So let’s get this right out of the way. Life is Strange’s final episode, “Polarized”, is kind of a mess – an appropriately titled mess – but a mess nonetheless. It’s not wholly a surprise as there was quite a bit of explanation left to be offered, in order to make sense of the mysteries, both tangible and other-worldy that the series has offered players. Reactions from gamers will probably be far-ranging, based on their attachments to characters, or their attachments to the idea of a series being better than that of, for lack of a more appropriate word, the “competitor’s”.
If you’ve been with me as I’ve reviewed each episode, you’ll know that I, and likely anyone paying attention, had concerns about the likelihood of DONTNOD being able to tie everything together. An excerpt from the review of the fantastic episode four, “Dark Room” read as follows:
My worry again is that it may be difficult to wrap up a story that has zigged and zagged so many times, all while resonating with the echoes of player choices… If we’ve learned anything from our time in Arcadia Bay, it’s that things hardly ever work out as we had hoped. A happy end is definitely not guaranteed.
We left Max in considerable danger the last time out. Chloe and presumably Nathan, are now both dead at the hands of… Mr. Jefferson!? Looking back, and picking up on the subtle clues through the series, Jefferson turning out to be the lead perpetrator of Arcadia Bay’s crimes isn’t all that shocking, no matter how well the series has done at misdirection.
If you’re looking for explanations as to why… well, you’re probably not going to get them. Sometimes creepy psychopaths gotta psychopath… ya know? The “turn” of Jefferson is done exceedingly well by the character’s voice actor, helping to create an extremely creepy and uncomfortable start to the finale. Everything sort of scatters out unevenly from there.
Max’s ability to rewind via photographs, an occasional tool, becomes a repetitive task as she desperately seeks to change time and achieve the outcome she desires. Maybe it was just me, but the solutions to the dialogue/rewind puzzles to start out this episode were the least apparent to me of an previous attempts in the series. I wasn’t exactly sure how the game wanted me to get out of a few sequences.
Polarized becomes increasingly less about choices, and more about barreling down the track. “The game is firmly pointing the finger in a singular, inevitable direction,” as I noted in “Dark Room”. When you finally do get a choice, THE choice, it’s fittingly a hard one to make, but generally one that is clear-cut as far as “right or wrong”. Though it’s the only clear conclusion, it still feels dismissive of the often times uncertain and morally ambiguous choices throughout the series.
While the necessary resolution is explained to a degree, the player is still left with many questions regarding the origins of.. well… everything. Why here, why now? Why Max? Where does this power come from and what is its purpose? Leaving some questions up to the audience is a device I’m perfectly fine with, but not when the bulk of those queries form the core of the major plot device.
Despite how I feel about the execution of this finale, there were still several emotional moments for me along the way. This is a testament to the writing and characters, whom I and many others have become thoroughly attached to. It was excellent work that kept Max interesting and hopefully for most players, allowed them to change their initial impressions of other characters as we learned more about them over the course of the story.
There were a few additional things that contributed to the somewhat spastic finish. The lip-synching in the first half of the game is some of the worst the series has seen. Some people don’t care about that, but for me it’s a huge distraction. The other largely out of place segment of the finale is one you might have heard about elsewhere, a stealth section that feels extremely out of place and clunky.
This all sounds like a lot of harping on a series that I feel has been nearly brilliant up to this point, and one that I still recommend highly despite my feelings about its closing presentation. I recognize that not only is life strange, but so are expectations. Undoubtedly this will not meet some people’s. “Polarized” indeed.
I applaud DONTNOD and Square Enix for their take on the modern adventure game, and commitment to providing a thought-provoking, narrative-driven title. Beyond the story and the simplistic gameplay there are plenty of things to ponder. It’s about living with the choices that we make, understanding their impact and perhaps not dwelling on the past. Even the most predictable outcome is not guaranteed. Life is strange.
The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not
Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.
One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.
The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.
Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals.
This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell.
The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying.
Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.
Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.
The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.
So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.
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