Life Is Strange - Episode 4: Dark Room Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, PC, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox One
Upon the completion of Life Is Strange’s third episode, we were left feeling conflicted. The game’s story ended with a shocking cliffhanger that turned the series on its head, and the evolution of Max’s character became more and more evident as we progressed. However, it was the gameplay that tied the story together that we took issue with. Life Is Strange became a game that was interesting to watch as its plot remained engaging, but tedious once you had to pick up the controller and play. We hoped that Dontnod Entertainment would introduce some new mechanics to gameplay so that episode four, Dark Room, would feel fresh and engaging just like it did in Chrysalis. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. Life Is Strange continues to be a game that we get enjoyment out of watching, rather than playing.
So, that startling ending to episode three. We were dumbfounded, and we’re willing to bet you were too. Dark Room opens in the alternate universe of Chloe in a wheelchair and Max good friends with the likes of Victoria and Nathan, and these opening scenes create some of the most touching and emotional moments of the game yet. The two of them reminisce about their childhood, they fall asleep watching Blade Runner, and then look through some of photo albums together. They discuss their childish antics of dressing up as pirates and wanting to takeover Arcadia Bay, as well as taking time to thank each other for the things they’ve done to help. There’s some very sweet and compassionate moments that take us back to when we were children, as well as reminding us of the bond between the two characters. But then, Max finds the photo that transported her to the alternate universe within one of Chloe’s photo albums, and so she gets whisked back to the world of Arcadia Bay that we recognise from the three previous episodes. And from that point onwards, the replacement timeline is pretty much forgotten about. For saying how much of an impact it made at the end of Chaos Theory, to have it solved and forgotten about within the first twenty minutes of the episode feels very cheap. It makes us wonder if Dontnod didn’t really have anything to hook the player into anticipating episode four, and so they quickly came up with this. Apart from a few comments made by Max about her not ever telling Chloe about it, the different timeline becomes completely useless and begs the question: what was the point?
After travelling back to the real world, Max and Chloe’s main mission becomes one of stopping Nathan Prescott. It is a quest that has us visiting a few new places in Arcadia Bay, including the beach where we strike a deal with Frank and an abandoned barn which hides some sinister secrets. But the new setting we enjoyed visiting the most was actually the hospital, where we pay Kate a visit. It was nice to touch base with her after the dramatic conclusion of episode 2, and only having communication with her via text in Chaos Theory. Whereas some games would forget about Kate because she isn’t entirely relevant to the plot anymore, we were appreciative that Dontnod allowed us to go and visit her after we put a lot of time and care into saving her back in Out Of Time.
While the story of Life Is Strange is so strong, as we mentioned earlier, unfortunately its gameplay has become rather lacking. The first two episodes placed a huge emphasis on Max’s time travelling ability within gameplay, but in Dark Room, we can only recall two instances of having used it. This is a huge disappointment after we criticized Chaos Theory for its lack of interesting gameplay moments, and this flaw has carried over to the fourth episode. Outside of time travelling, there is one scene that has Max going full-blown detective. It tasks the player with reviewing the evidence they’ve gathered throughout all previous episodes, so they can pinpoint the location they need to visit next. It’s elaborate and reminded us of one of the final scenes of Heavy Rain, with the stakes set just as high. While being the gameplay highlight of the episode, the scene can become frustrating because sometimes it’s not entirely clear what you’re looking for. The pieces of evidence are split up into three parts and as you cycle through each section, Max will repeatedly say the objective a couple of times before stopping. We cycled through the evidence so many times that we lost track of what we were supposed to be doing. Because of this, the scene eventually became annoying and we just wanted to move on.
Clocking in at just under three hours, Dark Room becomes the shortest episode yet. It’s a shame that each episode has continuously gotten shorter and shorter as we’ve played them especially after having so much to do in the debut episode, which took us over four hours to complete. Episode four does take a page out of Chaos Theory’s book and once again concludes on a surprising note, but it doesn’t have as much impact and we had guessed something like this would happen before we even reached the finale.
All in all, Life Is Strange has become a real mixed bag at this point. The story is by far its strongest aspect, with its characters and certain emotional scenes doing a good job of supporting it. While the gameplay was so good in the first two episodes, it is humdrum in Dark Room due to the lack of innovation in Max’s time travelling abilities, and so we largely feel like we are just doing the same things over and over again. Furthermore, due to the next episode being the final one, we don’t expect this to change. Any new mechanics won’t have long enough to make any real impact. The plot of Life Is Strange is so engaging and interesting, but it’s the gameplay sequences in-between the story development that let the whole game down. However, we still find ourselves anticipating the final episode. We can’t wait to see the conclusion to the story we started back in January, as well as playing the role of Max one last time. It’s been a long and bumpy ride, but we’re glad we are on board.