Episode 4 of Life is Strange begins and ends with a heavy dose of emotion, reminding me why protagonist Max Caulfield is one of my favourite game characters in a long time. But it succumbs to retreading old ground, as the penultimate episode is trapped between progressing the story and setting it up for a thrilling finale.
For that reason, it’s my least favourite of the five-part interactive drama so far, but it’s still an important piece of the puzzle. The story to date has driven home that your choices will matter and ultimately influence the outcome. I can see where some of my decisions have made a difference, and I’m sure others will only become obvious upon a second or third revisit. But just as it hit its stride, Life is Strange seems to have taken some of the most important choices out of my hands.
Episode 3 ended on a bombshell that was truly breaking ground for an interactive narrative. Not only did it present an alternate reality for Max and Chloe, it made us think about how seemingly innocuous decisions affect our own lives. Dark Room had already corned itself into needing to return to the timeline of the first three episodes. But it undid everything so quickly it felt cheap, and as if those events didn’t matter. Shouldn’t we have had the choice to tell Chloe, or someone, about what could have been? It’s strange that Max brushed it off in one of her deep-thought sitting sessions in a game that’s all about making hard decisions.
But those qualms could be resolved in the final episode, so I’ll reserve further judgment.
Dark Room in isolation continues Max and Chloe’s search for missing girl Rachael Amber, and finally sheds some light on the mystery. However, the journey isn’t as strong as previous episodes, and retreads familiar territory with themes that have been explored before, with more depth, in previous chapters.
We get to see more of Chloe and her motivations, and Warren remains firmly entrenched in the background, despite having several opportunities to assume a greater support role. Life is Strange has always been the story of Max and Chloe, and Dark Room does all it can to ensure they’re front and centre, to the detriment of other characters.
Max and Chloe delve deeper into a criminal underworld, they believe run by the unscrupulous Prescott family, as they uncover a serious drug problem amongst students linked to the disappearance of Rachel. Apparently, staff are supportive of a drug-riddled rave being held in the school pool. The story escalates at a cost to Max’s sensibilities, perhaps as a consequence to what she has seen, or maybe in anticipation of the strange supernatural phenomena that has shrouded Arcadia Bay, and still remains largely ignored.
Episode 4 hits the right notes at core moments in its story, again exploring dark themes while finally providing some answers. It tugged at my heart more than once through interactions between reunited best friends, as Max struggles to make time for peripheral characters in need, and I felt more uneasy than I have before. Stripped to its progressive plot points, Dark Room makes you feel for Max more than ever before, both sympathetic and genuinely worried for her wellbeing. The time-bending superhero becomes powerless, as she begins to realise the limits of her abilities and understand that changing the past isn’t always preferable to influencing the future.
But getting there just isn’t as strong as it has been. The pacing is muddled, as Dontnod floods the on-going investigation with a match-the-dots puzzle on a pinup board that doesn’t mesh with the low quality art style. It’s filler either designed to lengthen the episode or make us feel more involved, but then it really rushes the big reveal. What should have been one of the most impactful moments of Life is Strange is squandered to become one of its weakest.
The Final Verdict
I’ve loved the Life is Strange journey so far, but Dark Room fails to reach the same lofty heights that came before it. The penultimate episode does what it has to and progresses the story just enough to setup the finale to be something special. While it doesn’t have the same impact as the other episodes, and rushes at the wrong moments, it introduces some of the darkest themes to the story and solidifies Max and Chloe’s relationship to set up a thrilling final episode.