemingly perfect life; a tidy metaphor for why we should never judge a book by its cover. It’s a recurring theme throughout the episode — certain events happen that force us to question Chloe and Rachel’s relationship. While Chloe’s feelings for Rachel never falter, as someone looking in from the outside, the game leads us into asking if everything is as rosy as it seems when it comes to Rachel’s friendship with Chloe. There’s no discerning answer, but the narrative does a great job of making you think again about certain events.
While it’s nice to get to know more about Rachel, I’m disappointed that Chloe has been sidestepped in the process. After all, after the original Life is Strange, it’s because of Chloe that we’re even here, right? And while some of the topics we’re invested in are touched upon – Chloe’s relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, for instance – they mostly feel like secondary topics. It leaves me feeling like Before the Storm has loose ends still needing to be tied up in order to fully bridge the gap before the time period covered by Life is Strange kicks in.
Knowing what we know about Life is Strange – and the fate of Rachel Amber – puts a very bleak spin on what would otherwise be a happy ending of Before the Storm. We’re treated to a bittersweet montage of their friendship, filled with tender and light moments of love and laughter. Then the closing scenes throw us back to reality with a reminder of what happens in the future. Damn.
As a standalone episode, Hell is Empty doesn’t quite hit the same spot that the previous two episodes reached — but that’s not to say it’s a let down. It just missed a certain emotional punch, and for me, I think that was a result of Chloe feeling less like the centre of attention. As interesting as Rachel is as a character, I didn’t find her as relatable or likeable as Chloe — and that’s probably just because we already know Chloe so well.
As an entire series though, Life is Strange: Before the Storm has been absolutely excellent. I was dubious whether another studio could pick up where Dontnod left off, but Deck Nine has done a fabulous job of capturing the heart and soul of what Dontnod originally created. It’s still the little touches that make the game what it is — the details that Chloe puts into her diary, her letters to Max, for example, that inject so much more personality than simply acting out a scene ever could. It’s left me wanting more, though, so I’m left with no choice but to jump back into the first series of Life is Strange — which, now that I know Rachel Amber so much better, will undoubtedly pack even more of an emotional gut punch than it did the first time round.