“Life is Strange” was one of those games that flew under the radar earlier this year, but by now has reached critical and commercial acclaim on par with many games featuring more marketing and bigger budgets. Now we’ve reached the final episode of the first episodic, story-focused juggernaut not to come from Telltale.
“Episode Five: Polarized” begins by taking a page out of “American Horror Story,” with series protagonist Max Caulfield taped to an iron chair in the Arcadia Bay serial killer’s photography studio and kill room.
The serial killer, whose identity I won’t reveal, is creepy and frightening. A previously established character is revealed to be an obsessive, cold-blooded killer. When that mask falls away, it is disturbing to say the least. Although the first few minutes of the game feature a lot of monologuing and talking at the player in order to show the killer’s motives, the atmosphere is sufficiently creepy and the voice acting so good that it’s easy to overlook.
“Polarized” asks players to go all the way back to the very beginning of the first episode as Max tries to undo all the damage she’s done over four episodes. It is a little odd when Max basically starts reading people’s life story back to them, because it seems to serve no purpose. What is cool is that the effects of changing time are shown by pictures being burned and replaced with new images showing how time was changed.
Of course, it’s easy to get so engrossed in the serial killer plot that you forget that a gigantic storm is bearing down on Arcadia Bay. Even when Max says “I fixed everything” about 30 minutes in, you know things are seconds away from falling apart.
One interesting thing to note about “Polarized” is that several characters do a complete 180-degree turn personality-wise. One character who I condemned as a violent control freak saves Max’s life, apologizes and says he’ll get treatment for his PTSD. Another character that most players hated actually calls Max to confess to his crimes, cry and try to warn her about the serial killer. It’s even implied that the creepy drug dealer character found Jesus since we last saw him.
For all the scenes that don’t really make any sense, such as Max explaining her powers to someone who won’t remember as soon as she goes back in time, there is one really fantastic, well done sequence between Max and her best friend Chloe. It’s one of the best in the series and comes at an emotional high point for the audience as well. But then we’re taken back to the tornado sequence, and Max and Chloe are having a normal conversation on the beach. A beach, mind you, that is experiencing 10-foot high waves and gale force winds, breaking the player’s immersion yet again.
Right as I was ready to give up on this episode, I got to experience one of the hands down best nightmare sequences I have ever seen in gaming. The writing, voice acting, technical effects and level design all combine for an unforgettable experience that is disturbing, creepy and awesome all at once. The sequence is most reminiscent of the “playable trailer” from the now canceled “Silent Hills.” It’s a trip inside Max’s mind, in which all of time and space has been thrown out of whack, with appropriately horrific and entertaining results. This one sequence is so good that it almost singlehandedly redeems all the flaws up to this point. However, the nightmare sequence comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome, going on so long that players might even forget what they’re supposed to do.
Then we come to the very end of the game, something that has been theorized about and hyped for months. To Dontnod’s credit, the final choice is a tough one. I’ve honestly never felt this conflicted about a choice in any Telltale game, and I physically leaned back in my seat to think about it for a few minutes. In the end, it’s a testament to the strength of “Life is Strange’s” characters that I chose a friend over the lives of possibly thousands of other people.
With that being said, I don’t particularly like either of the two endings. One just makes you feel bad almost all the way through and basically deprives Max of any responsibility for the events of the series. The other feels sociopath-level of upbeat, as two characters cheerfully drive through a town that was just annihilated by a storm sent from God himself, only to smile at each other as the screen fades to black. At least one of these endings would have benefited from an epilogue.
When we just examine “Episode Five: Polarized,” the nightmare sequence is all that truly stands out to me. There’s very little closure in the endings, the plot gets convoluted and bogged down easily and I don’t think it’s the ending “Life is Strange” deserved. However, that one sequence is so good that the episode is easily worth it just to play through it.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with “Life is Strange.” The ending makes me feel hollow, but given that this is Dontnod’s first foray into the point and click adventure game genre, there is an unlimited amount of potential here. Personally, I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to review a second season of “Life is Strange” sometime in the near future.
Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.