French developer DONTNOD really kicked things into overdrive with the third episode of Life Is Strange. While the first two episodes were certainly divisive – even amongst the staff here - it would be hard to argue that the series wasn't in the process of carving out its own niche. Episode three was where proceedings truly blossomed, bursting forth with a spectacular entry, and now here we sit with the fourth instalment. Luckily for us, DONTNOD has not only matched what came before - it's surpassed it.
Episode three had an earth shattering ending that really changed the game. For fear of spoiling, we'll leave that there, but it should be stated episode four dutifully picks up where the previous entry left off. This facet of the story is further explored too, giving Dark Room the largest concentration on science-fiction that we've seen thus far, including some decidedly dark scenarios. But back in the primary arc of the season, things continue to get weirder and weirder, especially in the lead up to the Vortex Club's 'End of the World' party. Scientifically unexplainable phenomena have been increasing with intensity.
Science-fiction isn't the only area that gets turned up to eleven this time through, however. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Rachel Amber has found itself permeating nearly everything that Max and Chloe have been getting into in Arcadia Bay. This time through is no different in that regard, but it's handled differently. In past episodes, figuring out what happened to Rachel was more of a goal off on the horizon, but this time, everything feels far more immediate, and as such, the detective mystery components of the series take a step closer to the limelight.
This more focused level of mystery means that puzzles take a bit more of central role than usual. Don't worry though, it's probably got about as many of those as past episodes - it just so happens that the new ones have a little more meat on their bones. Rather than simply needing to do one thing, the new conundrums tend to have multiple steps. This brings a new - and welcome - challenge to the game without actually interfering with the flow or minute-to-minute experience.
Of course, one of the most important areas of the title is its narrative and the writing, and we're happy to say that this episode continues the heightened level of quality that episode three established for the season. Gone are the constant cringe-inducing quips, replaced with emotional depth and even greater character development. One particular scene with Chloe early on and one with Victoria later are particular standouts, assuming, of course, that Max says and does the right things. That's not to say that this divisive kind of dialogue is completely gone, however - it's just reserved for choice moments, giving it more impact, and allowing it to be funny rather than painful.
But the biggest improvement might be with the writing's pacing. Episode three, while genuinely great, had a few lulls in it. Episode four on the other hand pretty much nails the building sense of dread all the way through from beginning to end. One recurring theme this time around is a much darker tone. While previous episodes felt very much like high school melodrama at times - to the game's benefit - much of the new episode is, er, really messed up. Parts of it feel closer to a David Fincher work; dark, gritty, and artfully gruesome - more so than anything that came before. It's not without its quieter moments, though; there are still bits of down time so that you can just take everything in without feeling uneasy, and this all comes to a head in the absolute best and most shocking ending of the season. And, for those of you who have played episode three, that is quite the statement.
Thankfully, not everything's gloomy or exhaustingly mindblowing; the art direction, for example, still continues to be pleasingly beautiful, offering wonderfully serene locales. Not all of the environments are friendly in nature, but even the more sombre things - which we won't spoil here - have an inherent beauty to them. Additionally, DONTNOD's knack for picking fantastic indie music continues, delivering yet another episode of quality audio for the ears to feast on.
Episode four of DONTNOD's Life Is Strange continues the exceptional level of quality that episode three delivered. It even goes so far as to surpass what came before in a variety of ways. A lot of the improvements come by way of much darker themes working their way in, and while some might find these happenings unwelcome, they mesh extremely well with the events that we've previously witnessed, and are helping to set up what has the chance to be an absolutely amazing conclusion.