Life is Strange‘s penultimate episode left me ill and confused. The choices the narrative offered took me beyond discomfort to physical sickness. But the confusion was not a good one; rather than being left pondering theories for the upcoming final episode, I was left genuinely lost as to how I got where I did. Episode 4, Dark Room, is a mess of tedious puzzles bookended by powerful opening and closing scenes, and throws what is meaningful about its time-rewinding mechanic out the window for cheap ways to progress the plot.
Up until now, Dontnod’s episodic series has been about its cast of troubled characters being troubled together, portrayed in the trappings of a mystery about a missing girl and unexplainable time-travel powers. The focus has been on protagonist Max fighting for the well being of her childhood friend Chloe and her classmates–both friend and frenemy–and exposing a conspiracy involving the town of Arcadia Bay’s richest family. But Dark Room is the emotional equivalent of being doused with a bucket of ice water, drowning the warm and fuzzies of previous episodes in cold, plain horror.
Episode 4 picks up right after the events of Episode 3, which effectively reboots Max’s life and the situations of those around her. No one is more profoundly affected than Chloe, and the first few scenes present an interesting scenario, should the rest of the game progress in this timeline. It’s hard to discuss this part without spoiling it, but Life is Strange chooses to double back and play things safer than forge ahead with these brave new possibilities. This weakens the narrative and makes the entire sequence feel like something placed for shock value, though it doesn’t diminish the emotional potency.
Episode 4’s biggest problem is the flippancy with which it begins treating the time-rewind mechanic. Max can rewind time to undo conversations, but she can also use her power to stealthily take objects and explore environments without others knowing. In previous episodes, Max has been able to pick up an object like keys or a crowbar and keep ownership of these things after rewinding time. Episode 4 presents you with several situations in which this mechanic should logically be present and would be helpful–but for some reason the game tosses this ability away entirely. It’s deeply frustrating to see a solution and not be able to use it, especially when you’ve been conditioned up to this point to be able to utilize Max’s powers in this way.
With its main mechanic breaking its own rules for the sake of creating tough situations, Life is Strange becomes more muddled than meaningful. Time rewinding has been reduced to more of a gimmick than a tool for change, and the power behind it has been thrown out to prevent the narrative from tripping over itself. But the narrative is already stumbling, as it frantically tries to pack in as much progress on the Rachel Amber mystery as possible into this one episode.
As Max and Chloe kick their search into high gear, a few bizarre logical leaps occur that I have a hard time following. The connection between Rachel Amber and Kate Marsh–the depressed and bullied friend Max had a chance to save back in Episode 2–still doesn’t make much sense, nor does the involvement of Nathan Prescott, the troubled son of the city’s most powerful family. There is one particular puzzle in this episode that I found almost intolerable. Chloe and Max lay out every clue they have collected–literally lay it all out in front of them–and the player is tasked with matching up groups of clues that create leads for the duo to follow. When the puzzle began, I had no idea what I was looking for, and it was a long time before Max’s voice-over offered any hints as to what I should be searching. The mystery gets too obtuse to follow, and only after slogging through scraps of paper and tattered photos does anything even remotely make sense. Things were tidied up far too quickly for me to follow, leaving the victory of discovery feeling a bit hollow.
But following this puzzle, the episode picks up again, leading to one of my favorite environment puzzles in the entire series to date. And from here everything spiraled out of control, leaving me the most upset I have ever been at a game’s completion. I didn’t sleep at all following my playthrough. I felt gross.
The big “thing” for this episode, if you will, is that it demonstrates the effect your choices have been having on the series all along. Big decisions you’ve made in all three previous episodes–whether or not Chloe still has her gun, whether or not you killed Frank’s dog, whether or not you saved Kate–have huge implications. If you saved Kate, you’re treated to scenes you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. If you didn’t knock off Frank’s dog, you have a real chance to connect with him. Things I forgot I did in episodes past have a major impact on what I dealt with in Episode 4, which means everything I’m doing really matters. Life is Strange may poke holes in its mechanics when it sees fit, but it a does a damn good job of letting you know that every little thing you do is contributing to a powerful butterfly effect.
That sense of confusion, however, floats on the top of my emotions. Dark Room is two very strong sequences with a lot of uninteresting stuff sandwiched in between–uninteresting in that the pacing drags, some scenes go on too long before the game allows you to rewind, and it becomes genuinely hard to care about anything that’s not the adventures of Max and Chloe. It’s a rollercoaster of an episode, with some disappointing holes punched in concepts that have been strengthened for three episodes, but it delivers a punch in the gut that makes the rest of the experience worthwhile.