Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Ep. 3: Hell is Empty: When the Fire Runs Out

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

As I mentioned before in my post about the emotional content in media, Life is Strange is one of those franchises that gets me on a deep and tragic level, because it’s “not mindless tragedy, but a cathartic experience.” For all its nostalgia filter on the Nineties and early 2000s, and for its themes on childhood friendship and romance, there’s a dark side to life in the small town of Arcadia Bay that leaves so many players torn up by the end, no matter what our choices were.

By that same token, the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm is just as heartwrenching, but with no option to rewind time and try again. Every choice, every scar, every loss or victory—it’s all final.

In the final act, Episode 3: Hell is Empty, we see Chloe and Rachel still reeling from the revelation about Sera Gearhardt and her true relationship with Rachel’s father. Meanwhile, Chloe is trying to patch things up at home with David and clean out her debts with Frank Bowers, who’s in his own kind of trouble with Damon Merrick, the top drug dealer in Arcadia Bay. Everything hinges on Rachel’s safety, a possible showdown with Sera and Damon, and getting the whole truth out of James Amber.

Compared to the ups-and-downs from Life is Strange‘s Season 1 finale, Hell is Empty has a far less drastic and more soft-spoken delivery. Its plot doesn’t hinge on murderers abducting girls and town-ending storms, but there are plenty of psychopaths to go around, from Damon the drug dealer to Eliot the obsessive classmate. Instead of a traditional adventure of kicking down doors and taking names, Chloe and Rachel’s journey here comes in the form of confronting father figures and making a new path for themselves. They’re tired of the lies, tired of the conspiracies, and tired of settling down and pretending nothing’s wrong.

Chloe’s personal journey here is one of the better parts of the episode. She’s caring toward Rachel in the wake of her trauma, she has a chance to reconcile (for the moment) with Joyce and David, and she begins to define her “brand.” Namely, putting together her iconic truck, outfits, and blue hair dye. Chloe becomes a more serious punk in this episode, as opposed to the wannabe trailing after Rachel from Episode 1. Even her ghostly interactions with William Price are more confrontational than before, as she comes to terms more and more with his loss.

As for the climax, the story and gameplay is a touch… well, anticlimactic. Even when compared to Max’s dream sequence and final choice in Polarized. Here, Chloe is involved in the big shutdown of the conspiracy behind Rachel’s parentage, but she’s nowhere as active as other side characters turn out to be. Her role is more akin to that of a herald, bringing news between characters and either revealing a painful truth to Rachel or learning to lie to her. But then again, “Everybody Lies,” as Chloe has tagged on various walls in Life is Strange.

And then there’s the post-credits scene. Ooh, boy. That is a dark place for the game to end on. Even though it’s a tie-in for what happens in the first Life is Strange series, it’s still a punch to the player’s gut, and a bit cheap at that. We could’ve had a more tender moment of Chloe mourning Rachel after she goes missing, or perhaps a sense of what happens with Rachel’s parents. But instead, we get this. This sharp reminder of how nothing or no one ever stays safe for long.

In some ways, Before the Storm has been a good prequel to the shifting tides in Arcadia Bay, as best expressed in Rachel’s backstory and Chloe’s transformation into a dropout and rebel. It’s the same drop in innocence and safety that Max Caulfield goes through, but it’s more focused and fleshed-out on two characters rather than on one character trying to balance friendships with solving mysteries and handling time travel. While there are one or two potholes in the road, overall the spirit of the game is a worthy add-on to the series, and it leaves me somewhat optimistic for where things will go in the continuing saga set in Arcadia Bay.

The third episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Hell is Empty,” is available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Store, and the official website.


Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 3: Hell is Empty. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: December 20, 2017.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Ep. 2: Brave New World: Burning Every Bridge

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

It’s October, which means it’s the right season for falling leaves, pumpkin spice-flavored everything, and more teenage angst courtesy of Arcadia Bay. Yes, it’s time for another look at the prequel series Life is Strange: Before the Storm, as provided by Deck Nine and Square Enix.

With the release of Episode Two, Brave New World, we pick up on the second day of the series. With Chloe facing expulsion from Blackwell Academy and David moving into the Price household, she turns to Rachel Amber for salvation. Rachel offers Chloe hope, while their mutual friend Frank offers Chloe a glimpse into the side of the Bay’s skeevy underbelly. The story culminates in three key confrontations: a run-in with a drug dealer, a performance of The Tempest, and a chance to uncover the truth behind Rachel’s father’s actions in the park.

