It’s so seldom that I play a game that really moves me. Sure, there are plenty of games that I play that I think are really good or have their poignant moments but I can’t remember the last time I played a game that stuck with me quite the way that Life is Strange has. I came into it expecting to be underwhelmed but Dontnod exceeded all of my expectations and made the best episodic point-and-click adventure game on the market.
Spoiler Alert: As with my reviews of other episodic games, this review will contain spoilers for the previous episodes in the series. The spoilers only really pertain to my playthrough of Life is Strange. The decisions you make could result in a different experience.
Earlier this week in my Doctor Who review, I mentioned that the show is strongest when it’s exploring the human element. The reason that I prefer Telltale’s The Walking Dead to their Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands is that Telltale focuses on the characters, their relationships and their development. It’s very easy to go “Cool! Zombies!” but it would leave the series wanting for a deeper meaning.
In attempting to resolve the situation that Max found herself in at the end of the previous episode, the human element is dropped for a lot of playing with time. As you would expect from what Max and Chloe learned in the last episode, Max spent her time in the Dark Room alternating between being bound and under sedation. That means that the only way she could help herself is to use every time trick in her repertoire to save herself.
With all of the time travel and manipulation in this episode, Dontnod turns this into a sci-fi heavy episode with a lot of (*sigh*) wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey moments as Max attempts to free herself. A lot of various time travel story tropes used including a little Bootstrap Paradox and Temporal Loop. We even got a Twin Peaks Black Lodge sequence right down to a backwards walking / talking / reading reprise of one of the opening scenes at Blackwell Academy.
The disappointing thing about Polarized is that Dontnod gamifies this episode quite a bit compared to other episodes. There is puzzle-solving (including one adrenaline-filled one that almost certainly requires you to take multiple stabs at finding the right sequence of actions to survive) and stealth sections that are similar to what we’ve seen in previous episodes.
As with the other episodes of the series, it’s very hard to talk about the episode without spoiling it. There were a lot of interesting sequences and alternate timelines explored as Max attempted to save herself, Chloe and Arcadia Bay. To talk about what happened in them, how we arrived there and their impacts on Max and the plot would spoil this episode despite how brilliant some of them were.
It wasn’t until the final half or maybe the final third that we really saw any emotional character moments. Granted, the nature of that opening act made it hard to have meaningful character interaction. The remainder of the episode had some moments where Max could get some closure with some of the more important people in Max’s story but they were almost shallow compared to the moments Max has had with them over the course of the series.
As one would expect from the conclusion of a well-written story with a hotly anticipated finale, the ending is, appropriately given the title of the episode, polarizing.
For all the manipulating time and attempting to do right by the world that Max did over the course of one week in October, the message that Dontnod tries to convey with the ending is that you can’t escape fate. For a game and a medium that is built on escapism, where heroes are called to defy fate and forge their own way, it’s a very real and very impactful message. The result is a depressing ending but I think it was the right way to go given that message.
So, no, the ending wasn’t a happy one but I think as this whole series, and certainly this episode, built up, you got the feeling that Life is Strange wasn’t going to end with sunshine and lollipops. Everything led back to back to the lighthouse and the storm no matter what decisions you made.
I’m sure that there will be the inevitable comparison to the ending of Mass Effect 3. All disappointing endings get that comparison. The difference comes primarily from the fact that Life is Strange is a narrative-driven game. Mass Effect had a strong story but it kept rewarding you or encouraging you to play a certain way through the Effective Military Strength meter. Playing the game in a way that the game told you was the best way possible still didn’t actually end the game with a proper happy ending. It was a hero’s story without the hero’s triumphant and happy ending.
Life is Strange isn’t a hero’s story, no matter what you or Chloe think of Max. Life is Strange is a coming of age story. It’s about friendship and love. It’s about so many themes that we’ve talked about over four episodes. But for all of Max focusing on stopping the oncoming storm and preventing the destruction of Arcadia Bay, Life is Strange was never about saving the world. A perfect ending was never necessary to complete the narrative.
In the end, there was an ending that I preferred over the other even though I thought the other was a much better ending. I can’t really explain it without spoiling the endings except to say that much more time and care was put into one of the two ending sequences even if the other was more emotionally satisfying. I also liked that Dontnod’s decision recap screen only had that final decision on it. Regardless of what else you said or did during the episode, the last one is probably the only one people will remember or care about.
That all being said, Polarized was just as emotionally powerful as I found Dark Room. To use the adjectives that I did in the Episode Four review, this episode was heart-rending, spine-chilling and brain-wrinkling. When you have goosebumps for a good portion of the episode, you know they have the tension perfect.
And this might be the first time that I’ve had a decision in a game that I’ve had to take some time to think about. I just wanted to make the right decision to end the game but there really wasn’t one. I was crushed by the ending I chose and if Dontnod hadn’t done such a great job with the story and the characters, I wouldn’t have felt that way. They did an amazing job from start to finish with this series and it both brilliant and painful because of all that it made me feel. I honestly didn’t think this game would be for me when I started and even after Episode One. Life is Strange was magical.
It was also the first time that I felt compelled to go back and try an alternate ending. I didn’t even do that with Mass Effect 3 and long-time readers know how much I love that trilogy and how important it is to me as a gamer. I felt that I owed it to Dontnod to see the other ending they prepared. I’ve read that there are subtle differences in the ending cutscenes depending on your choices but nothing massive.
I suppose that might be the one thing that might separate gamers when it comes to how games affect them. How deeply you let yourself be immersed into a narrative will always impact how much you like it. If it’s just a game, it never really gets to you. If you let yourself drift away and live vicariously through Max Caulfield, as I’ve mentioned time and time again, this game will hit you hard and repeatedly. Apart from the first episode, I can’t think of an ending that didn’t make me glad for the long, calming end credits music after the beautiful and powerful ending montages.
The only technical glitch I noted was one that I’ve mentioned before in these reviews. When a patch or episode is released for Life is Strange, your graphics settings are changed. Last time, I was dropped from high to low. This time, it was only to medium. It’s not photorealistic graphics but it’s amazing how much worse medium quality graphics look compared to high. Objects look jagged. Textures are muddy. For a game that is very deliberately artistically designed and framed, I love that there is a low recommended specs threshold. It’s so important that this game looks as great as possible and Dontnod tried to make it very attainable.
And while so much of this game continues to look and sound gorgeous, including the death and destruction in Arcadia Bay as the storm makes its way to and through the town, there were a number of extras who weren’t treated as well by the art department. By extras, I mean silent characters or ones in with throwaway ambient dialogue. They didn’t have the visual detail we see in the rest of the episode and it sounded like all the male extras shared the same voice actor.
In my review of Episode Four: Dark Room, I said that Polarized would have a lot to live up to. I’ve tried not to dwell too much on whether or not Episode Five lived up to the expectations that I had of it. Maybe the question really is if I would be happier if the finale did or did not follow everyone’s expectations for it.
So while Polarized didn’t always go the way I expected the story to, I think that it reached the destination that it was always destined to. I may not necessarily think that the path we were taken along over the final three hours to get to that destination was the best the series had to offer but I won’t deny that it was gripping the whole way.
Life is Strange – Episode Five: Polarized was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and if the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.