Life is Strange Episode Four: Dark Room PS4 Review
Time creeps up on all of us, and for Dontnod it is no different. The company – who have produced three solid episodes of Life is Strange so far – were a bit late giving us Episode Four. That extra wait was enough to drive the game’s hungry community into a mass panic, and various corners of the Internet were more than a bit overexcited by the longer than expected wait. You could almost justify this collective breakdown though, as the cliffhanger they were left with was quite a doozey. I won’t even go into detail on what happened, as you likely already know the story well if you are choosing to read this.
Questions seriously needed to be answered though, and now the answers are finally here… well kinda.
The opening hour of Episode Four of Life is Strange drills home that even though our heroine protagonist Max Caulfield has the ability to affect what people think of her, and can make drastic changes to their lives with use of her time travel abilities, some things remain very much the same. It is a theme that runs throughout the whole episode. You cannot change who people are, and deep down they will always remain the same, even if they have not outwardly shown the true side of themselves as of yet.
This episode starts players on a beach. There is no plant to water, no guitar to play, and Max does not have time to make a self deprecating comment about herself. Right from the first moment it sets a more sorrowful tone than ever before. Life is Strange has certainly reached for these emotions in the past, but never has it nailed the execution so well. Episode Four builds from the shocking last scene reveal of Episode Three, turning that cliffhanger ending into a new harsh reality. It initially focuses on how misuse of Max’s ability can have human cost – real people will have to deal with what she has caused both emotionally and physically. This all builds up to one of the more heart wrenching, and likely polarizing, decisions the game has ever put before its players. I will be very interested to see the percentage breakdown on this choice once more people get to play.
And in typical Life is Strange form, after making the choice, the game makes fantastic use of licensed music, inserting “In My Mind” by Amanda Palmer in the most fitting scene ever thought possible. I sat, listened, and just soaked in the entire thing. It was a fantastically realized moment.
So, this is the fourth time I have talked about Life is Strange in a review this year, and sitting down to write this one, one thing that struck me is I never mentioned the voice actors portraying the characters. People are so fast to jump on bad voice acting in a game, but rarely point out when it is good. Now I have cruelly gone and done the same! The voice acting in Life is Strange is so well done that it almost goes by unnoticed. It does not stand out to me because it just feels right. It feels human. A hearty congrats to everyone involved on this side of the project, and sorry I did not thank you sooner.
Since I last played Life is Strange back in May, and saw the shocking end to Episode Three, I have been wondering a lot about the game, and pondering what will happen to the characters. I guess that means I am pretty invested in what Dontnod have created and nurtured over three episodes. Whilst I still believe some of the dialogue in the game can be a bit iffy at times, this really does not seem to matter. The overall narrative is so well done it easily covers up those shortcomings.
Indulge me for a second. I loved watching Lost. Some of you reading this may have hated it, but I enjoyed the many twists and turns of that show along the way. However, most of my enjoyment from Lost came from the characters. I knew each and every one of their names. I am usually terrible at remembering character name’s in fiction, so the fact I could call out each and every name from that large ensemble cast shows I was attached to the show. I bring this up, as I can do the same for Life is Strange. I know everyone involved in the story, I know their backstory, and I know why I should care about them. Stuff like this only happens for me when I am truly invested in characters, so Dontnod must be doing something very right to make me feel this way.
Speaking of Lost, Life is Strange now also has a hatch of it’s own to find too, along with cruel truths to unearth. There may not be a Scottish man on a bike to greet you when you open it, but answers and horrible revelations lie inside. Not everyone you thought was bad is truly bad, and the opposite is also true too. Then there is the realisation that some people are an order of magnitude worse than you ever thought possible. Everyone involved is playing a crucial part in the story, and all their actions seem justifiably motivated. This is yet another reason I adore the story in Life is Strange. The characters created feel real, and because of this I am excited to see what directions each episode takes, and ultimately learn the cast’s fate come Episode Five.
Whilst Episode Four certainly does much to appeal to the current fanbase cultivated over the past six months, it also manages to surprise in clever and unique ways. All of this adds up to make it easy to want to come back for one final outing later this year.
There is a noteworthy scene mid-episode that can play out in various ways – mostly different shades of bad, which seems to be a theme of this episode. For this scene, you get the item you want regardless of how the scene plays out. However, my human nature meant I wanted the scene to play out the best way possible. I wanted to make everyone happy – or at least as happy as the dire situation would allow. The downside here was it took a hella lot of rewinding and skipping through time to stumble into the right course of actions. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to witness all the possible outcomes, and see the multiple tangents the story could take based on my choices, but in this case it felt like too many choices were offered when only one true correct decision was available.
Soon thereafter, the game asks players to go into CSI-cop mode, and piece evidence together on a pseudo-cork board. It is a decent scene, and one where you feel like you are truly accomplishing something by deducing clues, but it can all feel like a bit of a hassle if your brain is not in the right place. To me it was the only part of Life is Strange that ever felt like an old school adventure game, and whilst that is not necessarily a bad thing, the rest of the series felt like it had evolved past that. If you cannot read between the lines here, this is me trying to say I had a few problems sorting the clues out. Maybe I needed more coffee… and I am sure others will excel at it and make me look worse. To be fair, it is no where near as bad as hunting the five random bottles in Episode Two. I still have not forgiven you for that Dontnod!
Aside from those small downsides, one really nice extra is that there’s a full scene included in Episode Four that will not even be in some people’s playthroughs if they chose to play previous episodes a certain way. I believe this is the first time Dontnod added/removed scenes rather than just adapting dialogue to highlight player choice. You will know it when you see it. One last facet of this episode that stood out was that a sizeable chunk takes place in brand new areas. Even the parts that take place in already visited locales make great use of the old areas, giving players new things to do, and new people to talk to. It was a joy to wander around each and every one of these places simply to see what there is too see – forgetting there is a mystery to solve.
Episode Four is a fantastic coalescence of all the previous narrative threads Life is Strange has woven over its previous three compelling installments. It goes on to add even more to the pile, a lot more in fact, and suggests some key strands will unravel as we march towards the end – and end we already have seen a horrible glimpse of in the very first scene of Episode One. For a series that is already on quite a spectacular run, Life is Strange hits yet another high point with this effort. It may be yet another episode that gives more questions than answers, but the answers it chose to give this time are much more than piecemeal offerings, and really makes me feel we are building to an epic conclusion.
As the episode came to a close, I felt I had taken part in a more surreal adventure than what came before. Where as others episodes tried to ground characters in a well realised world, Episode Four shifts to deal with issues very much outside everyone’s comfort zone. This means both the characters and player will have to deal with issues they may not be ready to confront. It is an episode that’s not afraid to go some truly dark places. Places that were more than enough to give me chills. The very bad ones that stay with you even after you walk away.
A storm is no longer coming. Like time itself, it has crept up on us, and now we must deal with the repercussions. I’m with you to the end Life is Strange.