Review: Life is Strange: Episode 4 – The Butterfly Effect
Like the teenagers entering young adulthood on the campus of Blackwell Academy, Square Enix and Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange has gradually been maturing since its debut earlier this year into a more confident, strong-willed series, and the episodic adventure’s latest installment is a testament to that maturity in what is far and away its darkest and most serious chapter yet.
Coming off a powerful cliffhanger from Episode 3, the latest installment titled “Dark Room” moves the needle forward for Max, Chloe, and the residents of Arcadia Bay as the clock continually ticks toward dire and dark consequences.
By digging deeper into the town’s numerous mysteries — the disappearance of student Rachel Amber, the seedy dealings of the wealthy Prescott family, the supernatural elements affecting Arcadia Bay’s environment — “Dark Room” thickens the plot of Life is Strange in notable ways.
With only one more episode to go, Episode 4 makes its penultimate chapter count by wrapping up storylines and leading us toward a conclusion for Max and Chloe’s story.
This episode easily shows how the series has matured since the first episode back in January with some of the strongest scenes that Dontnod has concocted yet, but also demonstrated some growing pains of the series not quite reaching for the ambitions it is grasping at, with notable situations of inconsistent storytelling and tone along the way.
Taking place right after the brutal conclusion of Episode 3 that left Chloe paralyzed and wheelchair-bound due to Maxine’s altering of the Arcadia Bay timeline, the opening segments of Episode 4 absolutely show this title at its strongest, which comes down to its nuanced character development and attention to detail.
Max and Chloe’s relationship has been the heart of Life is Strange, and the opening section of the episode is only a testament to that with Maxine (and the player) uncovering how her actions have altered Chloe’s life completely; whether or not it’s necessarily for the “better” is what makes it resonate, and such an emotionally strong section of the episode.
Player choice and consequence have been key, and in many ways the latest episode’s strong opening has been a testament to the series, providing players with tangible consequences for their actions. As the opening shows, Maxine’s decisions to save Chloe’s father powerfully shows the ripple effects that her abilities are capable of.
While Chloe’s father, William, is now alive and well in Arcadia Bay, the timeline has been altered to dramatic effect which the episode explores significantly. Paralyzed from the neck down, Chloe ends up tethered to medical equipment just to survive, with players also being exposed to the realities of the situation of not only the financial burden of medical bills being placed on her parents, but the isolated life Chloe now leads at the cost of her family remaining together.
As the lengthiest installment that Life is Strange has seen yet — clocking in around three hours compared to previous episodes running at most two hours — the opening section of the episode only continues to dive in to the consequences of the player’s choices alongside Maxine realizing both the power and limits of her ability to bend time.
From a segment where Max investigates Chloe’s now empty upstairs bedroom littered with packed up boxes, to uncovering more of the changes in time that she was responsible for, Episode 4 toys with player expectations in surprising and emotional ways.
This even extends into Max’s journal. When I first opened up her journal and saw various diary entries, characters, and locations missing, what I assumed was a glitch on the game’s behalf instead lead to me realizing that it was a clever alteration of the info that players had access to based on Max’s changing of the timeline.
Life is Strange has always excelled at the smaller details of its characters and world, and this episode only continues to speak to that strength.
As previous episodes introduced the seedier aspects of the scenic Arcadia Bay between a widespread drug problem and those involved with it, Episode 4 continues to dig deeper into those mysteries and as the title “Dark Room” suggests, leads to some dark and intriguing places in the story.
While I can’t say much without giving away massive spoilers, the title’s secret aspect as a sort of teenage murder mystery in the vein of Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys comes to a boil with more details on the ongoing investigation to Rachel Amber’s disappearance finally coming to a head, while uncovering much larger stakes at work in Arcadia Bay.
Episode 4 is bookended by a powerful opening and a shocking conclusion, and as the longest of the episodes so far it’s brimming with exposition and new details that only progress the story forward toward its conclusion, but in many ways will also make you rethink past actions and events.
However, the length of the episode noticeably works against it, as “Dark Room” often unwinds as the most uneven episode in the series so far, with some jarring inconsistencies in tone, pacing, and situations that exist more to shock players than provide real consequences or actions.
In particular, the middle portions of “Dark Room” are weighed down by often lengthy conversation scenes and extended puzzles that require more diligent searching for clues than genuine problem solving. In one scenario, I used Maxine’s rewind ability to try and find an alternative route through a conversation and find a different outcome.
After going down several different paths and still winding up at the exact same outcome, I ended up taking that path out of slight frustration with having to rewind back through a lengthy conversation, rather than having to go through every step bit-by-bit again and see where I went wrong.
Episode 4 not only falters in some ways with long portions of dialogue and puzzles that may bear some frustration, on a storytelling standpoint it shows signs of inconsistency with the treatment and capabilities of its characters for the sake of story convenience.
In particular, Maxine’s abilities to bend time often show uneven clarification of what she can and can’t do: where in previous episodes Maxine could grab objects and then rewind to hold on to them for a puzzle solution, this episode introduces several moments that actively work against this for the sake of the story.
While it’s arguably in the interest of increasing tension in some scenarios, the logical leaps that the story takes in some aspects with Max’s time-altering abilities do introduce some frustrating moments in what players have been conditioned to expect from previous episodes, only for the game to be (effectively) throwing those established traits out the window.
Over the course of four episodes, Life is Strange has flourished in remarkable ways: despite some initially awkward writing, the story has progressed to be a tale of growing up in a small town mixed with remarkable (but not overplayed) elements of fantasy and mystery.
With Max and Chloe’s relationship at the core, “Dark Room” succeeds in turning up the tension and taking the series into a much darker place than before, both literally and figuratively.
The uneven pacing and logical leaps present in Episode 4 make it the most uneven episode of the story so far, yet with only one episode left to go, it’s clear that Dontnod still has more places to explore, especially in what may be Max and Chloe’s darkest hour.