Life is Strange: Episode Five - Polarized review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Dontnod Entertainment
Release Date Oct 20, 2015

In the style of most episodic games, Life is Strange relies on a choice-and-consequence narrative in which players take on the role of high school student Max Caulfield — a young woman with the power to rewind time. While the game focuses on Max's school life, it also sheds a light on her relationships and the mysterious disappearance of a local girl.

As Max, players navigate school life through a linear path, interacting with classmates, teachers and friends through choice-driven dialogue. But these decisions aren't set in stone; once a conversation is over, you can choose to "rewind" time. You can relive a scenario as often as you like with no consequence, though your powers only allow you to back up for a set amount of time.

To accommodate for the game's branching narrative, senior reporter Colin Campbell and deputy managing editor Megan Farokhmanesh are reviewing the game together as a series of discussions. Below is their take on the fifth and final episode, "Polarized."

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Megan Farokhmanesh

Megan: We're finally at the end of Life is Strange and, for me, it's pretty bittersweet. I want to reflect on the final episode but also touch on the series as a whole. By the end, do our choices even matter?

We've kept discussions vague for previous episodes. As we're wrapping things up, however, I want to talk about everything, especially the ending. Readers, consider this your warning: We're about to spoil this episode.

Colin Campbell

Colin: The makers of this game seem to be guilty of the same crime as Mark Jefferson. They put these young women in a box and point cameras at them and have them make out with each other. We witness a lot of hand-wringing about loss of innocence and accumulation of adult guilt, but little else is revealed about their characters. That the girls love each other is established early on, but their feelings don't fully develop into anything that feels complex or authentic. These emotional daubings just get reflected in whatever crisis the writers hand us.

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Megan: Woof, sounds like you had a rough time with the final episode, then? I have so many questions about choice and consequence in your individual game — did your Max and Chloe also appear to be romantically in love by the end, and could this possibly be because you also staved off Warren's advances? Did you warn Victoria, and did it help? What was your relationship with David by the end? Did you sacrifice Chloe or Arcadia Bay?

I'm getting a little ahead of myself here, because really, all I want to talk about is the ending. We'll get to that.

Colin: I did warn Victoria, and I don't think it did her any good. I got right with David. I gave Warren a chaste hug because, well, he's a dull fellow. Chloe and Max are at the center of this story, and the intensity of their relationship drives the plot forward. Max will do just about anything for her friend.

I had thought that the flirting and suggestions of romantic involvement were packed away when Chloe spurned Max's kiss after their swimming pool adventure. But it's difficult to interpret either of the endings (I watched the one I didn't pick on YouTube) without the notion of romance, which somehow made their feelings for one another less interesting.

I don't think I like the writers' motives. Sex was coyly suggested, repeatedly, but not explored. They went nuts with make-out scenes in the nightmare section (which we'll get to). And yet, something as enormous as Chloe finding out about her own alternative timelines was just brushed aside.

I want to say the same thing I always say: that I like this game and I urge everyone to play it. But its faults are difficult to ignore. What about you?

Megan: The Max/Chloe relationship is interesting to me because I think there are many ways you can read it, depending on how you've played. In my game, I shunned any and all of Warren's advances. I chose to kiss Chloe. In "Polarized," Max hurtles through one nightmare scenario after another to save Chloe with the kind of desperate perseverance you'd give the love of your life.

My read on the romance subplot has been ambiguous. I think Chloe was in love with Rachel Amber. I think all the tiny moments of physical connections between Max and Chloe are these characters finding these feelings for themselves. But in every instance, I'm bringing my own personal bias into it. I'm not sure if there is a scenario in which Max and Chloe truly are just friends and their physical contact actually is there to titillate. I mentioned in our talk about Episode Three that the pool scene was a little clumsy, but teenage dating is super awkward. Reflecting back on it again, it doesn't feel exploitative to me.

teenage dating is super awkward
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Colin: Ultimately, this is a game about choices, consequences, time travel and staring at Polaroids. Did you enjoy the actual playing of the thing?

Megan: In much of this episode, no, absolutely not. The early scenes with Jefferson feel so sloppy to me. Dontnod pulled off this incredible plot twist in Episode Four that knocked me out of my chair. And then ... Jefferson turns out to be a totally hollow villain. His motivations make sense, I guess, but his explanations are basically an exposition dump. The whole thing feels very "let me tell you my evil genius plan, Mr. Bond."

As for the rest? It's all very repetitive. We jump through time and alternate realities with abandon, but the results aren't always interesting. Saving friends in an alternate timeline begins to feel pointless, because what's the use? We're always one rewind away from making that choice obsolete. And even for those that we've lived with — how we've treated Nathan, Victoria and so on — there is no meaningful resolution to this. I mentioned in our last discussion that I was disappointed in the handling of Nathan, and the character doesn't even make any sort of serious appearance here. In fact, he's dead by the time the episode begins.

Colin: Life is Strange tries to move beyond video game conventions by giving us characters we care about, but then we fall into old staples like returning to the same areas to play them again, except slightly differently, because time travel allows it. (I got so tired of the darkroom I was sorta ready for Jefferson to murder me.)

Characters are killed off and then resurrected to rampage once more, like zombies. This doesn't feel new. It feels old. We're retreading the same ground.

You mention the lengthy exposition. We had a lot of conversations in this episode that felt like characters delivering all their motivation notes, usually without any purpose. The drug dealer was upset about his girlfriend being killed. That much ought to have been clear from his expression. But then he goes on to tell us exactly how upset he is and why, and OK, we get it.

