I want to like the way Life is Strange ended. I really do. All year, this has been one of my favourite games, and I’ve always had a new episode on the horizon to look forward to. Now that it’s over, there’s a part of me that wishes I had the same time-travel powers that Max has, so that I could go back in time and enjoy the build-up and anticipation.
The fifth and final episode is called Polarized, which is how I felt as the credits rolled. There are parts that I loved, parts that I hated, and parts that I felt completely indifferent towards - including, sadly, the final moments.
Opening with a very uncomfortable, drawn-out series of scenes involving a drugged and bound Max trying to escape her captor, this is the darkest chapter yet (and, need I remind you, this is a game that’s tackled bullying, suicide, and drug abuse), but to me it felt aimless. It actually made me feel sick - not so much because of the subject matter, but because it felt so unnecessary and forced.
A lot of this has to do, I think, with a lack of characterization - which is a problem throughout Polarized, and is one of the things that puts it in such strong contrast to earlier episodes. When I was trying to stop Kate from committing suicide, confronting David Madsen and his abuse of his family, or dealing with Frank, there was a sense of urgency underscored by genuine humanity and groundedness. The characterization of the supporting cast has been fantastic, which gave these moments stakes that felt real and important.
On the other hand, Max still felt to me, after five episodes, like a blank slate, her captor is a one-dimensional psychopath with little in the way of compelling motivation, and the person who eventually saves her - someone who had previously benefitted greatly from depth and nuance I mentioned - is reduced to a Big Damn Hero, whose sole purpose is to save the day at the last second. It’s frustrating, because the game had been doing such a good job of subverting typical game narratives, particularly with regard to morality, but the whole first act of Polarized is heroes versus villains, with a side of damsel in distress.
Thankfully, it gets better after that ordeal is out of the way, but it still suffers from wonky pacing and bizarre efforts to shoehorn in humour. People will occasionally make jokes that are out of character and just don’t fit the bleak, sombre context of most of the episode. The most cringeworthy are when someone will respond to something or other that’s just happened by saying, “Wow, life is… [word that isnt ‘strange’]”. I love goofy, fourth-wall-breaking humour as much as anyone, but time and place, y’know?
Conversely, the best part of Polarized is what is essentially an elongated nightmare sequence that explores Max’s doubts, fears, and insecurities. It’s surreal, unsettling, and very effective; a welcome bit of character development for Max that’s a few episodes too late, but at least it showed up at all.
The way this is presented is really clever. You’ll have conversations in which the only available responses are bitchy and very out of character for the meek, mild-mannered Max - her fear that, deep down inside, she’s just as much of a bully as the people she loathes. You’ll see Max once again bound like she was at the start, forced to watch Chloe make out with… well, basically everyone - Max’s insecurity about her feelings towards Chloe, towards Warren, towards sex and sexuality in general.
And then there’s the stealth sequence that’s tedious, frustrating, and fantastic. No, you didn’t misread that; it’s the tedium that makes this scene so powerful. You need to avoid flashlight-wielding antagonists (all people who Max is scared of, for some reason or another) as you make your way towards a lighthouse in the distance; if they see you, you “die” and need to rewind. But because Max remains in place when she rewinds time, there’s an easy way out - walk until you get spotted, rewind time a bit so that you’re out of line of sight, walk some more, and so on. It’s slow going and dull, but far easier than trying to make your way through honestly.
This all amounts to a nice ludic metaphor for the underlying message of the episode (and game) as a whole - you can’t win all the time, you can’t please everyone, and taking the easy way out isn’t the ideal solution it looks to be. The one thing it needed to really seal the deal would have been an unavoidable “death” right at the end, and a fake game over as the transition to the next part of the dream sequence. By taking the easy route, you’re just delaying the inevitable.
It’s a welcome bit of character development that’s a few episodes too late
It’s easy to miss this analogy (it’s only as I’m writing this review that it clicked into place, for me), but don’t worry, because elsewhere, Polarized will hammer that point home, over and over again. Life is Strange hasn’t exactly been subtle in its imagery, but the finale really oversells it, especially towards the end. “Time travel isn’t a solution! Mmmkay? Not the answer. Did you get that? Just making sure. Winners don’t do time travel.”
For me, this heavy-handedness deflated what should have been a really moving ending. You’re presented with one final moral dilemma that’s supposed to be particularly hard to resolve, but I made my choice in a heartbeat and didn’t look back, even when I was rewarded with a very brief, anticlimactic conclusion.
The choice I didn’t make the first time, on the other hand, is deep and poignant, wrapping everything up with a fitting and mostly satisfying conclusion. While it’s presented as being an entirely personal choice with no right or wrong answer, the actual results paint a very different picture - I made the wrong choice, and got the “bad” ending; the one that feels like it was tacked on at the last minute out of some misplaced desire to force in a bit more “player agency”.
The kicker is that not giving you that choice would have been much more narratively consistent. Not just because one ending is quite clearly the “real” ending, but because the act of making that choice itself is in conflict with the underlying themes of fate, and the futility of trying change it. How much more impactful of a statement would it have been if the game didn’t let you make the most important decision it gave you? Especially if, like me, you went the other way when you did have the option - wanting to go that route, and not being able to, would have made the real ending far, far more convincing.
Life is Strange has been a fascinating journey, rough around the edges but with a sense of personality and charm that few games can match. That's why it’s so frustrating that, even with some noteworthy high points, the ending felt ultimately unfulfilling, and a low point for an otherwise great game series.