Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 3: “Hell is Empty” (PS4) Review: Lies in the Eye

Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 3: "Hell is Empty" (PS4) Review: Lies in the Eye

It seems appropriate that the end of Life is Strange: Before the Storm’s story culminates in the opportunity to lie, as lies seem to be the foundation of everything the miniseries is. Rachel’s father lied to her all her life about her mother, Chloe has the opportunity to lie once more as part of the final decision, and ultimately, regardless of the decision, Before the Storm ends with a sunny disposition that feels dishonest to the story Life is Strange tells.

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Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 3: “Hell is Empty” (PS4) – image provided by Square Enix.

As a prequel to the tragic love story that is Life is Strange proper, Before the Storm does its utmost to ignore the inevitable, leaving more questions than answers about Chloe, her relationship with Rachel, and how the young woman who is no longer able to speak for herself went down the road that led to her untimely death. Rachel Amber is the central figure in Life is Strange’s overarching story, but I feel like Before the Storm does her a disservice by ignoring the in-between that led to her demise in favour of something desirable in the moment: a happy ending. The same can be said of Chloe, who ends Before the Storm in such a positive place that her angst and hatred of basically everything in the original Life is Strange seems almost out of place in retrospect.

Before the Storm does so much to end its isolated story on a high note that it dismisses its connection to Chloe and Rachel’s future, and in doing so undermines why it seemed to originally exist: context for Chloe’s divisive nature in the original game.

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Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 3: “Hell is Empty” (PS4) – image provided by Square Enix.

Chloe and Rachel’s stories aren’t the only ones done a disservice here, as several other characters seem to exist as plot devices, lacking real closure or purpose. Damon Merrick, whose appearance as a villain in episode two acted as a prelude to a larger role in Hell is Empty, does his job in preventing progress, but is quickly cast aside off-screen once he’s surpassed his usefulness. Frank, who is a known quantity in Rachel’s life just before her passing, takes on a hero role, which makes everything that happens to him between Before the Storm and the original Life is Strange just as questionable as what happens to Rachel and Chloe.

For what it’s worth, episode three: Hell is Empty does plant the seeds for later conflict as it neglects other story beats. Nathan Prescott, an antagonist in Life is Strange, and his mental illness is addressed, and how his father’s toxic view on his son’s mental state likely led to some of the darker turns the original game took. Hints of the Dark Room, a place where several girls at Blackwell Academy were captured and taken to, are accounted for as well.

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Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 3: “Hell is Empty” (PS4) – image provided by Square Enix.

But even outside of Before the Storm’s lack of tangible connection to the grander narrative at work here, Hell is Empty has more to overcome than a lack of narrative cohesion, primarily in the performances that keep the episode going. Chloe’s voice actress is different in Before the Storm, as development began during the recent SAG voice actor strike, which prevented Ashley Burch from reprising the role for the prequel. However, her replacement’s performance seems especially stiff, awkward, and robotic in Hell is Empty. Chloe’s not the only one either, as cast-wide dialogue comes off wooden. A few standout performances help things along, but Chloe’s delivery is so weak it makes playing as her difficult, and has me eagerly waiting for the bonus episode that will bring Burch back.

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Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 3: “Hell is Empty” (PS4) – image provided by Square Enix.

Overall, Before the Storm feels like a series of untapped potential. Perhaps there is strength in the ambiguity of what happened between the prequel and the first game, but I spent all of the series hoping to get to know Rachel and how her relationship with Chloe spiraled into the tragedy it eventually became. But instead I feel like I met a superficial and idealized version of her, and saw the same of her and Chloe’s bond. When Before the Storm is at its best, it is an honest and heart wrenching look at the pains of adolescence and isolation that comes with the uncertain times in a person’s life. I just wish it had been that brave all the way through and had the courage to show me the truth behind these two young women’s relationship, rather than hiding the worst of it all in the dead space between games.

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Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more of Kenneth Shepard’s reviews, such as Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Episode 2, and find out why Kenneth thinks Danganronpa V3’s ending makes a polarizing case for letting the series go!

