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Life is Strange Episode 5 – “Polarized” Review

The wait is finally over: Life is Strange has come to a conclusion with the launch of the final instalment.

Episode 4 left us with a massive cliffhanger, and with the longest interlude between episodes yet, we’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for the grand finale. But was it worth the wait?

Since Episode 1 launched in February this year, Life is Strange has been going from strength to strength, with each new instalment offering new ways to shock and awe its audience, sending us on a bigger and better rollercoaster ride every time a new episode landed on our hard drive. After the massively climactic ending of Episode 4, we were left with so many questions; most of all, would Max and Chloe even survive?

Life is Strange Episode 5 gave us the answers we needed, but not necessarily in the way we wanted. In many ways, it felt like a departure from the rest of the series; taking a different approach to storytelling, opening up new mechanics that didn’t necessarily feel welcome or fitting. In some ways, the finale had to be different, but in many ways it left me feeling rather deflated and disappointed at its lack of realistic substance.

For me (and, I imagine, most others) one of the main draws of Life is Strange has been its powerful sense of realism, present from the very start. Despite dealing with supernatural and otherwise unbelievable subject matter, it’s always felt very grounded in the real world: believable, well-written characters have helped keep the suspension of disbelief present and foremost at all times. Unfortunately, episode 5 seems to have done away with any semblance of verisimilitude, instead opting for a very fragmented episode that jumps around through timelines, dreamlike sequences and scenes that feel ripped straight out of Twin Peaks.

Dontnod Entertainment have never made a secret of their homage to David Lynch and his magnum opus TV mindtrip; Chloe’s number plate reads “TWN PKS” and in episode 2, Max comes across a graffiti’d mirror with “Fire Walk With Me” etched onto it. However, the supernatural has always been secondary to the incredibly well-realised characterisation of Max, Chloe and their supporting cast. Raw emotions have always taken centre stage, and Life is Strange‘s ability to tackle very real and difficult subjects such as suicide, bullying, grief and drug use has kept its feet firmly on the ground, being relevant and relatable to much of the population. All of that has been tossed aside to instead take a trippy journey into Max’s psyche that seems to serve no purpose other than offer a means of reflection over previous episodes.

There’s no new character development here, besides the further cementation of Max and Chloe’s relationship, which at times feels like it transcends friendship to be on the cusp of being romantic. It’s not a problem – depending how you’ve played the previous episodes, you may already be inclined to view their relationship from the slant of being “more than just friends” – but at times it feels inappropriate; the longing stares and intimate brushes of skin feel out of place against the backdrop of the sense of impending doom that the rest of the episode is trying to create. We see very little of any other characters, leaving us to wonder what has become of them.

The freedom of choice that was very pervasive in earlier episodes has all but gone in Life is Strange Episode 5. We get to make a few choices along the way – if we want to help a passer-by, for instance – but these minor events seemingly have no impact on the story and feel more like unnecessary “side quests” that are thrown in just to test your own moral fibre. As a whole, the episode feels much more linear than any other, with little freedom to explore out of the confines of the predetermined path, and little freedom to determine your own actions: in action sequences where you are presented with a series of options, there is seemingly only one “right” option, and on choosing the wrong, you are forced to rewind and try again. Whilst it is necessary for the story to progress in a certain way, the lack of choice feels very visible in a game that has built up its success largely down to the player-driven freedom its so far managed to offer. The only real, game-defining choice we’re given comes right at the end of the game, and besides a short closing sequence, we don’t get to experience the real consequences of our decision.

Don’t get me wrong. Episode 5 is still good; it’s still Life is Strange. I was just left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth as the experience as a whole felt very different from what was built up in the previous four instalments. It’s understandable that Max’s supernatural abilities would be inescapable as the main focus of this closing episode, but the depiction of this felt, at times, to be something of a cop-out: the clichéd dream/nightmare sequences didn’t gel well, and took away from the tension created by the very real, very dramatic happenings that were going on in Arcadia Bay. Some emotions and relationships were left unexplored, and this felt like a bit of a trade-off to instead take a trip through Max’s inner conscience where the only real emotion I was left with was frustration at the annoying puzzles. Don’t even get me started on the “stealth” section.

Perhaps it comes down to the fact I was forced to live out decisions that I didn’t want to make. Perhaps, after having built bonds with these characters over the last nine months, I didn’t like the fact that the game made me experience consequences that I didn’t want to experience. Maybe I’m just bitter that I couldn’t rewind time for a final time, go back to the beginning and actually successfully change all of Max’s decisions so everybody could live happily ever after. Whatever the reason, the crux is: I’ll still want to experience it again. If 80% of the game has had me clutching on for dear life, I can live with the final 20% being a little bit disappointing.

Life is Strange is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC. We reviewed the PlayStation 4 version. You can find reviews of all previous episodes here.

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