A Tale of Two BFFs.
**Spoilers** This review assumes you’ve played episodes 1-3.
The previous chapter of Life Is Strange, subtitled Chaos Theory, had the biggest plot twist the series had seen. By the end, time-rewind gal Max focused on an old Polaroid picture and her ability sent herself further than she ever had. Up until this point, her powers could only go back a few minutes at most, forcing Max to make the right call for a specific moment. Traveling back years, Max went to when her best friend Chloe’s dad disappeared from their lives forever. Max fixed that outcome, making sure tragedy didn’t strike. Satisfied that she’d changed things for the better, Max jumped back to the present when Chloe’s dad was back, but instead this altered reality leaving her best friend paralyzed from the neck down. Oops.
Episode 4: Dark Room picks up mere seconds where Episode 3 ended with Max face-to-face with the consequences of what she had done to Chloe’s family. For the first 30 minutes, things are grim, with Max spending the day with her paralyzed friend. The first real task she must do is administer pain meds to Chloe. From there things get more depressing, but I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that this tragic outcome does not dominate the rest of the game.
Despite lingering thoughts of the "way things might have been," Max can’t help but be elated to see her bossy friend restored to good health. In typical Chloe fashion, she snarkily remarks after receiving a hug from Max, “Thanks for the morning grope.” This injects just the right amount of silly to liven up the next hour of gameplay.
The key to appreciating the latest chapter lies in how expertly the alternative timeline causes Max to value her friendship with Chloe more than ever. In the past, Chloe has been the game’s strongest character but not always the most likeable. Her pushiness tends to leave our heroine out of her comfort zone, sometimes not in a good way.
Chloe, for all her strengths, can sometimes act in ways that are no better than the terrible bullies that plague the students of Blackwell Academy. Make no mistake: The theme of LiS is bullying. From the cruel reactions towards Kate (the girl who killed herself as a result of a viral video) to the way the rich kids treat the less fortunate, the main takeaway from Dontnod’s series is that there has always been a push/pull to the way people treat each other. What’s amazing about the characters is that even the ones we root for, the ones we want on “our team” can be guilty of this behavior.
Caught in the middle of all this is Max, a character who’s blessed with time travel but whose ability can’t make everything all better. In fact, by this latest chapter several of the choices she makes can feel irrelevant. I mean that in the best way possible. Strange or not, there are no easy fixes in life.
The bulk of the story is focused on Max and Chloe gathering clues to finally find out what happened to missing student Rachel Amber. Three people emerge as persons of interest: Chloe’s stepdad David, drug dealer Frank, and Nathan Prescott, Arcadia Bay’s resident entitled rich jerk. All clues point to Nathan being at least partially responsible for Rachel’s disappearance, but it’s up to the dynamic duo to prove it. As a sort of departure for the series, Max and Chloe must piece together the over-abundance of clues into a very specific order. It’s a solid idea, but this series has never been about this kind of gameplay. Soon all those text messages, photographs, and searches for location coordinates gets tedious.
Fortunately, the character interaction between Max and Chloe is on point. This is also where the writers prove how good they are at making us care for Max and Chloe. Whether they’re at a mixer or snooping in the boy’s dorm rooms, these two feel a lot like real BFFs. Meanwhile, Nathan—the game’s most obvious villain—finally has his past exposed for players to investigate. A trip to an old barn, creepy art, and more are waiting to be looked over. There is also a trip to a basement, which may be a bit too Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but this is the second-to-last episode so the writer’s need to push the drama to more intense heights is somewhat warranted.
Smaller moments resonate most: Nice guy Warren has an altercation that goes too far—if Max doesn’t step in. Sitting on a stool in Chloe’s kitchen turns out to be a great moment of contemplation for Max, as she laments that “thinking about alternate timelines hurts as much as rewinding.” Even a confrontation between Queen Bee Victoria and Max feels right.
A few technical hitches interfere with the experience. For the first time ever, audio dropped out during one of Max’s conversations with a fellow student. This meant I couldn’t hear what one of her classmates said, possibly losing vital info. Later on, flashing lights at a rave party caused a choppy frame rate, which was horribly distracting.
"There’s no way we could guess this is where we’d end up when we grew up," Chloe says to Max near the end of Dark Room. While I wouldn’t go that far, as a few of the chapter’s revelations were a bit too telegraphed, the big cliffhanger is a doozy. This is the fourth time in as many chapters that Life Is Strange has shocked me big time. So bring on the conclusion stat. I am ready for one more trip to Arcadia Bay.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on PS4 version. Also available on PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.