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Guardians of the Galaxy: A Telltale Series Episode 3: “More Than a Feeling” (PS4)

Guardians of the Galaxy: A Telltale Series Episode 3: “More Than a Feeling” (PS4)

Having played and reviewed Telltale games for so many years now, I’ve come to expect a certain baseline of clarity from the studio’s writing and decisions, and after three episodes in a row Guardians of the Galaxy has made me feel like I can’t even count on that.

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Guardians of the Galaxy: A Telltale Series Episode 3: More Than a Feeling (gameplay images via Telltale Games)

At the beginning of several of Telltale’s series, the studio makes it clear that in the midst of its dialogue options “silence is a valid option”. Yet, in Guardians’ third episode, More Than a Feeling, I found that if I was opting for silence, the game would put words in my mouth—or a fist into my enemy’s face. The first scene from More Than a Feeling was a flashback to Peter Quill’s childhood, one where a bully mentioned in a previous episode popped back into his life to try and intimidate him and insult his mother for her illness. Earlier, during a conversation with Peter’s mother I promised that if I ended up an adversarial situation again, I wouldn’t get into a physical altercation. So I did what Telltale told me I could do and remained silent. I knew if I didn’t let him antagonize me an adult would come back into the room and I could keep my promise to Peter’s mom. However, by choosing silence when the decision to hit the bully was on my screen, the game took over and Peter threw the first punch. I was stunned, and immediately quit the episode to start over.

As I mentioned in my reviews for previous episodes Under Pressure and Tangled Up in Blue, Guardians of the Galaxy has repeatedly shown a disconnect between its dialogue choices and the consequences that follow. These seemingly small instances are irksome on their own, but when it seems to be a pattern for each episode it goes from grievances to a running theme. Beyond Peter’s flashback, another, less significant fallout happened with Drax, who I apparently made angry by allowing Mantis, the empath capable of reading and altering people’s emotions, to use her abilities on him without any sort of hint that this was a problem. I’m finding it’s getting more and more difficult to manage all the relationships in Guardians of the Galaxy when there seems to be a constant lack of transparency about how these people feel about my decisions until after the fact, and the established dynamics seem fluid in order to manufacture isolated episodic drama.

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Guardians of the Galaxy: A Telltale Series Episode 3: More Than a Feeling (gameplay images via Telltale Games)

For what it’s worth, More Than a Feeling is probably the best written individual episode of the series so far. Like Rocket in Under Pressure Gamora and Nebula see the spotlight put on them in this episode. The circumstances around the their falling out, primarily orchestrated by their father Thanos, made for some of the more coherent storytelling the series has seen so far, and can be resolved in different ways depending on choices. I opted to urge the two to reconcile, and it felt like some of the tiresome in-fighting between the group reached an end befitting of the strong characters these Telltale versions are based on.

Mantis’ presence seems to be helping to do away with the trite fighting between the group, as her sensitivity to emotions means she urges the Guardians to actively search for solutions instead of brooding and fighting. Her arrival does bring the primary conflict—using the Eternity Forge to revive their loved ones—to a head at the end of an otherwise slow-moving episode, but her role among the group does seem to be a positive one, even if her being a mediator seems to be coming far too late to salvage some dynamics.

On the action front, Guardians of the Galaxy still feels hindered by stiff animations and the game’s generic art style—as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews. It was especially noticeable during Gamora and Nebula’s flashback scenes, where the action felt comical in some places and both under and over expressed. Later scenes against main antagonist Halla and her Kree soldiers felt messy and hard to keep track of, as group-wide fight sequences had me controlling several members of the Guardians at once. Even in the action it still feels like Telltale is struggling to handle this group of characters in a way that feels cohesive and well-defined.

