After a stellar mid-season episode in the form of Chaos Theory, episode 4 sees Life Is Strange at peak confidence, adeptly injecting more dark thriller elements into its awkward supernatural teen drama. If Chaos Theory was all about plucking at your heartstrings, Dark Room is about new revelations regarding Rachel Amber’s disappearance, as well as shocking twists courtesy of some of the series’ most notorious characters.
On the subject of heartstrings, episode 4 picks up with Max Caulfield’s first foray into a parallel timeline. In a good natured attempt to reunite Chloe with her late Father, William, and subsequently rid her of “step-douche” David Madsen, Max decided to stop William from reaching the car that caused his death. Unfortunately, events proceed to leave Chloe disabled from the head down, thanks to a car accident of her very own. This opening sequence is as smart as it is touching, as it manages to ask some very difficult questions about family, life and the difficulties severely disabled people and their loved ones face everyday. Max (and you, dear player) must toss up an almost unthinkable conundrum: would Chloe have been better off with a dead father and an emotionally crippled family, but still have the ability to take a walk by herself, or is she better living in a world wherein she cannot leave her room or feel fresh air on her body, but is surrounded by a wholesome, loving family?
It’s an emotional, gut-wrenching sequence. To witness Chloe in two states of being, and to notice the differences and similarities between those two states, is to experience videogame characters on a very unique level. In a way Chloe and her family have become four-dimensional, and their destinies are now irreparably linked to Max’s own.
Once Max finds herself realigned with her “original” timeline, Dark Room starts to live up to its name, as it shows off a much more sinister side of Blackwell and Arcadia Bay. Almost every single major choice Max can make will affect a person’s life or death, and the stakes are really starting to ramp up. None of this takes away from the smaller, more charming moments the series has become known for, though. Although it’s spiralling into full-on supernatural thriller territory, Life is Strange remains a tale of friendship, family and moral relativity – saving small animals or preventing Alyssa from receiving another nasty bump on the head is just as satisfying as the heavy stuff.
Dark Room feels just as balanced as its predecessor – there’s plenty of snooping around, admiring Arcadia Bay’s immense level of attention to detail, but there are also plenty of opportunities to use Max’s time rewind ability in order to affect Blackwell Academy and its residents on fronts both large and small. Taking so much time out of its debut episode to establish characters and settings has paid of dividends at this point, and has left these last few episodes with plenty of room to push the plot forwards at a startling pace.
Max’s rewinding moments certainly aren’t as impressive as they were last time around – we’re mainly back to using time to influence Max’s space, or using it to second guess decisions we’re not sure on – but that’s understandable considering the shoes Dark Room is attempting to fill.
The team at DONTNOD have seemingly also listened to feedback regarding Max and Chloe’s butchery of the English language, since the awful teenager-isms have been all but removed. Alternate timeline Chloe even scolds Max for saying “Hella”, in a cute jab at the series’ awkward first few episodes. In spite of this, Max and her cohorts still feel very much like real teenagers, as flawed and constantly evolving as the pre-apocalypse world they inhabit.
Like a great photograph, Life Is Strange is a world of impressive detail, and this is perfectly encapsulated in episode 4’s “Vortex Club” party, a neon drenched pool party full of pitch-perfect teenage thrills and spills. It’s one of the series’ finest set pieces, and one that demonstrates just how fantastic Life Is Strange is at establishing a beautiful and nasty cast and setting.
Though not quite as groundbreaking as Chaos Theory, Dark Room proves that its predecessor was no fluke – Life is Strange has not only found a fantastic niche within its genre, but seems intent on completely turning it on its head. Seeing how every choice affects the tiniest of details is positively mesmerizing, and adds a whole new dynamic to episodic adventure games that TellTale’s series haven’t quite managed to capture.