Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 4, Dark Room (PS4)

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Title: Life Is Strange: Episode 4, Dark Room
Format: PlayStation Network Download (4.4 GB)
Release Date: July 28, 2015
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: DONTNOD
Original MSRP: $4.99 (Single Episode) / $19.99 (Complete Season)
ESRB Rating: M
Life is Strange is also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Golden Minecart Award Winner 2015
– Best Newcomer (PS3)

Reviews of the Rest of the Episodes:
Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 1, Chrysalis (PS4)
Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 2, Out of Time (PS4)
Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 3, Chaos Theory (PS4)
Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 5, Polarized (PS4)

There be unprecedented SPOILERS here!
– Editor’s Note: Sucks to be me :-/

Note:
PS Nation HATES SPOILERS! We all do! But for the first time in my memory as a spoiler-hating video game reviewer, I find this episode of this game REQUIRES some basic SPOILERS due to the way the game has progressed and the way the game is written.

Because this episode deals directly with BIG plot points from Episode 3, this reviewer entreats you to play the game before reading specifics which cannot help but be divulged in this review.

SPOILERS ARE AHEAD! BIG, UGLY SPOILERS ARE IN THIS REVIEW BECAUSE IT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE TO REVIEW THIS EPISODE WITHOUT THEM!!!!

If you have not played Life Is Strange DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW but feel free to do what many gamers do anyway and skip to the score at the bottom without looking at any screen caps.

REVIEW BEGINS

SPOILERS AHEAD

TURN BACK NOW

Compared to the events of this episode, this picture is bright and sunny.

Compared to the events of this episode, this picture is bright and sunny.

Gameplay:
Dark Room begins in an obviously downer way considering how Episode 3 ended. Make no mistake, that episode was always going to end the way it did. The game was written with that inescapable outcome.

I wonder how much thought was given to the writing about the way handicapped people actually feel about their lives. Initially in this episode, Chloe seems part herself and part a product of having been “stranded” in the house with mostly her parents for several years. She hasn’t been socialized in the same way Chloe from the previous timeline had been. Of course, her father is alive now but… was it worth the cost? Does it even out? Is “evening-out” even a fair question?

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Is Life Is Strange trying to teach the player something about living and consequence? That’s a really honorable but tricky endgame. Is this getting heavy-handed? Video games are supposed to be fun, sure, but when does the message overtake the gameplay? DONTNOD is walking a razor thin tightrope of their own design which I hope keeps them buoyed above the pavement far below. After all, narrative is open to all things. Was it really necessary to go to this exact place? Often as gamers we use games to escape our reality. Perhaps Life Is Strange should come with a disclaimer: Do not play this game if you are suicidal or have survived an horrendous automobile accident leaving you quadriplegic.

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive for the emotional welfare of others. Perhaps a disabled gamer will think, “Finally. A video game that gets me!” I can’t know. But I wonder. I wonder a lot.

… less fun than it should be …
Then there’s a terrible choice. A heartrending choice. In every playthrough it led to the previous timeline.

Back to normal.

Max and Chloe together again and trying to figure out the mystery of Rachel’s disappearance.

There’s a scene to play similar to a scene in Episode 2 with Kate except this time the rewind mechanic is active. The problem is that some of the conversation choices are misleading. You pick one that seems safe only to discover it isn’t. Then you have to replay it again, and again, and again until you find that a choice that seemed really unsafe was actually the only correct choice. It feels like a cheat for the first time in all the episodes. I really hope the developers aren’t getting too tired to give the game all the care they have previously.

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NEW MECHANICS: Investigation

There is a new mechanic introduced in this episode. You investigate particular clues in evidence by the stuff you collect in the sections of gameplay. Don’t worry about missing anything in the collection process. You can’t progress until you’ve gathered everything. Which things you deem important is what matters. Then there are sub-investigations to do. After choosing your clues you must put them together in each group to see that they work together. If you think they do but the script says they don’t you get a big whammy. For a game based upon choice there is a hella lot of corralling the player into a predetermined, um, corral.

This looks like a hoot and' a holler, don't it?

This looks like a hoot an’ a holler, don’t it?

The phone code breaking is annoying every time I play it but that’s life. The whole code-breaking, evidence-matching part of this game is less fun than it should be. I get why it’s important and even necessary but that doesn’t make me squeal with delight to have to perform it. It would be better if there was a trophy every step of the way as incentive and then pop a gold trophy for making it through this circuitous mess. But I ask for too much.

