Elegy for a dead girl.
Warning: the following review contains spoilers for Life is Strange episodes 1 through 4.
Life is Strange has indeed been a journey in time. Back when the year began, I picked up the task of reviewing this game on something of a whim, as it was January and there wasn’t exactly a lot of other stuff coming out. I took a look at DONTNOD’s latest, and saw a Telltale-esque game with some fun ideas that reminded me of the writing choices I enjoyed so much from their previous effort, the otherwise ill-fated Remember Me. I decided, “sure, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll give this a shot.”
Nine-ish months later, here I sit on the other side, and I can honestly say I’m glad I made the choice I did. Life is Strange became a very emotionally personal game to me, as I sank deeper and deeper into the mystery of Blackwell Academy and Arcadia Bay over the course of several months. Nothing can sink its teeth into a person for that long and not leave some marks. Life is Strange hasn’t been a perfect game, as I’ve followed each piece of its journey and looked at them both as individual chunks and as parts of a whole. But what this story of teenage angst, regret, and finality has been is fascinating, captivating, ever-changing, and beautiful; flaws and all.
I want you to remember that, reader, before what I say what I’m about to say. Because what I am about to say is that Life is Strange Episode 5: Polarized is one of the game’s weakest episodes.
The penultimate episode of Life is Strange left us off with a huge cliffhanger. Chloe is dead, Mark Jefferson has secretly been the one behind everything sinister in Blackwell, and Max has been captured in the Dark Room. Polarized hops right back in where the previous episode left off, starting things off with a good look at just how unhinged Mark Jefferson truly is.
Life is Strange Episode 5: Dark Room is at its best in its writing, and its steady increase in tension. Jefferson’s reveal as the puppetmaster antagonist is followed by some admittedly cliché exposition, but this gives players a much-needed chance to sit back and absorb all that is going on before cranking things up. From there, things get increasingly intense, as Max begins working not only to solve the problems she has caused, but to work out everything going on in her own head. As bigger choices get made to change time, things begin to get a little rough around the edges of Max’s perception, giving a really good sense of foreboding. When one screws with time, time screws back. Anyone familiar with works like the graphic novel Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley, another story involving the consequences of trying to fix ones mistakes, will find a lot to love in Polarized.
The photo-diving mechanic from the end of episode 3 makes a welcome return in the finale, as Max begins a chain of time-jumps through photographs to try and fix everything. What this results in is really interesting to watch, as the consequences of her timeline changes begin to erupt around her. The game isn’t as full of giant choices as some of the earlier episodes, but giant choices have never really been Life is Strange‘s sole gimmick. There are still a few good multi-option choices, although perhaps fewer than some would have liked. Max’s usual rewind powers themselves are put to more good use, through not only the usual maniuplation-of-a-scene scenario, but also a very timing-specific stealth scene that works wonders to add to the tension while also spicing up the gameplay.
Polarized has strength in its final choice, but also weakness. The strength is that the episode does a good job of building up to the choice presented, showing Max its different sides without actually giving away what the final choice will be. It’s a good setup, and feels very fluid. The weakness is that the choice itself is purely binary, a fact which might not have been a problem if the outcomes felt equally worthwhile. Unfortunately, one option ends up feeling far more fulfilling, while the other just comes off as bittersweet, confused, and kind of rushed.
On the note of making choices, something that has been so enduring and impressive about Life is Strange up to now is how well the game has handled threading the needle of player choice and impact through the episodes. Choices in one episode can affect Max at any later time, and almost never in the way the player might expect. It’s disappointing that something that has been so praiseworthy in all previous episodes should fall so flat here. There are several significant conversations in this final episode that will change in nature depending on previous actions, but none of these changes feel very impactful. On top of this, the episode’s story takes away a lot of what impact is there as Max begins messing around with bigger and bigger events in the timeline. I could relate it to why I’ve never been a big fan of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask; all the endearing characters and important story moments in the world start to feel cheap if they keep being rewritten or erased before the player’s very eyes.
That aside, character writing is also a huge strength of Polarized. I externally cheered and internally sobbed for the same character within the span of a few minutes. Max herself sees some great progression, and faces herself from a few different angles as she begins to try and come to terms with all that she has done. Her relationship with Chloe is a huge focus of the episode as she deals with having witnessed her friend’s murder. Between all of this, Mark Jefferson’s maniacal unraveling, and everyone’s panic as the long-envisioned hurricane finally hits Arcadia Bay, there’s a lot of character stuff that goes beautifully right.
Even then, though, there’s a slight sense of disappointment in the salty, windy air. Another of the strengths of the previous two episodes of Life is Strange is how well they managed to subvert the stereotypes of the characters in the game’s world. Look at the changes we saw in Frank, or Victoria Chase. Very little, if anything, is done further with these changes in this episode, other than a couple characters saying “oh gee, huh, that sure is a thing I did.”
The issue with Polarized is that it opens itself up to the variation of choice and consequence, as it has for its entire duration up to this point, but then shuts the door again. Max’s reality-screwing journey leads her through not only different possibilities of what could have been, but also into what really happens to someone who messes with time. All of this would be fine and good if there were just a bit more that connected it to the other episodes. Ironically, the further Max goes in pursuing the idea of saving Chloe, the further she goes from all the player choices made along the way. The issue is that we see the consequences for Max’s actions, but those consequences are fixed. Very little changes depending on…just about anything.
So can we take a minute here to reflect? Like, do you mind? Sorry, I usually try to minimize how often I speak directly to the reader like that, but I think I want to do something. Yes, I have decided this mid-review.
Looking at Life is Strange, a game spanning five episodes with nearly two-month gaps between them, is a complicated experience. This is not a game that is what it was when it began; I don’t think it’s meant to be. Just as Max changes time, and changes herself, the tone of the story changes and refocuses. Some will call that a downside, but I submit that it’s actually a very deliberate part of what DONTNOD is trying to do. Just like the timeline of any person, school, or town, Life is Strange is beyond any single tone. Life is complex.
The sense of buildup throughout Life is Strange is payed off beautifully through narrative; if only it was in gameplay and choice consequence to the same degree. In the end, the impact Max Caufield has on Arcadia Bay goes one of two ways, with no real variation between them. The full Life is Strange experience branches off into a web of a thousand paths; it’s disappointing that they all culminate at the same point. Maybe a fuller retrospective will be necessary, in order to truly delve into what works and doesn’t work in Life is Strange.
Max Caufield’s time-traveling adventures are over, and Arcadia Bay will never be the same again. Life is Strange Episode 5: Polarized is a wonderful narrative peak in some ways, taking an honestly masterful dive into Max’s psyche as time begins to fracture around her. It’s just a pity that this final episode manages to lose so much of the enduring consequence that has benchmarked the game until now. The game’s final choice feels well-developed until it hits, but one outcome feels all too much like the “right answer,” and the other one almost judges the player for having chosen the “wrong one.” All that said, pushing Max’s time powers to their limit is as fun and smart as ever, making the ending satisfying enough as a whole.
Final verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One; Publisher: Square Enix; Developer: DONTNOD; Players: 1; Released: October 20th, 2015; ESRB: N/A ; MSRP: $4.99 (single episode), $19.99 (full season pass)
Full disclosure: this game was reviewed with a full Steam copy of the game.