This is part five of our coverage of Life is Strange, and the review score reflects the series as a whole. If you’d like to read the rest of our articles, you can check out our most recent impressions here.
We’ve finally come to the last installment of Life is Strange, a short episodic game that took the year by storm. I remember eyeing it on the PSN Store the day it came out, and with nothing else to review, I downloaded it right there and sent a note to my editor-in-chief that I was going to do a “review on a random PS4 indie game.”
I’m still glad I did it. That choice rippled out into me playing one of the most moving experiences I’ve experienced in gaming to date. There’s a lot to unpack here, but I found that episode five, “Polarized,” managed to encapsulate every high and low of the series in a single stanza.
After the events of episode four, we had a lot of answers finally laid out. We knew who the killer of Arcadia Bay was, we knew what happened to Rachel Amber, and we knew where (most) of the pieces fit into the puzzle. The task of episode five was to make them fit, neatly and orderly, and to finally solve the last remaining disaster — the storm slowly approaching Arcadia Bay.
In many ways, “Polarized” stretches to do just that, without going far enough to completely break anything. Events are logical enough, without being too cut-and-dry or simple, and a lot is explained away as “time travel.” The key component of this episode is repetition, using alternating lengths of staccato hits with legato moments, rarely setting a pace or letting you catch your breath for long.
If you’re familiar with really any time-travel tragedy, you’ll see some mirror of that here. Max constantly returns to the beginning, a da capo played over and over. Scenes repeat themselves ad nauseum in front of Max, haunting her, never letting her leave the prison she’s created with her abuse of time and space.
The repetition rears its head ugliest in the gameplay segments, where even cheeky nods to bottles don’t substitute for rehashing the lesser parts of previous episodes. Where episode four nailed puzzles with the mix of linking clues and interrogating for answers, episode five returns to previous notions of gameplay — tedious moments of trial and error, forcing you to time out perfect stealth movements in order to progress.
Yet when those sequences falter, the story sequences manage to find moments of nigh-pure perfection. The human moments of previous episodes are few and far between, savor one climactic conversation with Chloe at the midway point. This is a largely introspective episode, meant to turn the lens on the player. From the beginning, Max is held up to a lofty goal and idolized, tossed around and leered at by the lens, and so the player often feels the same, regardless of choices made. It feels like all of Life is Strange came down to a single choice in the end – but we’ll return to that in a moment.
For all the emotion that the game brings in those moments and later, problems persisted with the animations as well. Lip synching has never managed to work quite right in Life is Strange, and the robotic, blank slates of faces fail to carry the enormous weight hefted by the voice acting talent. The talent for Max and Chloe especially hit their peaks in this episode, but the animation kills the emotional accomplishment they achieved.
“Polarized” serves its name well — it is a polarizing finale, sure to strike a controversial chord and perhaps leave a note on tongue that will range from sour to bittersweet at best. There is no true perfect ending in Life is Strange, as I should’ve known going into this, and in some place in my gut I did. In my first entry of write-ups for this game, I noted that I loved the fact that choices felt concrete and real, and that there was rarely a black-white-decision. That critique holds up, right to the very end, in a final moment that will override everything that has happened to this point.
If you’ve been reading this unaware of Life is Strange, content to simply read reviews and judge merit based on score, I’d ask you stop at this point. There’s no way I can force a reader to willingly keep themselves innocent of spoilers, and there are some who often enjoy knowing the plot to a game before playing. Below this paragraph is where I’m going to unpack my own personal feelings about the ending. If you’d like to experience Life is Strange in the way that Dontnod Entertainment, myself and many others wish you to, then please go play the game. Regardless of my opinion on the finale, the work as a whole still resonates with me in ways few have, and to spoil the journey would be to miss the point of it all.
Because in the end, Max’s trip was the journey. The choice she made was not the many she had made since episode one, but rather, the first time she ever interfered. One single decision rippling through time.
However implausible, both Max and Chloe realize that there are only two options: keep Chloe alive and sacrifice Arcadia Bay and most of its residents, or sacrifice Chloe’s life for the greater good. Since the end of episode four, I’ve held a notion that Chloe’s life was the constant throughout every timeline, and that her living or dying would be the final choice of the game. Seeing it come true felt as gut-wrenching as it did predictable.
It’s clear what choice you’ll have to make by the time you get there, and even far earlier. It feels unfair to make that choice, and in a way, creates no happy ending. Either you kill an entire town to be with the one you love, or let the greatest love in your life die so others may go on.
There’s likely a lot of talk about how the romance between Max and Chloe ends up feeling shoehorned in the end – it isn’t my place to argue that. What strikes me about this ending is that it goes out swinging. No perfect runs, no happy endings. You live with the choice you make. One has you mourning Chloe at a funeral, surrounded by friends and family who have all lived on, and another has you and Chloe finally leaving Arcadia Bay to find a new home, away from a town that seems to be slowly rotting.
Initially, I thought sacrificing Chloe was the right choice – it was the most moral and upstanding, the “right” choice as far as games go. Yet as the cutscene rolled and I watched Chloe die for certain, unable to do anything, I couldn’t go through with it. Max had been through too much, Chloe didn’t deserve it, and for once I managed to set aside the mindset of the “proper playthrough” that plagued me in the past and choose the selfish choice. They had earned the right to be together, and if Chloe went away, then Max’s powers meant nothing and our journey was for naught. I wasn’t content to let that happen, and that was one of the most emotionally involved moments of gaming I’ve ever experienced.
It’s really hard to get at why I feel so miserably content. It’s the weight of an entire series being lifted off, watching the credits roll and knowing I’ve seen it all. It’s the feeling you only get after completing something meaningful, that you know will stick with you for a long time, keeping you up at night. I’ve said it time and again that for all its faults, Life is Strange consistently struck a human chord that resonated within many people, and certainly within me. Someone who’s often felt lost, unseen in a crowd, unsure of who they are or what they should do – it reminded me of what’s important in life, all the little memories you would never trade, no matter how many bad memories may pervade their surroundings.
I still go back to the pool scene in episode three, where Max and Chloe sneak into the gym for a late night swim. Their antics in the junkyard, however tedious. The infamous moment of them walking down train tracks, hand-in-hand. The powerful kiss they share, right in front of an impending storm. They’re held dear and flit by briefly, yet mean the world beyond the larger choices. I’m content to leave Life is Strange as-is. Imperfect. Flawed. Yet exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.