*NOTE: Considering that this is a game heavily focused on storytelling, I’m going to have to bring up MANY BIG SPOILERS from ALL FOUR of these episodes in order to examine how I feel about it. For this special case, it’s not possible to obscure all important details to examine it the way I’d like. Viewer discretion is advised.*
*NOTE #2: This review is based off my experiences upon Episode 4’s initial arrival to Xbox One.*
Reviews of previous episodes:
• http://n4g.com/channel/life... (Episode 1 - Chrysalis)
• http://n4g.com/channel/life... (Episode 2 - Out of Time)
• http://n4g.com/channel/life... (Episode 3 - Chaos Theory)
We’re now racing towards the finish line of DONTNOD’s episodic time-travel adventure: Life Is Strange (LIS). It seemed like only yesterday I was patiently anticipating this penultimate episode during E3 2015 and the agonizing wait therein. Episode 4 was also—unfortunately—the one episode which seemed to miss the dev’s promised time window between releases as well. And with that extended waiting period also came more time to ruminate on the ins-and-outs I’d come to grow quite fond of, and not so fond of, in the process. Here: Dark Room feels like the culmination of frustrating elements I may have not expounded on before tied with some of the most suspenseful and poignant events yet presented. It’s a rare juggling act never before seen in these types of episodic adventures that’s tough not to admire, even if it’s sometimes handled haphazardly.
Weird eclipses, freak snowstorms, and now beached whales lining Arcadia Bay’s shoreline are the natural phenomena townspeople have noticed since the beginning of this week. And now with Maxine Caulfield going full-on Butterfly Effect, saving Chloe’s father from meeting his doom years earlier, and seeing the ramifications of changing the past, Max gets presented with one question: is this the reality you actually wanted?
The end of Episode 3 presented this question by revealing Chloe’s now paralyzed from a different accident. As far as this setup goes, it has some touching moments and the…‘re-exploration’ of Chloe’s house presents a dichotomy within both realities. Whereas the punky rebel Chloe presented a more emotional stress on her new family, paralyzed Chloe displays a financial one on her original family. Her old 2nd-floor room is now just for storage, part of the garage has been renovated for Chloe and all her needed medical devices, and exploring the dialogue with William, Chloe’s biological dad, shows just how much debt they’ve incurred. There are a bunch of smaller environmental queues too that more investigative players may appreciate which further depict this contrasting tone within the same house.
This play on dissimilar tones with the same locale is also utilized with the Blackwell Swimming Pool. Whereas this location was previously used as a serene stopgap from all the previous action in Chaos Theory, it’s used here as a gloomy, edgy pool party of wild drinking and as a focal point of the rising action in this episode. This particular section somewhat reminded me of the club scene in the movie Collateral—minus the shootout of course. The strangeness of the atmosphere, evoked by the sights and sounds within the pool area, had a similar kind of uncertainty—which showcased precision in the kind of dark tone the developers wanted to evoke.
Beyond the duality of these key locations, the beginning and final parts of this episode carry other strengths; not just in atmosphere but also in these written scenarios and the voice acting. The moments of seeing Chloe’s original family together were a heartfelt revelation. It also works well at taking a look at these two characters and seeing how their relationship might have budded in this alternate timeline. There’s even a shot taken against Rebel Chloe’s overuse of the word “hella” and her general lingo BY Chloe in this alternate reality. All of this is tied up with one powerful decision that may give players some pause when dealing with such a heavy topic. Unfortunately, this opening part is ungracefully whitewashed and tossed out in order to get back to the Rachel Amber plotline.
“So, what’s the real issue besides that?” you may ask. Well…recall that juggling analogy brought up earlier? Rather than the juggling pieces being say…flaming swords, equate it to the plethora of topics presented in this episode: euthanasia, drug-dealing, murder, date-rape drugs, kidnapping, and disturbing photography fetishes. Despite this episode feeling pleasantly longer, it still doesn’t have the time nor really show the interest in treating any of these subjects as fully as it ought to; instead, they’re placed in the lens of being building blocks to drive emotion rather than matters to assess. They’re often video game puzzles; Monsters of the Week to be slain and shoved aside for the next one. That’s not really terrible per se, but contrast that with Episode 2 for instance. Pacing issues aside, the tough topics there were balanced between two budding friendships whose attitudes couldn’t be any more disparate. It clung to a few heavy topics and wove those into several key choices to get the point across. Here? Just look at the choice charts between Episode 2 and 4 to see how all-over-the-map each choice in Dark Room feels.
