Time to Change Time One Last Time.
Spoilers: The following review assumes you’ve finished Episodes 1-4.
Over the last nine months, Life Is Strange went from a cheapo five-dollar curiosity to a grassroots fan hit. The tale of a teen struggling to survive high school explored bullying, teen suicide, murder, drug use, and sexual abuse. The result: over a million copies sold. Late night sessions on Twitch have become as the kids say, a thing.
Now that the tornado dust has settled with the release of Episode 5: Polarized, will this become a game worth replaying? Did developer Dontnod stick the landing? Fans will posit their own theories about the end, but overall, the last chapter of Max Caulfield’s story set in the fictional Pacific Northwestern town of Arcadia Bay is an emotionally satisfying one.
The last time we left Max and her BFF Chloe, one got drugged while the other received a bullet in the head. Episode 5 picks up a few hours later, with a semi-conscious Max tied to a chair in a basement that's been decorated with black and white photos of previous victims. As was revealed in Episode 4, photography teacher Mr. Jefferson is the killer, not as many speculated, rich jerk Nathan. Looking back, I admire the writer's sense of humor. From the very first moment of the series, Mr. Jefferson was presented as a holier-than-thou hipster who loathes the selfie generation that Max is a part of. Nathan was on the other end of the douchebag spectrum: an entitled, insecure brat that no one liked. So really, either one would have worked as the killer of missing teen Rachel Amber, right? Sadly, the victims list now includes Chloe.
Or does it? Polarized is, like the name implies, basically, two very different parts. The first involves Max’s inevitable escape from Mr. Jefferson’s clutches. The second is Max trying to find a way to save Chloe from certain death.
In a wonderful development, Max’s rewind time ability is front and center this, um, time. (The previous two episodes used her powers minimally in favor of Max figuring things out with her brain.) The finale uses her new time enhancement a lot: Whenever Max comes into contact with a picture she’s taken, she can will herself back to that exact moment. Without spoiling too much, a series of such photographic opportunities arise that not only helps Max escape death, but also leads to a number of intriguing alternate realities.
In one, Jefferson is arrested, Chloe is alive and Max wins a trip to San Francisco as the winner of the “Unsung Heroes” self-portrait contest. While it’ll come as no surprise to anyone familiar with time-travel stories that this jaunt to a “better life” doesn’t last, it works well as a stark contrast to the last episode where Max’s pal Chloe became a quadriplegic with Max having to make the decision to euthanize her. Sure, winning a trip to SF which leads to touring a gallery with art posers might be silly, but Max earned that moment of lightness.
Lightness that is, as expected, short-lived. The bulk of the episode is centered on the second section where Max’s time abilities spiral out of control. At one point, players are back at the beginning of Episode 1 with Max in Mr. Jefferson’s classroom, but this time everyone is walking and talking backwards. It’s a wonderful nod to the game’s influence from David Lynch’s groundbreaking TV series Twin Peaks, a mystery that also involved the death of a teenage girl. Another section gets even more surreal as Max must use her stealth abilities to avoid the flashlight of many of the game’s leading characters. Nearly all of these sections are, in terms of gameplay, fairly basicand still glitchy with lip-sync issues and the time power causing framerate hiccups. But thematically, and more important emotionally, it forces the player to question many of the choices they’ve made throughout the entire story.
As for the big ending, I was quite moved, but it should be noted that where previous episodes would have the player make several important choices, Polarized only has one. It’s a doozy for sure, but it’s a little jarring that a series that highlighted all these precious tiny moments ends up coming down to a singular yes or no choice. As a way to bring all these story elements together, this kind of approach speaks volumes and had me thinking about the game’s two possible endings with great care. Regardless, the ending is at once epic and, as is the series strength, intimate. Others might be frustrated as this kind of “ultimate choice” can make the game’s previous branching paths feel irrelevant. I think this is intentional and not a case where Dontnod ran into a creative wall.
Max’s story has always been about growing up. Growing up is for many about realizing that despite our best intentions, a lot of what we do can feel pointless. It's a hard pill to swallow, but hey, that sense of “if only I did A, instead of B” is how most live regardless of whether or not the ability to rewind time is an option.
Seen as a whole, my twelve-hour playthrough of Life is Strange has been a memorable one. The highest compliment I can give is that I felt like I spend quality time with Max, and the rest of the citizens of Arcadia Bay. Time that I would never rewind, but plan to revisit for sure.