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Review: Life is Strange: Episode 4 – Dark Room (Sony PlayStation 4)

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Life is Strange: Episode 4 – Dark Room
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Genre: Interactive Drama
Release Date: 07/28/2015

(Note: This review will feature text copied from my review of episode one. As things like graphics, audio, and core mechanics are unlikely to change between episodes, there’s hardly a good reason to rewrite bits for that. These copied sections will be in italics. Feel free to read them and/or skip them as you see fit.)

Every time I have to play the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I close my eyes and think of Life is Strange. So far, this series has been absolutely incredible. That’s despite not being filled with broken quick-time-events! How is that even possible?

lifeisstrange41Anyway, the last episode was definitely a trip. Max and Chloe began their investigation into the disappearance of Rachel Amber in earnest. Buildings were broken into, guns were drawn, and a dog’s life hung in the balance. It was intense to say the least. The ending, however, was a complete mind-blower. Even though that episode has been out for two months, I won’t speak of that ending in order to prevent spoilers. You see, the beginning of this episode directly deals with what happened there. Saying too much would ruin it all.

The investigation this time is even more intense, as all the clues start to fall into place. There’s plenty of great character interaction here, and you really start to feel like a detective. One of the highlights is when you dig through documents and photos in order to piece together vital information. You’re free to examine everything for clues, and putting it all together is satisfying.

Of course, choices come up in this episode. I’m talking about huge choices. At one point, I just put my controller down and stared while I tried to comprehend what I was being asked to do. Unlike a Telltale game, time is not of the essence. You have the ability to sit and think about your actions. While not necessarily a better mechanic, it certainly more thought provoking.

lifeisstrange42It’s the story that makes this kind of game, and episode four simply doesn’t disappoint. Not only are things put into place for the finale, but pretty much every story thread moves forward in an interesting way. This isn’t just some bit of fluff until the real action happened. The beginning and end sections of this episode are some of the most powerful in the entire season. It’s building to a crescendo rather than quieting down before the real storm.

For the most part, Life is Strange looks great. The models and environments are well detailed, there’s a good use of color, and nothing looks strangely out of place. A couple of issues bog it down though. The hair for example, has the complexion of cheap plastic. It almost looks like characters are wearing helmets. Facial hair doesn’t fare much better either. Those that have it look like they’ve simply drawn it on with marker. More importantly, the lip syncing is terrible to the point of distraction. It feels like the audio is simply out of sync with the visuals. Unfortunately, these issues are consistent throughout the game and make it hard to enjoy an otherwise well put together little world.

Things fare better in the aural department. Those indie songs fit the mood to a tee, and sound pretty nice to boot. The voice acting is also quite good across the board. A few lines are overacted a bit, but that can just as easily be attributed to the fact that teenagers actually act like that. It’s not odd at all that Max would get into an all too serious reverie about some silly bit of graffiti or lament the state of her self portrait. That’s what kids do. It’s a solid package across the board really. It’s just a shame those words don’t match the lip movements.

Much like the various recent TT games, Life is Strange keeps a minimalist approach. However, this game keeps a few of the puzzle elements that those games have ditched. The time rewinding mechanic also throws a fresh perspective on the genre.

lifeisstrange43There’s actually freedom to explore and discover in the game. While you can only really progress the plot by completing certain actions, you’re often given a fairly well sized area to walk around in. You can hunt for photo ops, talk to people, and get Max’s input on various things as well. Talking to people helps flesh out the story, and adds a lot of depth. There’s one plot line about a girl who went missing in the months prior to the start of story, and you’ll find out a lot more by talking to non-essential people than you will on the main path. It’s really all about walking around and pressing one of two or so face buttons. It’s simple, but effective.

When a puzzle does show up, it’s often only a couple of steps in complexity. For example, you’ll only need to perform two actions in order to get the popular girls to stop blocking your way into the dorm. The trick is in using the time reversal to see what things you can interact with. In one case, you need to hide in a closet. If you attempt to open the door, a floor lamp falls into it and knocks everything over. A quick time reversal allows you to move the lamp first and thus save you from the accident. To reverse time, you need only hold down a shoulder button. The game has skip options to allow you fast forward through stuff you’ve already seen before/maneuver through time faster. Best of all, this mechanic lets you change your mind about even the biggest decisions in the game. The catch is that you can only reverse time so far, and once you leave the area, those decisions are set in stone. Still, it takes a lot of the anxiety out of making a choice. You can see what all the options do and pick the path you think is best.

lifeisstrange44When it comes to making choices in the game, your options are usually limited. Fans used to TT’s four option method might be disappointed to know that this game usually offers only two or three choices. This is most likely to give more meaning to those choices and to keep the time reversals from getting out of hand. On the other hand, you’re free to talk to someone until you’ve exhausted all dialogue options, which is nice. It’s certainly less on-rails than comparable games. It’s not quite to the point where you can call it a true adventure game, but it’s much closer than you’d expect.

Depending on how much you want to explore (and you should really want to explore whenever you have the opportunity), this episode can last anywhere from an hour and a half to over three hours. There is a lot to do here, including searching around for hidden photo ops that may or may not have some tiny influence later on. It’s insane the amount of detail here, and it just keeps on getting better somehow.

Short Attention Span Summary

diehardjack1-150x150Dark Room is probably the best episode yet. It explores the nature of Max’s powers in an incredible opening scene, gives you some honest detective work to do, and finishes up with the kind of hook that will definitely get you hyped up for the final episode. All told, unless that final episode is an unprecedented disaster, Life is Strange will be one of the best games of the year.

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