Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: October 20, 2015
This review of “Life is Strange Episode 5″ will go a bit deeper into the overarching plot themes, while trying to remain light about specific plot details until after the 8th paragraph below this preface. Overall, it will make passing remarks at certain events of Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3 and Episode 4.
If it wasn’t made clear in the previous episodes, the lives of Maxine Caulfield, Chloe Price and the rest of Arcadia Bay have been decidedly strange for one long week in October 2013. In that span, people have been shot, bullied, spied on, abused, separated, reunited and, oddly importantly, photographed. It all culminates on October 11, a day that would live in infamy for the poor unfortunate souls of this small Oregonian town. A question remains more pertinent for players; would it end in a satisfying fashion?
It’s tough to say.
Episode 5 of Life Is Strange, “Polarized,” transports us right into the Dark Room, made infamous in the last episode. Kidnapped, woozy and scared, Max must use her wits to escape her frightening predicament. Using a trick she learned in “Chaos Theory,” Max goes back to set things right, only to internalize and strife through a great deal of difficulties trying to find a perfect solution to a complex circumstance. Her struggles boil down to one constant; consequences will happen. How they come to be, and to what extent, is up to destiny.
…Tthe machinations of her supernaturally damaged mind expose a deeper sense of doubt and fear…
Concerning the plot framed in this season finale, I appreciated Dontnod taking the story to dark places without sugar-coating or softening the blow. Max waking up in the last place anyone should be, face to face with her enemy and trying to outthink a maniacal sycophant was just so raw and emotional a turn. The voice acting hasn’t been as great as one would hope this entire series (nor is the lip synching), yet it wasn’t hard to put yourself in that dreadful place Max ultimately had to experience time and time again.
More rewarding is the focus on the surreal in the Life Is Strange finale. Excluding Frank and his damn beans, the dance inside Max’s subconscious as she searches for answers within brought a much needed internal monologue through visualization. So much of this game sees Max spout exposition about near every object she sees; the machinations of her supernaturally damaged mind expose a deeper sense of doubt and fear, one that bring depth and build character to an entity that can control the limits of time and alternate reality as she knows it.
“Polarized” lives up to its namesake by making intriguing narrative and design decision in its story. Max, Chloe, our primary antagonist and Warren are the key players in the conclusion, with players concentrating on finding a way to save Arcadia Bay from the oncoming storm. Playing out each scenario within the spectrum of the tight-knit group, after playing the guardian angel for Blackwell Academy et al. for so long, brings a contrast to what we’ve seen, bringing a much-needed balance for the final choices ahead.
To tailor body language to your choices, no matter how major or minor, shows a testament to getting how you play your story as accurately as possible.
Choice as a gameplay element is strong within Life Is Strange, a factor Dontnod should pride themselves on. Outside of the final move, each one here brings understanding to how Chloe sees herself and the people around her. I’ve played through numerous elements of “Polarized” to perform multiple outcomes, and an underrated aspect of character design in this game is the different subtle facial reactions or body movements characters bring to the same scenario played out differently.
Since Episode 1, Warren had made his intentions for Max known on multiple occasions. Max knows there’s something there, too, but how you shape your relationship changes the small things. Smiles can become somber faces, elated voices can turn to resigned sighs. Same goes with how you interact with Chloe, Nathan, Kate and others. To tailor body language to your choices, no matter how major or minor, shows a testament to getting how you play your story as accurately as possible.
Spoiler Warning From Here Until The Verdict
It’s that sensibility that makes the two possible endings a logical, if not complicated end to Life Is Strange. Max spends most of this episode trying to “go back” to find the correct timeline in which Max becomes successful, Chloe is saved, and Arcadia Bay is no longer doomed. Unfortunately, the sad realization comes that her messing with time has, in effect, doomed Arcadia Bay. No matter how often she jumps between realities, no matter how much physical and psychological damage made to her psyche, her actions have been made clear time and time again; she is bringing the apocalypse to her.
That, right there, is the tragic beauty to Life Is Strange. The ability to manipulate time is a curse, one that has been hinted at brilliantly throughout. Chloe has “died” in so many unreversed timelines to the point where this conclusion was inevitable. Props to the writing team for sneaking in a literal Trolley Problem into the game while managing to be subtle about its overarching premise.
There’s a poetry in using your time manipulation to undo you messing with fate, just as it is to embrace the destruction of the town and accept the consequences that bring you to that moment.
It is easy to decry the “Chloe Dies Or Arcadia Bay Dies” dichotomy ending as a failure to bring meaning to your choices. Arguing this viewpoint, regrettably, fundamentally misunderstands the entire point of the game’s message; destiny cannot be avoided. The journey of Life Is Strange carries the true adventure, and no amount of problem-solving would logically conclude in a happy ending. Chloe either has to die, as she well should, or Arcadia Bay has to perish.
Why it works isn’t rested in an emotional payoff; rather, it is in the finality of the lesson. There’s a poetry in using your time manipulation to undo you messing with fate, just as it is to embrace the destruction of the town and accepting the consequences that bring you to that moment. It’s a damn disappointment that the “Save Arcadia Bay” choice ends in a half-baked muted ending, and it points to just how much the development team believes in a “True” ending in Chloe’s sacrifice. That is very much up for debate, and it is personally a point of contention.
Regardless, as a means of wrapping up a story, “Polarized” ends as justly as the story foretells. While some minor questions remain understandably unanswered, there are too many big logical quandaries hanging. I get that leaving the acquisition of power unanswered makes sense, but where does that leave the Prescotts? Why was Mr. Jefferson compelled to hang his hat in a small town for his misdeeds, where a large city doesn’t carry a tight sense of protective community? Will fate ever catch up to Max and Chloe in a post-Arcadia reality? How can Max travel through that final photo if she’s not shown in it? Despite a 17-ish hour runtime, I take issue with the fact that some of the logical mysteries weren’t detailed, but vague explanations for misdeeds were.
Spoiler Warning Ends Here
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Life Is Strange ends a fascinating, if uneven, season in an excellent deconstruction of the narrative. A tighter focus on Max and the fate of those close around her allows for a deeply personal tale, one with thoughtful self-analysis showcased in abstract visual metaphor. Sure to keep fans “Polarized” in their viewpoints on the ending, I argue it comes from a position of careful planning, made evident in telling hints both subtle and overt in earlier episodes. Dontnod sought out to create a unique story while pushing the boundaries of the graphic choice-based adventure genre, and this final chapter solidifies their success in that venture.
A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.