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I have a confession to make: I think time travel is boring

I have a confession to make and, this being Back to the Future Day, I realize it's a heresy. I think time travel is boring, and for exactly the reasons you mention. Once the trick of moving through time to fix stuff has been explored, it becomes child's play. It's not interesting. It denudes the characters of life, to such an extent that I'm not sure if I entirely care who lives and dies. I begin to wonder why we can't go back and save poor Rachel. And then, it turns out that the whole thing was a useless gift anyway, because fate is a force of nature. Come on.

Megan: That goddamn darkroom. I managed to forget how often you jump back to that moment. I think it's because I'm still thinking about the stealth sequences, where you're dodging flashlights.

I'm divided on the super sci-fi elements of the game; all the time jumps, the nightmare scenarios as reality starts to get really weird. I love the sequence where everything moves backward through the school — the music, their speech, even your little text options. The detail there is great. I like the ideas behind the stealth sequences, where Max is running from all her fears manifested as different people (shout out to "white knight" Warren). One of my favorite moments of this episode was wandering past the memories of Max and Chloe.

But actually playing a lot of those sequences is pretty dull, when it's not frustrating. I kept getting stuck or caught, and it broke down any sort of emotional wave I was riding.

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Colin: I straight-up hated the dream sequence, excepting the cool moment in the high school hall. Sticking it right before the story's climax was a ridiculous decision. The stealth elements weren't any fun, because you can rewind at any time. The tableaux scenes were pretty but did nothing more than summarize the game we had just played. It looked like padding.

Dontnod's big achievement, I think, is to show us the possibilities of contemporary fiction in games. Here is a story about real people making real choices. I saved Kate early on, and it made me feel good about myself for a long time (up to the point when it turned out not to have really mattered).

Dontnod's big achievement is to show us the possibilities of contemporary fiction in games

The sci-fi plot interested me far less than the relationships between these characters, and I hope that we can see a game like this in the future that does not feel the need to lean on multiple moons or terror whirlwinds or time travel. I would have been happy with a game that was entirely about, say, getting David back together with Joyce.

In truth, playing many of these sequences and solving these puzzles was a yawn. What I found interesting was discovering my own reaction to emotionally charged predicaments that affected the happiness and fulfillment of people I cared about, like Joyce, Kate and Chloe.

Megan: I goof on this game a lot about what I think are missteps, but I always come back to how much I love it. It's exactly for the reasons you mentioned above. It made me care about these young women in a way few games have. The path to the ending of "Polarized" is clumsy and imperfect, but I still think Dontnod stuck the landing in its final moments. Necessary caveat: I base this on my final decision in the game.

I chose to sacrifice Chloe. Life is Strange has always been about Chloe's selfishness, and Max's selflessness. Max talks about going to hell and back for Chloe, and we've seen it. Their friendship and their love is the backbone of this series.

But up until now, the game has always revolved around Max calling the shots. And, as we see, she's messed it up good and plenty to save her friend. In the version where Chloe is left to die on day one, we finally see her breaking out of her self-centered streak. We see her evolving as a character. There's a line that really stuck with me, where Chloe talks about her mother. It's something to the effect of, My mother does not deserve to die in a shitty diner in this storm. Neither Chloe nor Max could save William, Chloe's dad, but there's still hope for Joyce.

To me, this was what I would call "the obvious right choice," but the game's stats show that it's a pretty even split. I did an informal Twitter poll of my own and was fascinated to see that almost everyone who responded chose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay. I was told over and over again that they loved Chloe too much to let her die.

The path to the ending is clumsy and imperfect

Colin: I also chose to sacrifice Chloe. At the time, it felt like a weighty decision. In reality, I would have let the town burn to save someone I really loved. But logically it was the right thing to do. In any case, Chloe was all but begging me to let her die in order to save the town. It would have been far tougher if she had made the point that she didn't want to die, as I think most people would.

I'm not convinced that her selflessness so much represents a character development as a situation where the writers wanted you to make a certain choice, or to wrap up her ending neatly. It's interesting that the denouement for sacrificing Chloe was a lot longer than the other one.

Once the decision was made, though, the story deflated to a disappointing funeral scene in which, far from being struck down by the horror of what she has been through, Max merely looks like a young person who has Learned An Important Lesson In Life.

at the time, it felt like a weighty decision
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Megan: I found the photos the game flips through more impactful than the funeral. Max with Joyce and David is more heartbreaking to me than anything.

It's a call that definitely made me pause, but ultimately it's that idea of the life of one versus the good of many that I can't escape. I can't justify it. After I finished my game, I went back to that chapter and chose the other ending just to see, and I think you're right — it does feel like Dontnod wanted you to sacrifice Chloe. If you chose to destroy the town, it lacks any sort of serious weight. Max and Chloe drive through the ruined town of Arcadia — which is suspiciously devoid of the bodies of your loved ones, I might add — and that's it. That's it?! Like, "We killed our entire town." "Yeah that sucks." "Hey, wanna go to Portland?" "Yeah, OK," is all I could think. Again, not enough there to justify it.

Wrap Up:

Life is Strange is worth playing despite its considerable faults

Megan: "Polarized" feels a lot like a dog chasing its tail. We're used to Life is Strange taking back its most extreme consequences, because up until now that's been the entire point of the game: to fix things. But this episode is so focused on that idea — fixing it — that we sort of lose everything in between here. And all those little details are what made me love the series to begin with.

Life is Strange: Episode Five - "Polarized" was reviewed using downloadable PS3 copies purchased by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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