Review: Life Is Strange: Episode 5 – Polarized

Life Is Strange is a five part episodic series that began in January and ends in October. This review is for Episode 5, titled Polarized. Given how important the story is to experience Life Is Strange, this review is spoiler free but given the stage at which we are with this game there may be some spoilers for previous episodes.LifeIsStrange5-StoryBy this point anyone who is following Life Is Strange hopefully has a general idea of what the series is about. In case you haven’t heard – it follow Max Caulfield, a senior photography student who lives in Arcadia Bay. Enrolled within a prestigious academy, Blackwall, she eventually reunites with one of her close friends, Chloe. Chloe’s father’s death occurred several years before and lead to the two growing estranged, so as you can imagine the two of them have quite some catching up to do.

The academy and the town itself is rife with rumours and speculation as to the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Amber, a girl whose reputation is variable depending on which residents you speak to. Some regarded her as innocent and sweet, others as a promiscuous drug addict. It’s up to both Max and Chloe to solve the mystery behind their mutual friends disappearance and other elements that may be threatening Arcadia Bay.LifeIsStrange5-ScreenshotFBeing the final episode of the series, Polarized aims to cover up most of the loose ends that might’ve been left hanging in previous episodes while wrapping up all of the conflicts that might’ve presented themselves to the player. Without ruining too much – there’s barely any reasons given for the storm that threatens Arcadia Bay. Similarly, the motivations of the characters are quite simplistic – though to criticise these elements when I praised the game for being so simplistic in its depiction of college life during Episode 1 would be remiss.

But how does it all come together? And how do your choices affect the endgame? Honestly – it’s quite disappointing. Because while all of these choices were made that were presumably going to affect how the story plays out – many of them merely result in some differing dialogue or the presence of a character during a major scene. Your ending, in particular, is still decided by a binary choice at the end of the episode. A hard choice, for sure, but one that feels ultimately quite phoned in given how the “butterfly effect” and “chaos theory” were so emphasised early on in the series.LifeIsStrange5-ScreenshotAThat’s not to say that the story in Polarized isn’t interesting – it is – especially for those who have a penchant for anything David Lynch. The story is quite interesting and the journey to the rather phoned in ending is still enjoyable. A poor ending, fortunately, doesn’t retroactively ruin the experience I’ve had with Life Is Strange’s characters, world and story. But it has definitely not lived up to the ambitious credo that the developers setup in the early episodes.LifeIsStrange5-PresentationMuch like all the other episodes of Life Is Strange, there’s not a whole lot that changes between each episode in terms of visual style and presentation. The game employs a very rough looking aesthetic that gives it a dreamlike, surrealist quality. This, in particular, is effective in Polarized as it is easily one of the trippiest episodes in the series thus far. Don’t expect many, if any new locations in Polarized however. You’ll be visiting mainly the same locations you’ve been to before, but with interesting twists that still make them feel fresh. Overall, Polarized is a much darker episode and suitably so.

The usual issues with Life Is Strange’s presentation are the technical ones. Character models can look very rough or flat at times, hair can just look like clumped polygons rather than actual hair and all the models have a severely stylised look to them. These are somewhat subjective issues with the game’s presentations but still ones that do pop up from time to time. Speaking of, there are some times where the camera will switch to a character and the texture for their faces haven’t loaded – which is quite frankly terrifying – but also a shortcoming of the Unreal Engine too.LifeIsStrange5-ScreenshotDThe soundtrack, as always, is composed of original music and licensed music which is utilised effectively throughout the episode. As we’re reaching the end of the story, you’d expect most of the music to be grandiose. But until the very end, where a licensed song is used to great effect to present your ending, most of the music is sombre, eerie and ominous. Which is appropriate given where the story goes.

