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.