What does it mean to be blissfully ignorant versus painfully aware? Ultimately, that's the main theme of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Beyond working as a love story, the main question that Square Enix and Deck Nine Games put forward is whether it's better to live a wonderful life built on lies or live in misery knowing the truth.
Before the Storm's final episode "Hell is Empty" capably pushes this idea forward throughout its two and a half hour runtime. And even with some logic holes big enough to drive Chloe's truck through, it's a good ending to what's ultimately one of the better story-driven games of the year.
What is Real?
"Hell is Empty" wraps up Before the Storm's ongoing plot centered around Chloe and Rachel's burgeoning friendship/relationship. But after playing through "Brave New World," the story of their coming together appears to be finished. The final episode is more about addressing Rachel's birth mother, the growing conflict with drug dealer Damon Merrick, and the growing tension between Rachel and her father.
But the "truth vs. fiction" theme lingers throughout the entirety of the finale. It's in Chloe's interactions with her dead father. It's in Chloe's actual conversations with Rachel and her family. It's also in one critical moment during the climax, albeit one that unintentionally created a plot hole. (I'll hold off on specific spoilers for now.) I do love the way it was presented, particularly in the context of this world where Chloe Price thinks herself to be the ultimate truth-teller and "no BS" kind of spitfire. In a perfect world, it's fine to call everyone out on lies and general phoniness. But in reality, the world doesn't work that way. Yes, it's entirely possible for Chloe to plow through undaunted and continue telling it like it is, but there are real consequences for doing so. Ultimately, that ends up being the point. There are heavy consequences for breaking any illusions to live in a world of pure truth.
The one key issue with the finale is that it almost tosses out the other elements of the Life is Strange world to this point. There are no scenes in Blackwell, so any side stories with the students are barely addressed. (Save for one that was addressed in a bigger way towards the episode's climax.) The family tension between Chloe and her mom and David is touched on for maybe a couple of minutes. And there's almost no real fallout from the school play the night before, aside from some outside mentions.
One Big Choice
It should be noted that "Hell is Empty" is somewhat of a departure from the Life is Strange formula to this point. All of the prior episodes have had a series of "key" choices, along with all of its lesser choices. The finale, however, only has one key choice. And while that one choice does influence the game's ending, it's an interesting design choice to only have the one single key decision.
What makes this particular design direction work, though, is that it's a choice that the game's three episodes have all built up to. Everything involving Rachel's birth mother, Rachel's family life, and even Chloe and Rachel's relationship all help feed into that one critical decision that Chloe needs to make.
The downside to going in this direction is that it makes the episode's other decisions feel trivial, by comparison. The interactions with Joyce and David, with Drew and Steph, and every other minor character almost don't matter. In fact, the main story proved so compelling that the usual Life is Strange trope of getting interrupted by a text during a key revelation started to feel more annoying as the game went on.
Putting the Pieces Together
Gameplay-wise, Before the Storm knows where its bread is buttered. It's centered around learning about the world's characters and approaching situations as Chloe Price, approaching them with her brash personality.
There are few gameplay scenarios that feel out of place or don't belong. "Hell is Empty" centers more around puzzle elements, like one sequence that has Chloe trying to get the old junkyard truck operational. There's another sequence that involves investigating the old case surrounding drug kingpin Damon Merrick and trying to piece together certain elements of his case while texting back and forth with the man himself.
Before the Storm's best feature as a whole has been Chloe's Backtalk, which is a mechanic that's uniquely suited to her personality. Chloe argues and is a total smartass. That's who she is. And trying to use other people's words against them is a creative idea. That's why it's unfortunate that Deck Nine seemingly held back on this mechanic for the finale. But the instances that it popped up over the course of the whole game were a total pleasure.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a beautiful journey through Chloe Price's teenage years. It's a brilliant exploration of what happens when a directionless teenager meets a special person that changes the course of their life forever. It's a journey that explores the themes of loss, love, finding one's self, and whether the road to happiness ultimately lies in truth.
Add to this some fun easter eggs that reference the original game and it's an amazing effort from Deck Nine Games. Even with its imperfections, Deck Nine took a deeply flawed character in Chloe Price and made her into someone that players can relate to and empathize with. It reminds players what it means to grow up as a teenager. It's a lot of angst, but it's also a lot of joy. And the joy is worth putting up with all the angst.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 digital copy provided by the publisher. Life is Strange: Before the Storm is available on Steam, the PlayStation Store, and the Xbox Live Marketplace for $16.99. The game is rated M.