Life is emotionally exhausting.
Teenagers are weird. If you are one, as I’m sure some of our readers are, then hey; it’s nothing personal. I was still one of you until about six months ago, so I still freshly and potently “know that feel.” That’s been part of my stance throughout reviewing each subsequent episode of Life is Strange, as someone who understands through relatively recent memory what it’s like to be the kids the story portrays. Sure, they’re not perfectly-written, but there’s something very true and real in what they’re going through, and how each of them acts as a character. Never has that been more obvious, and more well-done, than in Life is Strange Episode 4: Dark Room.
To get knee-deep in spoilers, as is customary for reviews of episodic games such as this one, let’s begin by talking about where we left off. Chaos Theory ended with a gigantic twist, as Max discovered a new power that allowed her to travel back to a memory and change the future. Doing so saved Chloe’s father, an act that seemed at first to have been nothing but positive. As the episode concluded, though, we learned that this action led to Chloe becoming crippled, confined to a wheelchair and requiring medical apparatus to help her breathe. Dark Room opens just a little while after the previous episode ends – technically still in Wednesday, the same day as the episode previous – and follows Max as she tries to learn what is different in this new version of reality she has created.
From the word go, Dark Room is the most heartbreaking episode yet, with deep, emotional writing that starts out great and only gets better as the episode progresses. The timeline Max lost is eventually reclaimed, and there’s plenty to do within it, but not before some brutal emotional scarring that is sure to stick with her character as we enter the game’s finale. Narrative is as strong in this episode as it ever was, reaching new highs as some characters sink to new lows. Developments are made in some surprising areas, from Warren’s worrying tide of aggression to some surprising and oddly encouraging changes in characters who previously seemed to fit into some very plain stereotypes. Something wonderful that this episode manages to do – and that I had frankly hoped would turn out to be the case – is establish these characters as people who have stereotypical elements to them, but who go beyond those stereotypes. It’s an excellent way to create characters that are both familiar to a wider audience and unique beyond the common stock recycled in derivative movies, games, books, and whatever other forms of storytelling you care to name. Emotions are still occasionally represented by hokey dialogue, but even this, one of the most consistent complaints throughout the game’s episodes, has improved in Dark Room.
All of the aforementioned character development stuff comes through dialogue, which is, as always, a central part of Life is Strange‘s gameplay, ala Telltale. There are some really excellent, organic conversations in Dark Room, including one long confrontation that can go one of at least five different ways (that I am personally aware of) depending on the player’s choices, as well as certain circumstances that have stacked up to that point. The player can rewind as many times as desired, trying (as most players have, according to the end-of-episode metrics) to get the best possible outcome. However, you can also go with any other possibility, leaving things open-ended in one of the smoothest ways Life is Strange has boasted yet.
Life is Strange Episode 4: Dark Room certainly doesn’t forget about its time travel mechanics, but it also isn’t afraid to stray away form them for a bit. Chloe and Max have come along way in their investigation of the mysteries surrounding Blackwell Academy and Arcadia Bay, and a large chunk of the episode is spent gathering and organizing clues. This introduces a type of problem-solving that will be familiar to frequent players of more classic adventure games, requiring more memorization, and even the need to write some things down. On real paper, just like they did in the olden times! This new type of puzzle is welcome, and fits well into place. The worst that can be said for the introduction of these elements of investigation and deduction is that they lead to a puzzle that goes on a bit long, but it doesn’t do so in any really negative way. I didn’t find myself groaning and rolling my eyes as the thing dragged on; at worst, I looked up at the clock, realized I had been working on the solution to an issue for longer than I expected, went “hm,” and carried on. Episode 4: Dark Room manages to get more immersive than ever, all while adding new gameplay to the increasingly-hearty mix.
Life is Strange continues to carry on with a pervasive, dreamlike atmosphere that makes everything feel a bit like something out of the imagination of the game’s main character. In Dark Room, this atmosphere is complimented by some new elements, including an unexpected and quite genuine sense of horror at certain points. We’ve known for a while that Max and Chloe were getting into something much bigger than themselves, and this episode gives us a wide-eyed look into the abyssal depths of the goings-on of Arcadia Bay. The game’s visuals are as gorgeous as ever, using interesting lighting and contrast choices that continue to give the game an artistic look. Max may be a photographer, but her world looks like a complex and moody series of paintings. Within said paintings are more optional photographs to find, which seem to be getting steadily more difficult to weed out with each episode. I only found one, meaning my career as a world-famous photographer is probably in the can. Oh well, at least I’ll always have game reviews.
The final and most important thing to mention about Dark Room is its place as the semifinal episode of Life is Strange. To use the ever-popular Telltale adventure games as an example, their semifinal episodes tend to be a little quieter, a calm before the storm. Sometimes, like in both seasons of The Walking Dead, it works; other times, like in The Wolf Among us, it doesn’t really do much to assist the narrative, and instead just feels like a sudden loss of momentum. Life is Strange circumvents this issue entirely, by simply doing what each episode before it has done: raising the stakes, tightening the tension, and taking the player and characters alike through emotional twists galore. Each episode of Life is Strange has successfully set up anticipation for the next one to follow, and Dark Room is by certainly no exception.
Life is Strange Episode 4: Dark Room will leave players devastated, scared, and fascinated, but certainly not in the dark. Introducing new mechanics that immerse and expand, all while keeping the core time travel mechanics involved and expanding puzzles with more possibilities than ever, Dark Room is easily the best episode yet, and promises great things for the upcoming finale. Something that’s frequently a bit of a challenge to wrestle with here at Hey Poor Player (and any other such site) is the scoring system used for reviews, and this episode is a case where I am very close to giving it a score other than the score it will actually be getting. Apart from a couple fairly easy “major choices” and one puzzle that may outstay its welcome for some players, Dark Room is otherwise perfect.
Available on: PC (reviewed) , Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One; Publisher: Square Enix; Developer: DONTNOD; Players: 1; Released: July 28th, 2015; ESRB: N/A ; MSRP: $4.99 (single episode), $19.99 (full season pass)
Full disclosure: this game was reviewed with a full Steam copy of the game.