One of the better parts about Brave New World is how much opportunity Chloe has to cut loose. She’s done wasting time on anyone else, and so she’s free to rebel against anyone and everyone, all thanks to Rachel’s inspiration (as beautifully illustrated by the opening title sequence). At the same time, Rachel shows that she’s developing more of a trickster side, using her acting skills both onstage and off to her advantange, and to constantly keep Chloe on her toes.

As much as I love this series, I found that this episode in particular seemed a bit unorganized. It had a great beginning during the scenes at Blackwell, as Chloe’s “safe” future at school unravels. But from there, the story meanders between time with Rachel, time in the junkyard, a job with Frank, a play, and (spoilers) one very awkward dinner party near the end. By comparison, the time we spent playing in Episode One had a lot more focus thanks to the common thread of Chloe trying to bond with Rachel Amber and sort out her feelings about said girl. I feel like there was a pacing issue in the new episode. While I love that so much was packed in, I also kept wondering after a certain point when the game was actually going to just end and roll credits.

I’ll also admit that, compared to when the game was in the hands of Dontnod Entertainment, the new graphics are amazing under Deck Nine’s prowess. Of course, I’m not the only one who’s also had a little difficulty trying to run the game in a single smooth sequence. It’s been all too likely for someone like me, even with up-to-date graphical drivers, to face frequent crashes and reboots within an hour or two of solid gameplay. I know there were plenty of glitches and bugs in the original Life is Strange series, but it seems unusual for the new game to come with such a common design issue while running, even on newer systems and hardware.

Overall, I’m glad that I got to experience another visit to Arcadia Bay and to the twisted lives of Chloe and Rachel. While this was a crazy collection of stories compared to the first episode, Brave New World still delivered plenty of meaningful interactions and a few solid surprises for our teenage adventurers. And it’s a very clever bit of foreshadowing that there’s still a wildfire burning in the background of every scene, still scattering ashes and misery even in the happiest moments of the game.

The second episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Brave New World,” is currently available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Storeand the official website.


Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 2: Brave New World.Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: October 19, 2017.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake: Talk Back, Move Forward

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

Writing prequels to a story is tricky. On the one hand, you have to take details from various backstory clues and try to weave them together without contradicting the existing story we already know. On the other hand, you still have to tell a story with its own beginning, middle, and end. If you don’t do this right, you get the Star Wars prequels. If you do it well, you get a compelling tale like Better Call Saul or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I’d also put Life is Strange: Before the Storm in this latter category. It’s a compelling look into the past of Arcadia Bay through characters we all know and love.

In Episode 1: “Awake,” we meet Chloe Price at age 16, as she sneaks out at night to attend a Firewalk concert outside the town limits. A sudden encounter with some local toughs and Rachel Amber changes her life forever. Rather than face the ugly truth of her mother Joyce dating David Madsen, or her decline in school attendance at Blackwell Academy, Chloe latches onto the elusive Rachel. Of course, mysteries love to stack onto each other, and this first episode ties together the girls’ fate with their relationships to their respective fathers. For Chloe, it’s about confronting her father’s untimely demise, and for Rachel, it’s dealing with a parent who wasn’t what he seemed to be.

When I first played Life is Strange back in 2014, I didn’t love Chloe Price as a character. But in the episodes that followed, she grew on me. In Before the Storm, I’ve actually come to enjoy playing Chloe as a protagonist over Max. The key difference, I think, is that Max could be easily shaped by how you rewound time and what choices you did or didn’t make. Here, Chloe always has an agenda. She always has a way to get things done, but it’s more of a question if she’ll be quiet and then subvert the System later, or if she’ll get in someone’s face with sarcasm and a few keen insights. It makes Chloe stand out more, even while she’s burning bridges with the principal and making good impressions with the local D&D nerds (and by the way, did you know you can play a short Dungeons & Dragons game in Episode 1?).

On a meta level, I also respect the fact that Chloe Price isn’t being voiced by Ashly Burch, owing to the SAG-AFTRA strike. I love that Miss Burch is still involved as a writing consultant who can bring Chloe back to life, and I think Rhianna DeVries does a fine job as her vocal successor.