All of this isn’t to say I find Dark Room to be the worst episode so far; only that the sense of so many choices feeling like “artificial dramatic engines” started unraveling as time went on. At the same time, I’m still torn about that because I also respect the ambition of handling so much.
Another key frustration in the storytelling that began bottling up for me in the previous episode, and almost felt omnipresent here, was in how reliant the script is in TELLING rather than SHOWING. In the moment, it’s great to see Max pull off some stunts here she clearly wouldn’t have done at the beginning. Yet so often Chloe or someone else would still relay the character arc she’s undergoing or even her general demeanor. One instance where I tittered a bit was when a girl states Max is looking “intense” right now and the immediate cut back to Max’s default look seen in most other dialogue choices. And perhaps that’s to substitute the lacking resources and/or game engine that make it tough for us to see their mien more clearly expressed.
Despite these frustrations, I also don’t want to ignore the story’s strengths. For starters, this penultimate episode does a great job in bringing around several key choices from earlier episodes to bear. Depending on what happened to Kate in Out of Time those effects will come full circle here and pack a lot of emotion. And when considering the current landscape of games with time-travel superpowers and the no-holds-barred approach to power fantasies, it’s incredible to see situations that don an uncomfortable reality that are telling to both the characters and, consequently, the gamer that may not be fully understood in a single go. Along with developing from time-twisting tyro to minute-melting maven, Max is faced with the futility of trying to alter something that simply shouldn’t be altered. And although the transition from a more saccharine opening to that kind of depressing edge isn’t elegantly-done, once you’re seeped in the darkened alleyways the game want to go it’s hard not to stay drawn in. And that sort of mood continues culminating to an ending that seemed brilliant to me. After taking pause and collecting my thoughts on everything which just transpired, I immediately jumped back to the beginning and began spotting these hints of foreshadowing throughout. I’ve had conflicting issues with certain aspects of the storytelling but I can’t disregard just how affecting the final big moment in each episode has been.
Mechanically speaking, this would be one of the stronger examples in LIS. Of course, this isn’t a series heavy on traditional gameplay overall. There’s some perfunctory puzzle elements, dialogue wheels that can be further explored via rewind, and treasure hunts for environmental objects or getting collectible photos. But what Chaos Theory did quite well was in elegantly mixing story beats with gameplay, making for a much smoother pace. In some respects, Dark Room does harmonize gameplay and story quite well.
With Max nearing the end, specific decisions made earlier will present dramatically different outcomes here. One of the ways this materializes comes in the form of the local drug-dealer, Frank Bowers (voiced by Daniel Bonjour). Questioning him to give up information that could disinter Rachel Amber’s location presents a complex web of decisions for the player to untangle; and he either being aggressive or acquiescent to your needs hangs on a decision made in a previous episode. It felt like a small slice of Mass Effect 2’s consequence-heavy ending, yet being able to consistently rewind to get the best outcome. It’s one of the most superlative examples in the series of exploring disparate dialogue choices because it didn’t simply rely on a couple rewinds to get that underlined “best” choice; instead, it took so many for me that I didn’t even consider the possibility of a “paragon choice” until seeing the web of outcomes online afterwards.
Another one of the key puzzles present is what inspired this review’s subtitle. After all key clues have been collected, Max and Chloe lay them out on a board and are tasked with putting the sundry pieces together—print-outs of text messages, photographs, and other bits of information. While I appreciate this unexpected diversion from the gameplay norms, DONTNOD didn’t execute this idea to its fullest. Another series rooted in these sorts of inferential quandaries are the Sherlock Holmes games (the ones I’ve played on Xbox 360 at least). There: players get a deduction board where each clue is presented in text followed by a description of the clue; plus, the text for the other clues can still be viewed when looking at the deduction board. Everything is itemized yet it still feels cohesive and challenging. What’s done in Dark Room is each individual piece of evidence is treated just like environmental objects that blur out everything else. Granted, there’s a secondary board of collected information to help out but it’s the same visual scripts for highlighting objects in the environs. The deduction board’s UI in Sherlock Holmes is unique from the rest of the gameplay and feels purposefully-designed. While Dark Room’s puzzle itself feels challenging it’s unnecessarily so due to the poor visual language.