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Guardians of the Galaxy: A Telltale Series Episode 3: More Than a Feeling (gameplay images via Telltale Games)

With each passing episode, I’m getting more and more conflicted about how I feel about Telltale’s take on Guardians of the Galaxy. In terms of humour and character dynamics More Than a Feeling” is the best episode thus far, but it’s still falling into the same traps that the previous two episodes did. The visual style remains indistinct, the action is handicapped by off animations, and there’s still an inconsistency to the writing and choices that often makes the game’s dialogue frustrating to play through from a strictly mechanical sense. Telltale games are supposed to adapt to the way you play and the story is supposed to be shaped by what you do in it, but we’re three episodes in and I keep feeling like I’m fighting the story the game wants to tell instead of it letting me nudge it any given direction.

Rick and Morty Season 3, Episode 3 Recap: Pickle Rick!

Rick and Morty Season 3, Episode 3 Recap: Pickle Rick!

Rick and Morty has started talking to itself. Pickle Rick (arguably the season’s most-anticipated episode, thanks to Adult Swim’s canny marketing team) spends most of its running time poking fun at its own structure & some of the views espoused by some of its more obnoxious fans. The eponymous transformation, where Rick literally turns himself into an edible pickle, feels like a high-concept parody of high-concept sci-fi, which is a well-earned poke at the show’s structure. But the B-plot where Summer, Beth, and Morty go to family therapy showcases the episode’s true intentions: to dismantle the myth of Rick Sanchez.

Rick’s plan—turn himself into a pickle, wait for the rest of his family to leave for family therapy, then wait for his Rube Goldberg-style mechanism to drop a syringe full of, uh, pickle antidote—is so perfectly in character and the first sign that Pickle Rick would be more self-parody than anything else. It’s a wildly over-the-top scheme, and one specifically designed to avoid the very possibility of communication altogether.

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Rick and Morty Season 3, Episode 3 images via Adult Swim

In the past, Rick and Morty has done a solid job of using high-concept science fiction to tell more personal stories. Hell, last week’s Rickmancing the Stone juggled several conceptual balls simultaneously all while exploring the potential long-term effects of Beth & Jerry’s legal separation. The Pickle Rick concept takes that idea to its logistical endpoint, throwing a horde of ideas at the screen, all in service of showing how Rick’s fear of emotion and communication only makes his life harder.

There’s a lot going on in the Pickle Rick-centric A-story, pulling most distinctly from Die Hard, Escape from NY, and Cronenbergian body horror, as Rick jumps from the house to the rat-infested sewers and eventually, a foreign embassy/prison. Pickle Rick is unquestionably the show’s goriest episode to date, as Rick murders embassy guards in a pickle-sized exosuit built from rat corpses. It’s actually more than a little distracting, as is the case whenever the show indulges Rick’s mean streak. The violent deaths are cheeky fun the first time around, but the joke runs thin fairly quickly.

Most of the scenes with the Sanchez family playing off family therapist Dr. Wong tread previously covered ground. Rick lies to and mistreats his family, Beth refuses to acknowledge any harm perpetrated by her father, Morty & Summer understand who their grandfather is but love him anyway, etc. This is very familiar territory for the series, but actual progress is made—both in the reality of the show and on a meta-narrative level—when Rick finally makes it to Dr. Wong’s office.

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Rick and Morty Season 3, Episode 3 images via Adult Swim

Rick (still a pickle) sits on the couch next to Morty and delivers his usual spiel about how smart he is and why caring is dumb. But, in a surprising moment, Dr. Wong immediately sees through Rick’s bluster and gets to the heart of his neurosis. “You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and an inescapable curse,” she tells Rick. “I think it’s because the only truly approachable concept for you is that it’s your own mind, within your control.” Having a character outright state that the Smith/Sanchez obsession with intelligence at the expense of emotion is a “sickness” feels like the show is thumbing its nose at some of its more obnoxious fans, as well as looking for new philosophical ideas to plumb. The scene still indulges (and pokes fun at) Rick and Morty’s now-trademark move of having a character monologue as an easy way of communicating the episode’s thesis, and I wish the show would just let the subtext stand on its own.

Rick and Morty started very slowly moving away from nihilism last season, but for Dr. Wong to refute former theological mouthpiece Rick and essentially get the last word makes me believe the show wants to criticize itself more often. We’ve still got seven episodes left in the season, but Pickle Rick is a tremendously encouraging sign.