Meanwhile, we get a closer look at who Rachel Amber is and what makes her tick. I must say, if you’ve ever played or heard of the fan-made game Love is Strange, then I think you won’t be surprised at how similar their interpretation of Rachel is to the real deal. Or, at least, that’s how I see it. Rachel likes being an enigma, but I get the sense that she’s playing it up to cover for something deep and painful—not unlike how Chloe plays up the deliquent factor to mask her abandonment issues (which we get to see in dream sequences and one heartbreaking junkyard scene).

Besides the character depth we get to explore for both Chloe and Rachel, I love the new mechanics in this series. While Max’s time rewind powers were fun to play with, I also found them very stressful and sometimes they clashed with the plot. Instead, what we get with Chloe is Backtalk and Graffiti. With Backtack Challenges, you can basically shut down an argument with someone else through skillful wit and sarcasm. And, of course, like with any choice in Life is Strange,there will be consequences.” Except, here, the consequences feel like they mean something now. There’s no way to undo it when Chloe loses an argument. She just has to move on.

And I love, love being able to write graffiti wherever I can. Seriously, I know it can be difficult to develop, but I’d love to see more games that let me change around the environment like this. Even if it has nothing to do with the actual story content, it’s just a fun little exercise.

I don’t think Before the Storm is a perfect game (the constant AMD driver crashes on my end certainly didn’t help me with the gameplay experience), but I find it’s an improvement over some of the criticisms leveled at the original Life is Strange. Chloe’s character arc is compelling, her interactions with Rachel and other students are meaningful, and there’s room for all kinds of plot development and new game mechanics in the next two episodes. It’s amazing how a little jaunt into the past can sometimes open up a bright new future.

The first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Awake,” is currently available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Store, and the official website.


Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: August 31, 2017.

A Second Look at the Game Life is Strange

It’s hard to believe that the first episode of Life is Strange came out over a year ago, but here we are. Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix did a fantastic job of designing a realistic world in the Pacific Northwest with a cast of memorable (if somewhat tragic) characters. After the final episode came out last October, I didn’t have the heart to play the game again. But in March of this year, I did just that and it was an amazing trip seeing the entire story in one go.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned since I played through the entire game again (and be warned that, if you haven’t played any of the 5 episodes yet, there will be spoilers).

1) The Prescott family threats and Native American mythology clues are red herrings.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Back when the game first came out over the course of several months, fan speculation about the many mysteries of the plot ran rampant. I had an idea in my head that Max’s powers were the manifestation of some elemental spirit in Arcadia Bay, designed to combat the corrupting influence of the Prescotts who ruled her town and her school. And the game itself had tons of Native American symbols scattered throughout, from the Tobanga statue to quotes from a Hopi prophecy, that I figured there was some tribal influence on the course of Max’s destiny.

But no, none of that actually matters. I won’t say the game is terrible without that layer of meaning, but at the time, I felt robbed for not seeing it come to fruition. Still, replaying LiS has helped me see how personal the conflict really is, with Chloe and Nathan acting as proxies for Max and her true antagonist.

2) Chloe is, in some ways, the real hero of the story.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Perhaps it’d be better to say that Max and Chloe are co-heroes of this game. Max is our hero protagonist, who jump-starts the adventure across time and space, but Chloe has her own journey. When we first meet her, she’s a self-centered and impulsive punk rock girl who can’t seem to stop getting into trouble. But as the game progresses, her character arc does, too. Chloe learns to follow Max’s lead even while Max becomes more outspoken herself. And by the end, it’s Chloe who gives Max the final chance to fix everything, even if it means letting the storm annihilate the town and riding off into the sunset together. Without Chloe, Max would be caught in some never-ending loop of isolation and nothing would change.

3) Warren is not a total creep.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Warren is not my least favorite character in the game, but he’s close. However, that’s only because it was hard for me to reconcile his two natures. As a science geek and a guy who’s not afraid to take a few punches, Warren Graham’s a solid dude who can be helpful to Max and Chloe at the perfect time. But being male myself, I can recognize a lot of “nice guy” antics in Warren’s behavior (hell, I was even that way toward a few people myself when I was his age), and it’s not what I’d call romantic.