… an enormous amount going on under the hood …
The clues pointing to Nathan’s wrongdoing become very niggling. Too many clues with various minutiae to pair up. Life Is Strange has never had such arduous gameplay. This just isn’t fun. It’s work. And I do that all day at, what?, oh yeah, WORK! And if you’re a student you do it all day at school.

By the way… if you remember that this episode was seemingly about getting to and crashing a fun party for the cool kids, there are hours of play before that. Depressing, not-fun play.

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And then the narrative takes a turn so dark and unnecessary that the game is no longer worthy of it’s attractive title screen, charming theme music or any of the three episodes which preceded this one.

The Vortex Club’s “End of the World” party at last!

“DJ Doom” is wearing a shirt that says FATE.

It’s amusing that all this hipsterness is actually ironic.

At one point cans of drinks are referred to as “chips and crackers”. Now, that’s just stupid. And as an ancillary moment in the game it could have been cut entirely and no one would care. Why they left it in is anyone’s guess. It’s minor except that in a game striving for truth it just makes me think they rushed the release. Still, as I’ve intimated before, there is an enormous amount going on under the hood of this game. I’d rather they get that right and patch out this admittedly optional error later.

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Why, OH WHY, is the photography contest winner being announced at a radical student party where it’s hella clear many students aren’t invited and others are specifically kept away? It is surely a function of brevity over content inasmuch as the game needs to move along so they smashed these things together when they simply don’t fit. More poor game design by DONTNOD because there are a ton of wasted bytes and bits in other areas of the game design. It is at this moment I must, and I mean must, shake my damned head.

There are suddenly lapses in story logic. Lapses in character behavior.

And at the end of this episode I am wanting to murder everyone ever!

… less about story and more about fighting the game …
A second playthrough:
It matters not which choice you make with disabled Chloe. It will always go back to the previous blue-haired timeline.

Where’d that Blue Jay come from? Oh, right. Using all the save files for various plays-through while making different combinations of choices really does make a difference.

Surprise! A character who was not present at Chloe’s house might be present in another playthrough meaning a completely different way of obtaining information is necessary. It’s a puzzler alright. A totally different gameplay event not in my first playthrough.

There is a problem with the rewind mechanic in this episode which has not been present before, pardon the pun. The “vortex”, to put the graphic in the UI in the vernacular of the game, has little gray circles annotating events in the timeline which one needs to target. That mechanic doesn’t work properly in this episode which makes rewinding time ridiculously frustrating and makes the gameplay less about story and more about fighting the game in order to progress. I noticed it in my first playthrough during a different scene but thought it was something I did wrong. After three plays-through of each of the previous three episodes I am certain the problem lies not with me but with quality assurance on DONTNOD’s end.

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The first scene outcome can’t be changed, but because I made very different choices in this save I do get some experiences with other characters, whole scenes and even more branching choices.

There is quite a surprising outcome after a fight I had squashed in my first save I let play out in my second. An outcome which changes another interaction with a completely different, unrelated character. That new outcome is not likely to be good.

My second save contains completely different gameplay. It’s like actually playing a different game in some respects. Remember when I entreated players to play more than once and to make different choices? These various gameplay branches are now showing their fruits.

That said, the ending of this episode remains the same.

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Visuals:
Life Is Strange, Chaos Theory is just as pretty to look at as its preceding episodes.

Audio:
It’s like they don’t care as much. There was a theme song in Episode One not heard since, and the music garners less and less importance as episodes have continued. The rest of the sound is good as before.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online components.

… a terrible disappointment …
Conclusion:
Up to the moment I began playing Episode 4 – Dark Room, Life Is Strange was at the top of my list for Game Of The Year.

What a terrible disappointment after three awesome installments. This is a terribly planned episode from emotional lows to five minute rewinds to the hideous clue hunt.

Certainly one could argue that all outcomes are possible. However, I argue that this videogame and the timbre of the narrative to date going back to when the first episode was released some five months ago should never have brought the player to what I experienced in my first playthrough. It is a betrayal of the trust gamers have in DONTNOD, who I can only imagine are now giggling away at how edgy they’ve made their game, completely ignorant of any sense of taste.

I have reviewed many games over the last couple of years but never in my career until this moment has a game made me absolutely furious.

The weird thing is that the experiences of others may vary enough that they don’t encounter what I did, especially if they only played once and made different choices than I did in my first save slot. That said, I take strong umbrage with what I found, maintaining the conclusions could have been reached without such drastic and terrible circumstances.

Score:
6.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Keith Dunn-Fernández

Keith Dunn-Fernández

An actor/director and more lucratively an Administrative Assistant at a small paper company in NYC, Keith loves his games. And he loves to write. And he is a bit of a sarcasmo.

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