In the penultimate episode of Dontnod’s time travel/murder mystery/teen drama story, it’s time to start getting answers.
(Warning: spoilers for the three previous episodes will be discussed)
Dark Room picks up after the shocking end of episode 3. Max, in a desperate attempt to fix everything wrong in Chloe’s life, has shunted herself into an alternate timeline by going back to the day that Chloe’s father died- the event that she consistently identifies as the cause of all her misery- and manipulating things so that he lives. In classic time travel fashion, this just makes everything worse, as alterno-Chloe is paralyzed due to a car crash and slowly dying from respiratory failure, her family crushed under the weight of medical bills that they can’t pay.
This is easily the most emotionally harrowing part of the game thus far, and I really hope it ends up being more than a brief tangent, especially since it contains the biggest and most morally difficult choice we’ve seen yet. Needless to say, Max soon finds a way to return to her own timeline, now armed with the knowledge that she can’t just snap her fingers and fix everything and distinctly leery of her abilities.
It’s billed as the fourth episode, but Dark Room really feels more like the first part of an ending. Multiple character arcs reach what could be natural concluding points, most of the minor choices from the previous episodes come into play in definitive ways and we finally get an answer to the biggest mystery in the game: what happened to Rachel Amber?
I was rather thrilled by the fact that the player gets to solve this mystery for themselves. All of the clues gathered over the course of the last eight or so hours of gameplay are laid out and it’s up to you to draw the connections necessary to crack the case. As well as being barrels of fun, this also reveals just how carefully the story has been constructed so that the various seemingly-disparate plot threads line up and make sense together.
As exhilarating and tense as all of this is, the episode does sag in places as the game needs to shoe-horn in space for conversations with various side characters, which only made me realize that Life Is Strange’s cast is probably a lot bigger than it needs to be. And as much as I appreciated being able to visit Kate after I saved her life in the second episode, the hospital interlude bogged down the episode’s pacing even more. Dontnod put themselves in a bit of a bind here, as players who successfully pulled off rescuing Kate (probably the most difficult puzzle/moral choice combination in the whole game) are justified in wanting some sort of pay-off, but the pacing of the story is such that there isn’t actually room for such an event. The positive side to this is that getting all the side-character fluff out of the way now presumably means that the final episode will be more tightly focused.
And that’s really the issue here: despite some heavy speed-bumps on the way, Life Is Strange has been a hella awesome adventure game, easily one of the most captivating gaming experiences I’ve had in years… none of which is going to end up mattering if Dontnod fumble the ending.
They could do that very easily. We still have zero answers regarding Max’s time travel abilities or how they’re connected to the looming apocalyptic breakdown of reality happening around Arcadia Bay. The final episode needs to resolve those mysteries while also tying off the last remaining ambiguities around Rachel’s disappearance and the people responsible for it and providing a satisfying conclusion to Max and Chloe’s evolving relationship. There are just enough David Lynch influences present that I’m seriously afraid Dontnod will attempt some sort of audience-polarizing mind-screw, an approach that I guarantee will not work for this particular story.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Overall, Dark Room continues to be exciting and gripping in all the same ways as its predecessors, while sharing their flaws. It ends on a nail-biting cliffhanger that made me really wish I had Max’s powers at my disposal.
One episode left. The storm is almost here.