Chloe, at least, manages to grow and becomes a better ally to Max, but Warren loses sympathy points for me when he pursues Max early on and yet so completely ignores Brooke’s interest in him. He’s useful to the plot, but he’s not so harmless as a friend that I’d consider pairing him with Max.

4) The “Sacrifice Chloe” ending isn’t as horrible an option as it seems.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Like many players who learned to love Chloe, I felt Max’s anguish over having to choose between sacrificing her best friend (and possible love interest) and the entire town. It didn’t help that when I played the final episode last October, my mother had passed away a few weeks earlier after a sudden illness. As you can imagine, I was very emotionally raw when I watched through the first ending and so, of course, the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending was more satisfying to me.

But after seeing how this game plays through, I can say that it’s not so hopeless when you choose to let Chloe go. Because like my mother, Chloe was ready to accept her fate and go peacefully, full of love for the people that were in her life. And like me, Max had the chance to say goodbye after spending time with her. As the butterfly at the coffin proves, Chloe’s death doesn’t mean she’s gone forever. It means she lives on in spirit, no longer bound to a world of suffering and free to stay with Max wherever she goes. By accepting this loss, Max not only wins justice for people like Kate and Rachel, but she also leaves behind her anxious, isolated past self for a more mature path with friends and family. She can become the person that her best friend always knew her to be.

Whether you like or hate the ending to Life is Strange, you have to admit that it can be a powerful act of storytelling. I consider it one of my Top 5 Favorite Video Games and I can’t wait to enjoy other games that offer this same style of play.

 

First Look: The Love is Strange Visual Novel

Image Credit: Team Rumblebee, 2016
Image Credit: Team Rumblebee, 2016 (loveisstrange-vn.tumblr.com)

Ever since I found out about visual novels, I always liked the concept and wanted to play one, but I never had the time or energy to get one going. Fortunately, VNs are now a popular medium for fan-based and indie game developers. I’ve backed one by PangoDango Games called Lovely Little Thievesand this month I’ve become enamored with a fan-produced VN called Love is Strange, based on the popular game Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment.

Set in an alternate reality where Chloe never got shot, Rachel Amber never went missing, and Max never got time travel powers, the visual novel puts the player in charge of Max’s fate once again. This time, however, her goal isn’t to save the world, but to find a partner from among her circle of friends for a photo contest and pursue a deeper relationship with one of them. With enough approval points earned, true love can blossom in an atmosphere of total joy and trust in the familiar grounds of Arcadia Bay, Oregon.

The game itself lets you pick between 4 possible LGBT romance options:

  • Chloe Price, your childhood best friend and current teen rebel
  • Kate Marsh, a Christian with a heart of gold and a talent for art
  • Victoria Chase, your snooty, ambitious rival in Photography class
  • Rachel Amber, a mysterious, popular girl with striking good looks

The programmers and writers at Team Rumblebee put so much love and effort into every level of the game’s design, with plenty of homages to Life is Strange, such as collecting in-game photos and following along in Max’s journal entries. Every romance path also takes something tragic about each character from the original game and turns it into a less violent but still melancholy hurdle for Max to overcome (e.g., Chloe’s plan to leave Arcadia Bay for a while by the end of the week, as opposed to nearly dying all the time). And what would any Life is Strange game be without its choice-based mechanic? Fortunately, these choices are more about what encouraging words to offer your love interest and what kind of gift you should give her during the middle of the week.

The visual novel doesn’t use any voice acting. Instead, it relies on its text, sound effects, and background music to set the mood and create deep, emotionally powerful scenes in the player’s mind. Not to mention that every character sprite for Max and her classmates is wonderfully detailed in a soft palette that adds to each heartwarming storylines. In my opinion, this is especially well done when it comes to the Rachel Amber route, since she’s not nearly so well developed as a character in the original game.

But more than that, this is a project that was made to answer the needs of the fan community. It’s a love letter to the LGBT-friendly paths that Max could take in the original 5-episode game, especially for anyone who chose to romance Chloe. And for everyone who’s played through the heartbreak of the final episode “Polarized,” the visual novel’s light, playful atmosphere is a welcome breath of fresh air, a beautiful refuge after a year’s worth of tortured feelings.

The Love is Strange visual novel is free to play and available for download from the game’s official Tumblr page.