Life is Strange, in its lengthiest episode to date, shifts away from weaving its own tale and focuses more on bringing you back for the last episode.
Throughout the first three episodes, the calm of Blackwell Academy and Arcadia Bay has slowly but surely been disturbed. The indie music and scenery, along with the warm palette of sunsets and lengthy shadows, has brought out a mellow mood that a lot of the characters in this world share. That disturbance of a sleepy town comes to a head in Dark Room and simultaneously amps up the player for the final episode and slaps them in the face.
It’s in this episode of Life is Strange that some paramount details are revealed and other, fairly intense decisions have to be made. Again, it’s the previously established mood that lends these sequences their weight; the norm was set and this episode puts Max in several situations where that paradigm is shifted radically. This can sometimes lead to several rewinds to read a situation appropriately and react, hopefully bringing out the least caustic outcome. Still, these layered conversations feel awesome and force you to pay attention in a conversational puzzle unlike any in other episodic games. Some dialogue trees do seem to come back into shoe-horned conversation tunnels a bit abruptly though complete with a non-sequitur or two.
Unfortunately, this tonal shift – and one of those paramount answers – comes with an unnecessary, unwarranted and cheap-feeling twist. In their attempt to tell a story, Dontnod seems to forget the story already being told for three episodes and may have brought one of the central pillars of this game crashing down in doing so. Yeah, you will probably put the controller down after this episode aching to finish the season, but you might also feel whiplash from what amounts to a video game scare tactic.
“It’s in this episode of Life is Strange that some paramount details are revealed…”
Arcadia Bay, meanwhile, is put on full display with a wide variety of locations viewed through different lenses. There is even a plot device that allows you to see a familiar spot through a different light, which results in that soothing warmth this series loves to bring into each episode at least once. Even the indoor scenes seem packed with intricate detail that is, as per the rest of the episodes, almost entirely your decision to see or pass by.
Auxiliary characters remain mostly steady as puzzling, inane sidesteps that offer little to the narrative. There’s one in particular that’s been in most of the episodes and just feels like someone that’s already played ahead, telling Max and you to “Keep going,” and “You’ll find out later” in that I-know-something-you-don’t-know tone. This character is a riot to listen to as a result, but still doesn’t contribute much to Max’s journey. On the other side of the spectrum, another side character bursts onto the scene with a newly discovered purpose, undeniably making an impact moving into the ultimate episode.
Gameplay segments, when Dontnod gives them out, feel like a cut above other Life is Strange examples. One section brings Max into the investigation fully as she and Chloe sift through clues and actively go into the details of suspicious activities. There still isn’t really a fail state but being able to finally bring out some details of this investigation, in an episode where it is center stage for the first time, is fairly satisfying. This combines with some classic environmental puzzles that come and go without much fanfare, as well as some mood-setting sections, to add to a solid gameplay repertoire.
Dark Room, thanks to this developer-chosen path, takes out one of the best running pieces of Life is Strange and feels below average as a result. Dontnod reversed their storyboard somewhere along the planning of this entry, using what was a primary plot as a supplemental for a twist that was already fine enough to stand on its own. There is almost no desire to replay Dark Room left now because of this choice that the player cannot avoid, and unless the series finale brings some sort of unseen outcome, what could’ve been one of the best plot threads of this generation will turn into an over-exposed mess.
Dark Room brings out the darkness in Arcadia Bay, but fails to continue one of the best parts of Life is Strange.