For the final episode, every member of the cast gives a great performance especially during the story’s emotionally draining final climax. The writing still has it’s own issues – namely the cringe worthy dialogue – though in this serious ending to the series it’s much more toned down.LifeIsStrange5-GameplayThe general premise of Polarized is that Max has to get herself out of the predicament she found herself in at the end of Episode 4, only to discover that she also has to save her best friend Chloe from the same predicament too. On top of that, Arcadia Bay is at risk from the storm that was introduced in the first episode of the season, so she has to somehow work out how to save the town, her friend and herself.

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Episode 5 differs significantly from other episodes of Life Is Strange in that it really just feels like a more linear path with one or two major choices being made. Most of Episode 5 is slightly disappointing in this regard – you’ll be in a location, be required to examine a few objects, and then move on to the next location to repeat. There is one moment where the episode takes on a more stealth flavoured approach, but otherwise this feels more like a long cutscene of sorts rather than a game. There’s little use of the rewind mechanics shown in previous episodes.LifeIsStrange5-ScreenshotBGiven that it’s the end of the episode, there’s little to no choices presented to Max throughout the events of Polarized – it’s more about narrative and bouncing between realities to very briefly fix the mistakes Max might have made in previous episodes. Unfortunately, this is a largely linear affair where you’ll jump back to a reality, make a single (and generally only) choice and then see the effects play out. As any science fiction fan will tell you – messing with time and realities does have its consequences. But in the case of Polarized, which is so linear, there’s really only two outcomes with minor differences.

Perhaps even more disappointing is that as Max jumps through layer upon layer of realities, you realise that perhaps some of these layers could be removed to make the experience a little bit better paced. I mentioned earlier in the review that a few segments of this episode evoke an ambience typical of a David Lynch film. But these segments don’t serve any narrative purpose, and while they’re great to interpret, they honestly feel like padding to make this episode feel the same length as others.LifeIsStrange5-ScreenshotEOne moment during these segments was a stand out for me however. It’s the only moment where Polarized is confident enough to give its players full control. It’s a stealth sequence where, without spoiling, Max must sneak past enemies to reach her own goal. Whereas anyone who ahs spent time with video games would roll their eyes at the notion of a forced stealth section, this one when coupled with Max’s rewind powers was actually pretty approachable. The rewind mechanics remove the frustration and the trial-and-error mechanics of the stealth making it a joy to play, essentially. I enjoyed this so much that I’d love to see DONTNOD attempt a stealth game with rewind mechanics in the future.

I feel like that, to a certain extent, I’ve been pretty harsh on Life Is Strange’s ending and the way that, like every other game that allegedly places an emphasis on choice, your ultimate ending is really down to a button press at the end of the narrative. But reflecting on the whole series is important too – that while your choices you made during the early episodes don’t exactly feed into your ending, they were still hard to make and they still brought you into the moment. What I’m trying to say is that while the destination might be somewhat underwhelming, the journey has still been incredible.LifeIsStrange5-ConclusionAfter a long few months, Life Is Strange has finally come to its conclusion. And ultimately, some aspects of it have felt phoned in. Your choices were hard to make throughout the series and their impacts were somewhat visible later on – but it’s incredibly disappointing to find the ending could be altered or chosen with the press of one or the other button during its climax.

As a series, it’s still incredibly easy to recommend Life Is Strange to someone. The best parts of the series are easily the smaller stories – the ones where Max talks one of her friends out of suicide (or doesn’t). The ones where Max is looking for her missing best friend. The greater threat to Arcadia Bay is fairly bog standard though. That’s not to say that it’s bad – it’s just ground that’s been trodden a hundred times before.

But overall, Life Is Strange is a fantastic series – one of the best examples of episodic gaming. It’s just a dying shame that choice don’t affect the outcome of the series as much as it was implied in the earlier episodes. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see what DONTNOD do next. They’re a fantastic team with a small yet diverse pedigree, and Life Is Strange is a great indicator of their talents.

Darker tone and aesthetic
No loose ends in the story
Binary ending choice
Pointless surrealist moments