Life is Strange has quickly cemented itself as one of the most pleasant surprises of this gaming year over its first four episodes, right down to a cliffhanger that had players at the edge of their seats. If Square Enix and Dontnod Entertainment could follow through with a satisfying finale, it would stand as among the best games of the year. Unfortunately, like the storm it had ominously foreshadowed since the first episode, Life is Strange is ultimately crushed by the weight of expectations and what has turned out to be a mediocre final chapter.
Eye of the Storm
For the most part, Life is Strange was illustrating the oddities of growing up as a teenager. It introduced the kind of high school angst and drama that many people endured during those four years. In this finale, however, the time for high school drama is over. The story is no longer so much about growing up, but about the resolution of a full-blown murder mystery. There's no way around it, the dialogue gets downright uncomfortable at several points. Considering the nature of the person that's delivering it, that's normally a plus, but the Unreal Engine animation kills a lot of the tension of the episode's early scenes. It's hard to take a villain's psychotic monologue seriously when the animation only delivers a single flat facial expression.
The most intriguing mechanic has been, and remains, the ability to rewind time and adjust certain dialogue selections to fit a situation. However, in Polarized, that comes into play a lot less. The object isn't so much to solve problems with words, it's to use Max's powers in other ways to get out of precarious situations and eventually set things right before the Arcadia Bay storm hits.
Since the beginning of Life is Strange, the fear that the plot would collapse in on itself through its Butterfly Effect theme was looming in the distance. Yes, kind of like that tornado that was threatening Arcadia Bay for the entirety of the game. For the first four episodes, Life is Strange was capably able to introduce new mechanics to help keep this concept fresh, while simultaneously introducing new twists to the plot.
Polarized gets a little too carried away with some of these ideas, such as the one that involves focusing on a photograph to turn back time. Not only does this mechanic feel like it's overused, but it ultimately causes the plot to completely unravel. We'll touch on that in just a second.
The climax that sees Max confronting the storm leads to a wildly whacked out sequence that just drags far too long. Without spoiling too much of what happens, the sequence involves Max confronting most everything that's haunted her since the beginning of the story. It sprinkles in certain gameplay elements, as well. Some of those are welcome, like the stealth sequences; others, like the bottle-fetching objective that proved so aggravating in Out of Time, not so much. The more Max continues to jump from crazed trip to wild fever dream, the more it eventually just had me wondering when the game would just cut to the chase.
Then there's the resolution, which gets even more difficult to discuss without spoilers. But let's just say that the path Max had taken throughout the episode was proving fruitless and only leading to more problems, greater disaster, and more devastating consequences. What's the ultimate solution? Just do that same thing one more time. Why would it work any better this time? It honestly felt like the answer was simply, "Because reasons." To say this was a disappointing way to wrap up one of the story's most intriguing plot lines is an understatement.
Through four episodes, Life is Strange proved innovative with its take on the point-and-click style of adventure game and also heartwarmingly captivating with its story. The former remains true, even as the series reaches its conclusion with Polarized. Even if it utilizes the "trial and error" dialogue a little less this time around, it's still used exceptionally well across the whole series. If nothing else, Life is Strange should be experienced for this novel addition to the point-and-click adventure.
Even the characters, who I've grown to become greatly attached to, got the character moments they deserved, for the most part. But the ending doesn't strike a sour note because of what happens to the characters. I'm fine with the endings for Max, Chloe, and everyone else. It disappoints because of the path the game took in getting there. The ultimate result is a letdown and it leaves a sense that Life is Strange could have been such a more memorable experience than it was.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 code provided by the publisher. Life is Strange is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 for $19.99 for all five episodes. The game is rated M.
Life is Strange
- Rewinding mechanic is an innovative addition to the genre
- Characters are wonderfully endearing
- Some choices cannot be taken back, encouraging more deliberate actions
- New mechanics feed both gameplay and story
- Resolution falls flat
- Climax sequence drags too long
- Plot collapses under its own logic
- Animation sometimes feels listless
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Life is Strange review: 'Selfie'-destruction
Hmm excellent points. While I enjoyed the last chapter (and the game as a whole) immensely, I agree with a lot of these criticisms.
- The monologues in the dark room just didn't work very well. I think the limitations of the animation could have been overcome with better dialogue and/or delivery from Jefferson's voice actor. He just didn't seem quite menacing enough. Or his menace wasn't particularly believable. This was the weakest part of the episode for me.
- I'm not sure what was up with the bottles. I didn't find them all and just sat on the bench, which pushed the game into the next scene. I did like that sneaking sequence overall, mostly for the dialogue being shouted out the flashlight-wielding characters.
- After a certain point, I just accepted the forking timelines and the mysterious nature of Max's ability as things that would not be adequately explained (Chloe explicitly says this at some point). I'm not sure how the "Sacrifice Arcadia Bay" ending plays out, but I felt going into the butterfly photograph to solve everything was an amazing moment, and made sense in the game's internal logic. I think you can consider that a privileged moment in the timeline, as it was the first time Max used her powers. It does require some serious suspension of disbelief, but I was fine doing so.
While it isn't perfect, for me, Life is Strange is one of the best I've ever played. There's something about the game that just clicked. From the first moments it grabbed hard me and never let go.
I was... hell, I still am quite invested and emotional about it. Though in my case there were, in the more mundane aspects, a few notable parallels to things I've lived through. For instance, Episode 2 Spoiler, I lost a friend in 2013, their birthday just went by so they had been on my mind.
I replayed the game (and finished the parts I hadn't yet), one episode a day, ending on yesterday. All together, playing each day each day, was intense.
Regarding the ending(s), I didn't feel cheated in the least bit. As I understand it (I only played my choice and have no intentions of changing that), either option effectively undoes a major amount, if not all, of what you have worked for the entire game. Each is a sacrifice made more difficult because neither Max nor the player is the one actually paying the price, but we're empowered to adjudicate it. Though I can see the argument that the player must sacrifice their agency, which it sounds like you weren't a fan of.
Though our time with Max, and what we initially thought of as a gift we imparted to her ends as she either rejects us entirely, or she learns to leave us behind in the wake of destruction we wrought.
For me, the whole damned thing was for Chloe, every act, every choice. The whole game was about saving her, that's what started it all, and since then we circled around saving one another.
By the end I'd watched Max say goodbye to her best friend enough. It was time to face the consequences and hope for the best. Max and I killed so many people to keep those promises. I felt sick as Max tore the picture apart, but I never wavered in our choice. Our final lesson (Max's and mine) was to stop trying to fix things and live with the consequences. I guess some people just prefer denial.
I don't know, maybe I'm weird but, it spoke to me.