Life is Strange Episode 4: The Dark Room Review

Posted July 31, 2015 by Jean-Luc Botbyl in Video Games

Developed by: DONTNOD Entertainment

Published by: Square Enix

Release Date: July 28th, 2015

Available on: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One

I’m not sure if I should be writing this review right now. Or doing anything except curling up in a fetal position and crying like a baby. The Dark Room packs a pretty serious emotional punch throughout its three or four hour run time (which is long, by Life is Strange standards). For those who have played the last three episodes, it shouldn’t be too hard to deduce where the emotional gut punch comes from – and yes, it’s within the first five minutes of this episode. The fact that the writers at DONTNOD can pull moments like this off within the first few minutes, and have them feel justified, is a testament to how well they’ve handled this series – and especially the characters.

The Dark Room is, hands down, the best episode of Life is Strange so far. Not only has the writing come a long way, but so have the voice acting and the mechanics. The game also seems to run better than ever before. There’s one sequence towards the end where the frame rate took a pretty steep dip for me, due to a rather large amount of assets on screen. But other than that I noticed massive performance improvements. They even fixed most of the lip-synching!

As for the voice acting, pretty much everyone seems much more involved, especially Ashly Burch and Nik Shriner, who do the voices of Chloe and Nathan respectively. Part of this improvement could be credited to the writing, but the voice cast just seem to gel better than they have in in the rest of the series. The result is that there are fewer lines of dialogue that come off as being awkward and feeling out of place.

Of course, this only makes the high impact emotional pay offs more believable than they have been in previous episodes. Especially the first couple, which I’m not sure is a good thing. I would almost prefer to have something to chuckle about at a few points in this game, where it gets really heavy. The improved dialogue also helps to make conversations flow better. Conversation feels less abrupt than it did in the past, and in a game that’s dialogue-based, that’s incredibly important.

What’s so impactful about the events of this game is that I knew, deep down, that I caused all of them. The Dark Room was so immersive that the line between Jean-Luc Botbyl (that’s me, by the way) and Max Caulfield were blurred. Allow me to remind you that Max is a fictional character. She doesn’t actually exist – but for the past three and a half hours, she came pretty damn close.

She, and the rest of Arcadia Bay, is so well realized that it feels real, and evokes real emotions –  as if it were an extension of our world. I was constantly second guessing myself, and I legitimately felt bad about some of my decisions. The fact that a game can do that should be enough of a testament to how powerful it is. This isn’t the type of game where you can just blow off major decisions and dialogue choices. Even though you can rewind time (spoilers for episode one, I guess), all of the actions I took felt like they had a lasting impact on how I played the game.

I guess that’s the beauty of the game. The writing essentially eliminates the disconnect between the player and the characters. This is thanks, at least in part, to the game remaining grounded. There’s some time travel stuff going on here, but it’s not absurd. In fact, it feels almost mundane. It’s just a part of the world that the writers and programmers have created. There’s no overwrought explanation, no attempt to break it down and figure it out. It just is.

The ease with which the characters accept the time travel (while still being believable), made it easy for me as the player to accept. It probably helps that the game play loop of “go here, move this object, progress, rewind so you never moved the object” feels a bit mundane. Sidelining the time manipulation element of the game is great, because getting that out of the way makes room for exploration of the game’s more human side. At the end of the day, this game is about normal people with (relatively) normal problems. Until the end of the episode, at least, but I’m going to avoid spoiling that.

For as much as I rave about the writing in The Dark Room, there are a few things that struck me as odd. Most of them are nitpicky and, unfortunately, slightly spoilerish. I was just surprised by the fact that there was a full on rave going on in Blackwell Academy’s swimming pool. These characters are still in high school, so I can’t imagine there would be no adult supervision. Granted, I never attended high school in the US, but still – weird. Like I said, nitpicky. There’s a few other things, but they probably don’t actually warrant mentioning.

One of my legitimate problems with the game is its puzzle solving. For the most part, this has just been fetch quests, which, while bland, were over quickly. Here, there’s a drawn out puzzle section that requires a lot of clicking through different screens. While I do appreciate the level of thought put into this puzzle by the developers, I find it hard to believe it was necessary to make it so large and unwieldy. I quickly got tired of clicking in and out of different windows. So, while I was legitimately interested in the content of the puzzle, and felt mentally stimulated, it was just a bit of a pain to work through and felt unnecessarily overwrought. The rest of the game’s puzzles, while still well realized, do feel a bit repetitive. They make good use of the game’s mechanics, and don’t always have obvious solutions, which I appreciate.

The Dark Room will take players to some really dark places. For every beautiful moment, there’s a shadow lurking over the game. Sure, this makes the sparse moments of happiness all the more effective, but more importantly, it allows DONTNOD to tackle some pretty heavy issues. From depression, to disabilities, to substance abuse, to relationships, no punches are pulled here. Importantly, these issues are tackled in a serious manner, rather than being used for humor. While they do create drama, the drama they create doesn’t come along with the negative connotation that it so often does when used to describe media.

Spoiling the one-two punch plot twists at the end of The Dark Room would probably be a bad idea. If you’re interested in the game, you’ll want to experience these scenes without knowing they’re coming. Still, they’re such an integral part of the game that I cannot simply avoid them. The twists are effective – they turn the story completely on its head and shed entirely new light on all the choices I’ve been asked to make in this game. And, considering how easy it is to be invested in those choices, it had an impact on me, for better or worse.

The twists also don’t feel like they’re there for the sake of having a twist – they’re there because it’s a natural progression of the story.

Life is Strange has, thus far, been one of those games that I’ve felt wasn’t achieving its full potential. I loved it nonetheless, but now, I feel comfortable definitively saying that it has recognized that potential. The Dark Room is a creative triumph for DONTNOD, and is a perfect example of a studio firing on all cylinders to create an experience that is as powerful as it is enjoyable.

About the Author

Jean-Luc Botbyl

Jean-Luc is a grizzled veteran of We the Nerdy. Most days, he just wonders why he hasn't been formally fired. Follow him on Twitter at @J_LFett to make him feel validated.