Next week marks the release of the final episodes of both Tales from the Borderlands and Life is Strange. As someone who is reviewing both games, that leaves me a choice of which game I should play first with both finales coming out this week. After playing Episode 4: Dark Room, Life is Strange proved that it is the best in class in the episodic adventure game genre.
Spoiler Alert: As with my reviews of other episodic games, this review of Life is Strange – Episode Four: Dark Room will contain spoilers for the previous three episodes. The spoilers only really pertain to my playthrough of Life is Strange and the decisions you make could result in a different experience. I also allude to some of the opening scene over the next four paragraphs which is builds off the conclusion of Episode Three so skip those if you want absolutely nothing spoiled.
First, I’ll admit I was completely wrong about where the game went from the conclusion of the last episode. Chaos Theory ended with Max seeing Chloe in a wheelchair in her new reality. Between that and Max at the Vortex Club party when she was a central figure in the club in the alternate reality, I figured that Max’s changes would be permanent.
It turns out that wasn’t the case. Is that a spoiler when I like to keep these episodic game review spoiler-free? Probably but at the same time, I’m not telling you how the plot unfolds from here. You have to experience that for yourselves. But I have to wonder how many people read the Episode Three review and said “just you wait.”
I’ll admit that I was worried about what a hard reset would mean when you consider what happened in the previous three episodes. Changing the timeline would have meant that choices from the previous three episodes would have been nullified. While the alternate timeline was an unnecessary diversion from the plot of the game, it was well written enough that I actually really liked it. It was a strong enough self-contained arc that the room got dusty as the scene reached its conclusion. These writers are fantastic but I said that about the Dontnod team during the first half of Remember Me.
I also thought that the alternate timeline was a pretty good commentary on the state of the American health care system. Being from Canada, some home care is actually publicly funded so the government bears the cost of care. In America, that’s not the case. In this instance, Chloe’s family ends up with medical bills in excess of one million dollars. What does that say about our world? Yeah, American health care is an outlier in the first-world but what sort of society doesn’t take care of the sick and the less fortunate rather than leaving them to fend for themselves. I can’t imagine what that must be like for real people who have to live with that every day.
For the most part, Episode Four plays out like a mystery game. Some of the investigating done in the last episode builds into this but all the clues you use in this episode are found in it. What was the most rewarding is that while the clues are handed to you as part of the narrative, you actually have to piece together the meaningful clues to move the story forward.
I should point out that the last Square Enix detective game that I played, Murdered: Soul Suspect, did a terrible job of making you feel like a detective. I referred to it as a “point-and-click adventure game” rather than a mystery game because the solutions were handed to you while your work was just finding the clues. The mystery in Life is Strange is the exact opposite. You’re given the evidence easily enough but you actually have to figure out which pieces of evidence tie together to get you to a solution.
Another thing I did like about this episode was how blatantly obvious LiS got with the Twin Peaks references. I can’t remember if I mentioned this but I absolutely love that show. I was introduced by an acquaintance some years ago who thought I was just like Dale Cooper. She might be right for all I know but I think I’m more of a late second season Albert Rosenfield. Anyway, one of the license plates you can check into is TWNPKS. Nathan Prescott’s psychiatrist is a Dr. Jacoby. I’d say the final twist of the episode also feels a bit Twin Peaks-y.
On the whole, I think this was the best episode of Life is Strange so far. The best thing I can say is that it made me feel something at every turn. Every major scene had an emotional hook it was going for that resonated with me. It’s easy to write a scene with the aim of eliciting a specific emotional reaction. It’s another thing to actually achieve that every time you try but Life is Strange got it right every time they tried in Dark Room.
The one downside to the episode was that it didn’t really feel like any individual choice in this episode had that much weight to it. It was more of an accumulation of the previous episodes’ decisions and action. Apart from that, I loved this episode. The dialogue was the best it’s been all series. The voice acting of the main characters was superb and I finally understood why Ashly Burch was getting award buzz (including a Golden Joystick nomination) for playing Chloe after this episode. The mystery and puzzles were rewarding to solve. The horror ambiance was spine-chillingly creepy. This was a magical three hours of gaming.
The ending scene had something of a requisite twist. I’m not sure that I’m a fan of it even though it was a really strong twist. Strong is relative. It’s a bit clichéd but it certainly get a reaction out of me (and many on Reddit) which I consider a success. It could be all a part of Dontnod’s plan. The game has a tendency to lean heavily on the established tropes of teen horror, mystery and coming of age movies but subvert it with their own narrative twists. The brilliant mix of clichés and original writing has to be intentional on the part of the writers and it makes for a more fun experience as a result.
The big problem that Dontnod has going forward is that there are so many plot points that have been introduced over the course of four episodes that require closure in the next episode. The ending of Dark Room makes me think that the mysteries of how Max got her powers, what the strange happenings in Arcadia Bay mean, how that might relate to Max’s powers, what David Madsen is really up to and where the Prescott family fits in with everything could go unresolved.
I can’t really see there being a Life is Strange: Season Two. At least, I can’t see there being a direct sequel to this season of Life is Strange. How Dontnod addresses the open plot threads will impact how we remember this game when Episode Five ends. For now, Life is Strange has a spot on my Game Of The Year shortlist. Episode Five: Polarized could vault Life is Strange to the top or drop it right off the list.
For the first time in the series, I had some proper glitches playing this game. There was one conversation in the second scene that was a jumbled mess that saw that character’s ambient audio loop at the same quiet volume rather than her conversation dialogue play. That made that conversation impossible so I rewound since I had no idea what happened but it was rather inconsequential (I think). I also found the sound mixing to be a bit all over the place. Dialogue would play quietly and then suddenly get loud. It was a bit of an unintended jump scare when you’re trying to listen intently.
I don’t know how Dontnod plans on ending Life is Strange in only three or so hours next week. I’m kind of hoping that we get a double-length episode to wrap up the loose ends. All I know is that I don’t intend to review and rate this episode based on how I think the next episode will be executed. I’m not even sure how any decision at this point in time may affect the next episode but I also know that it’s not my job to make it work.
Dark Room was a fantastic self-contained episode. I know that it’s dependent on the story built up over the preceding three episodes but as its own episode, Episode Four is just brilliant. It’s spine-chilling, heart-wrenching and brain-wrinkling throughout. It’s just an absolute narrative tour de force. Not often do I need to sit back and take some time to collect myself after playing a game but this is the second time that Dontnod has done that to me with Life is Strange.
The conclusion has a lot to live up to.
Life is Strange – Episode Four: Dark Room was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and if you want to be a part of a teen horror movie.