After these more extended bouts of gameplay of deduction and dialogue, a more expected array of environmental puzzles get squeezed in. They work to great effect mechanically, but this is also where the jarring tonal issues take place. The amateurish light with which Max and Chloe were tasked with earlier takes a sharp right turn towards typical crime novel tropes. It offers a surfeit of thrilling gameplay scenarios in lieu of keeping its thematic focus.
Anyone who’s read my previous LIS reviews can guess most of my complaints and praises for the graphics: the painterly art style and soft textures complement each other well but there’s poor lip-syncing. Unreal Engine 3’s inherent pop-in problems are also bothersome like before except it’s noticeably worse this time. I’m not quite sure if this problem may stem from specific issues on Xbox One’s version at the time of release but the pop-in and odd framerate drops were sometimes incredibly vexing to put up with here. I’ll admit to being a bit…easy against previous episodes where I encountered similar issues, but they simply didn’t feel as pervasive as they did here. For this: I’m compelled to slightly degrade my overall experience.
Which is a shame too when considering just how well DONTNOD’s visual designers toy with lighting here to evoke a specific mood. It’s the duality of this episode that makes it all feel so daring. From opening up with golden-hour lighting with the serene background music to the transition of an overwhelming barrage of colors and sounds during the End of the World party, the lighting and cinematography sells these scenes.
If audio were able to carry a scene alone then Dark Room would be among LIS’s best episodes yet. Despite that not being the reality of the situation, an A effort was put in for handling this high-wire act. Just consider all of the various tones within this episode alone: Max’s melancholy from the time-altering decision she’d recently made, searching for Rachel Amber, the sinister ambience pervading over the Dark Room and The End of the World party, and the specific delivery of the ending. All of it has been so carefully considered in order to elicit one kind of mood from the player. For one gut-punching scene in particular (which I wish not to even hint at here), it worked phenomenally.
Are there weaknesses? Sure. While it’s impressive to see the four roles (major and minor) he fills in the series, Nik Shriner’s voice of Nathan Prescott doesn’t quite deliver as it should here. There were a few minor audio bugs during dialogue as well which ties back in with my technical frustrations with graphics. It was more of a quibble here than a full-blown complaint unlike with visuals however.
As previously done within each other LIS episode review, I’ve saved the second-to-last paragraph to discuss what I’ve noticed on the motif of cameras and photography interwoven throughout and how it’s developed (hella punny). The closing minutes of Chaos Theory revealed that motif to be more than just background for players to reflect on. With Dark Room that motif is still explored in some interesting ways. The change in background and pictures within Chloe’s alternate-reality home show her change from Rebel Chloe in some distinctive ways: instead of clinging on to the past and sticking her middle finger up for the camera, Paralyzed Chloe’s reticence is reinforced by the different pictures here. Back during the normal timeline, Nathan Prescott’s bloodcurdling, black-and-white pictures continue revealing someone who’s both dedicated to the craft and mentally unstable. Even the ‘Dark Room’ has a unique, sinister character that can be defined BY the pictures it houses. It’s not JUST a crime-novel location with a spooky name; The Dark Room is essentially a personification of Hell. It’s with this kind of minutiae that lend the inhabitants and locations of LIS a more special personality.
After what happened during the end of Chaos Theory, Dark Room had a lot to live up to. And it delivered in some respects. The network of choices made in the previous three finally came to bear, whether by a plethora of different dialogue reactions or just in seeing an old friend again. It also seemed clear to reach higher than its episodic precursor with handling so many different plot threads, tying up loose ends, and showing the ramifications for the player’s previous actions. Because of that, it’s undercut by being both technically and thematically messy at times. Of course, there’s MORE than enough incentive to see this whole story through now thanks to that ending; however, Dark Room also shows where this series’ greatest strengths lie: the calmer human moments which overwhelm the histrionic bombast.
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