Every time I come back to Life is Strange, I always walk away surprised by the direction and with something thoughtful to reflect on. In my time reviewing the series, I’ve compared it to many different things: from the high school clichés of Bully to the darker, mature science fiction of The Butterfly Effect. There isn’t exactly one thing it most resembles, and with each new episode I find myself genuinely shocked; with none more so than the most recent instalment. In fact, it hasn’t been since The Walking Dead: Season One that I’ve become so consumed thinking about the fictional events of a game. My heart is currently hurting for these characters, and I am super anxious to find out what’s really going on.
As always, I’ll provide my usual spoiler alert regarding the events of the previous episode. Finish that before reading if you’re not up to date. To re-cap, however, last time we saw Max, she and Chloe had been in full investigation mode. Together, they had broken into the school to get dirt on Nathan Prescott, into the garage at Chloe’s place to see what David had been up to, and into Frank’s trailer to uncover details on his relationship with Rachel Amber. Basically, a lot of breaking into places and plenty of experimentation with Max’s powers. In turn, what we learned is that everyone knows that Nathan is mentally unstable and is actively covering it up, David is a creep who had been tracking both Rachel and Kate, and that Rachel was involved in a romantic relationship with Frank (much to Chloe’s shock and hurt).
A lot of focus was placed on Chloe’s lifestyle last episode, and given the implication she was romantically invested in Rachel, her hurt was made more real; both in Rachel’s betrayal and her disappearance. Where things really make an emotionally wild shift is when Chloe loses her temper and begins blaming everything wrong with her life on her dad for leaving (or dying, if you look at it without all the teenage angst). Max, clearly hurting for Chloe, wishes that she could change things and this triggers a new ability which sends her back in time to when they were kids. Ideally, this should be Max’s golden opportunity to save William and reshape the future, but things never turn out well when you mess with time. William survives the accident, but Chloe is now a wheelchair-bound, terminal quadriplegic in this new reality.
At the time, I was shocked by this scene; even if bad things getting worse is one of the biggest tropes of time travel. But in saying that, as Life is Strange has already played on clichés quite well, I was okay with this. I was actually more concerned with how this development would nullify any choices in the old reality. Fortunately, it doesn’t. You’ll still be dealing with everything you’ve been pursuing previously, but not before the episode gives your heart a good beating out of the gate to get you warmed up. Since the beginning, the game has tackled heavy themes in moderation, but you should be prepared for some dramatic shifts in tone as the writers aren’t holding back any longer. This was similar to episode two in that it’s more focused on character drama rather than the science fiction elements of the narrative.
It’s clear that the writers are wanting us to always consider the bigger picture, and this theme is prevalent in episode four. For example, if you told Joyce about David’s spying: is he really being a creep or was he trying to do something good just in the wrong way? As the plot grows darker, it’s going to be harder to keep your moral compass and actions aligned. It’s too easy to fall back onto the justification of ‘necessary evil’ when things go bad, but is that really an okay philosophy? I’m convinced that in some situations it is, but you have to be so very careful when walking that line. The choices this time around were less black and white, and this set the stage for some excellent character moments. It was also encouraging to see Max approaching confrontations with confidence still knowing that her powers could fail.
Something I also noticed is that I’ve stopped picking up on awkward dialogue. I’m not convinced it’s gone altogether, I just think I’ve reached a point where I fully believe in these characters. Like watching an old episode of Star Trek: once it captures your imagination, you stop questioning the cardboard sets and strings. I felt more connected with the cast and that’s why so much of episode four hit me so hard emotionally. I was happy for Kate, appreciative of Warren, and, given the sexual ambiguity with Max, simply glad to have a friend like Chloe now I understand her better. Around the middle point, it was great fun playing detectives together to unravel the mystery. But once you learn about the ‘Dark Room,’ everything will change forever. Some scenes following had me so on edge it was like being in a twisted thriller.
You know that feeling you get the day after something really terrible happens? How you just sit there thinking about what happened over and over again; wishing it was all some bad dream you could wake from. Several days later, these events are still on my mind and the feeling of not knowing what will happen is the worst of any episodic game I’ve played. There are so many shocking developments in episode four, and one thing I feel the writers are trying to play up is the theme of people being able to solve problems without the need for special powers; which is so fantastic. I also noticed a lot of choices from the earlier episodes coming full circle to influence the present, which is exactly what I wanted to see from the get go. Choice is superfluous without long-term ramifications, and Life is Strange knows that.
When I finished episode four, I felt sick to my stomach. For a game that plays with so many tropes and clichés, it never ceases to amaze me how each episode manages to surprise and draw me in further. ‘Dark Room’ pulls at your heartstrings from the very beginning and doesn’t hesitate to kick you when your guard is down. It’s a feeling I’ve only ever experienced while playing The Walking Dead, and now I sit here anxiously writing as I begin the wait for the finale. Things that used to bother me about earlier episodes don’t anymore, and it’s rewarding to see solid continuity across the series. It’s still quirky at its core, but I’ve crossed all barriers of disbelief to immerse myself. There’s no stoping now!
EDITOR NOTE: this game was provided to us by the publisher, and reviewed on PC across 3 hours of gameplay. Please also understand that in an effort to be fair, we will not score an episodic game until the season is complete.