Review: Life is Strange Episode 4—”The Dark Room” (PS4)
Approximately 3 hours
July 28, 2015
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Graphic Adventure
Price: 4.99 (or 19.99 for 5 entire season of 5 episodes)
“The Dark Room” picks up an ambitious mantle, following in the coattails of “Chaos Theory” and its bombshell twist ending. Now that Max has effectively adulterated the whole of reality, every interaction carries a different weight and question. Who are Max’s friends? How are her powers going to work in this new world? Is Chloe okay? Can things be put back to normal? Nothing in Max’s life is normal, but I’m excited to say that the fourth installment of the game indeed makes her life a little bit…stranger.
“The Dark Room” is not a kind installment for the many fans of Life is Strange, and the player may find themselves at odds with their own morality several times throughout its course. Max’s powers have evolved again, allowing the young girl to infiltrate the timeline of Chloe’s late father and prevent his death. While this was all out of love for her friend, Max did not weigh the implications of what might happen to reality once the change had been made. Needless to say, with her father’s survival, many things that made Chloe the person she was are now gone. Max must now decide whether to keep the new paradigm of reality, or change it back, and be responsible for allowing Chloe’s father to die.
The setting of “The Dark Room” explores no new material outside of a few scarce areas. Blackwell Academy is expanded a little bit further, allowing the player to infiltrate the male dormitories and the indoor pool during a rave. Unfortunately, this is the end of the road for discussion on new areas without breaching spoiler territory. Nevertheless, something I’ve come to enjoy is returning to old areas at different times throughout the day in each episode, as there are always new things to hear from Max’s peers and authority figures.
Because of the finale in Episode 3, a whirlwind of character changes takes place at the beginning of “The Dark Room”. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say Max’s relationship with many characters change rather than any transformation occurring within the characters themselves. Chloe has been forced down a new path because of Max’s actions and thus does not behave in the same rebellious way as her alternate self from past episodes, something that I found both jarring and relieving. With the love of a father present in her teenage years, Chloe now demonstrates heartfelt thankfulness and respect in ways she’d never have understood in her former iteration, let alone expressed appropriately. Nathan, one of the pseudo-antagonists of the story, sheds any inhibitions he’d held before and shows that this entire time, we’ve been playing games with a character we should have taken much more seriously. Nathan’s involvement in the plot surpasses most other character actions in “The Dark Room”.
Life is Strange doesn’t let up with any of the irreverent humor we’ve come to expect, but dials in more to the emotional tide of the player than perhaps any of the first three episodes. The questions asked are larger than life, and the decisions which must be shouldered are not of the fabric which any person should endure. Players will be required to take a moment to reassess their opinions of characters, their motivations, and piece together exactly what this game is trying to accomplish through its rapidly exploding narrative.
Though not shirking away from profanity, “The Dark Room” has no remarkable language to set it apart from the previous episodes. A veritable gallery of vulgar terms are thrown around, including but not limited to several uses of “D****t”, “F**k”, “S**t”, “B*****d”, “B***h” and a couple sexually derogatory remarks as well. Perhaps the most littered segment of the episode is the End of the World Party on Blackwell campus towards the episode’s conclusion, where the player is allowed to explore the school locker rooms.
The player has an opportunity to kill multiple characters in a variety of ways, all of which can be avoided depending on chosen actions. Death by gunfire and assisted suicide are both engagements which the player has available, with other possible alternatives depending on the course of myriad choices which I did not have an opportunity to explore. One character may also take vengeance on a bully who’d assaulted them several episodes back by beating him in the face. I do not know if this encounter would have happened had I prevented the original assault back in episode 1.
Episode 4 might have smallest amount of sexual content of any episode to date, but there’s still quite a bit. Both Chloe’s room as well as the male dormitories have posters hanging with women in vaguely detailed sexual postures. The Blackwell locker rooms are a gallery of crude remarks and poorly drawn genitalia, and a bra can be seen hanging over a bathroom stall. Perhaps most concerning is one of the student’s developing exposure and appreciation for what is never explicitly stated as torture porn, but may be something very similar.
Drugs and alcohol act as more of a plot device in The Dark Room than ever before. With the unraveling of the narrative, the player learns that somebody is making excessive use of an unnamed and immensely powerful sedative to drug women into submission. Chloe is seen smoking a cigarette in one scene with references made to her marijuana usage. The End of the World party plays host to a ton of drunk university students, some of whom are vomiting into toilets or blatantly passed out on the floor. One of Max’s intoxicated friends talks with her and Chloe at the beginning of the party.
Spiritual content is not as prominent in this episode. A trip to visit Kate in the hospital (if she survived episode 2) gives the player an opportunity to shuffle through various Christian paraphernalia, including an emblematic depiction of Jesus Christ. “Get Well” cards will sometimes have “God Bless You” written out.
Regarding other negative material, Max and Chloe frequently manipulated others through time-control to meet their own ends and gather private information. Max breaks into a locker and rifles through the personal belongings of a classmate, stealing some of his stuff. Chloe is on a glorified vengeance trip for a large chunk of the episode. In addition to all of this, a generally disconcerting and creepy vibe pervades the episode once the players discover the titular ‘Dark Room.’
Positive material is a tricky subject nowadays with this game. Max goes out of her way to visit Kate in the hospital during recovery, assuming Kate survived episode 2. Chloe’s parents act as cornerstones of honest character in a game where it’s otherwise impossible to not second-guess people’s motives. Max can be played with an altruistic agenda and can do everything in her power to prevent conflict, but sometimes the best intentions simply don’t cut it, even with the power to rewind time.
Life is Strange continues with the same gameplay we’ve come to expect from the series. Hardly more than a point-and-click adventure, there are brief segments where the player is required to manage such feats as finding a hiding place or responding to quick-time events. No functional changes have been made to the Rewind ability and it’s probably used less in “The Dark Room” than any past installment.
Like a broken record I must repeat it again: the lip-sync in Life is Strange leaves much to be desired. However, that is nearly all the negative feedback I have for the game, as it continues to provide awe-striking scenic imagery, bringing the photography emphasis of the game to an almost meta level. All times of day are explored in “The Dark Room,” in multiple locations, allowing the creative designers some freedom to capture old areas like the junkyard in new hues. The End of the World party is fun if only because of its over-the-top depiction of college parties and functions.
I did not pick up on any new soundtracks within the fourth episode besides the generic rave music, but this isn’t disappointing. The same acoustic songs we’ve come to love continue to enrapture throughout the narrative, providing artful musical direction and atmospheric stimulus which have become a staple of the franchise. Keep up the good work, Jonathan Morali.
Honestly, this episode had droughts which might be confused as “filler” material to some audiences. Maybe they are right, but regardless, “The Dark Room” took the series to a new level, an appropriately darker level in some contexts.
As the climax approaches, I find myself antsy with anticipation and eager to see what Dontnod Entertainment is going to cook up for their grand finale. It’s probably going to hurt, but that’s okay, as long as it’s executed with the same consistent brilliance as every episode they’ve dropped so far. At this point, Life is Strange is no longer interested in following the recent trend of popular episodic games, because they’re too busy setting the bar.
God bless, wait with patience, and always remember to smile.
(Life is Strange is a download-exclusive game and is not available for purchase with any local retailer).
+ Beautifully detailed environments and artistic rendering
+ Scripting captures emotion and playfulness equally
+ Several decisions from past episodes are still affecting present events
+ Narrative is evolving in fluid, logical ways
+ Low price
- Lip-syncing is still appalling
- Several content concerns
- Music and scores are recycled, with only a few new tracks