(This review and playthrough will contain full spoilers for Episode 5 ‘Polarized’ of Life is Strange. You are officially warned. Check out our post on Episode 1 here if you haven’t already.)
What a journey this has been. I almost didn’t want to play it, since there was no way this ending wasn’t going to be brutal. I haven’t found myself this invested in a game in a really long while and it’s been an absolute joy to go through and experience such a stand-out example of amazing storytelling. I was a damn mess at the end, which shows that Life of Strange did its job very well.
I said last time that I didn’t want Max to die at the end of Life is Strange and, in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed. I also said I’d be okay with a dark ending as long as it was done well and… yeah, it was done really damn well, even if it took my heart, threw it in a blender and burned the remains for good measure.
Before we get to the ending, the episode itself was very different to the others, featuring a lot less player agency and instead taking Max on a much more linear journey, albeit one that still had plenty different depending on how you played the game. The jumping between timelines made it a little hard to pin down, but the episode managed to cover a lot of ground in setting up the ending and the inevitable resolution.
Starting off in the Dark Room, fucking hell that was terrifying. That room is “hella” creepy and Jefferson makes for a pretty terrifying serial killer. For all the fantastical nature of this game, the danger was chillingly realistic. I wondered last time if Jefferson knew Max had powers and it turns out he didn’t, but that just made it so much worse! Games are normally about making the player feel powerful, but Jefferson made me feel small and powerless. Even worse is when we return to this room during Max’s time travel hell, but this time in her underwear. Excuse me while I shudder.
The game’s use of photography and the filtered aesthetic have until this point been a key part of the visual beauty of Life of Strange, but Jefferson as Max’s photography teacher corrupts the whole aesthetic of the game and makes it even more unsettling. Watching him take photos of Max, of you, in this professionally lit studio, treating her like nothing more than a model to photograph, is skin-crawling.
Life is Strange did a great job of setting up Nathan for the fall. He was so easy to dislike and felt like a combination of everything so many of us hated in school, a grouping of clichés. The game encouraged you to buy into it and, in the process, made it easier for Jefferson to set him up. For example, telling the principal back in Episode 1 about the gun, that will now of course make Jefferson’s lies more believable. It’s not the consequence I expected but I like it. It doesn’t clear Nathan of guilt for the things he did, but the game makes him tragic rather than villainous.
So of course the only way out of this situation is to go fuck the timeline some more, because Maxpoint 1.0 went so well. And things turn out pretty perfect at first, which obviously isn’t how Life is Strange is going to end and so waiting for that shoe to drop is torture on its own. Continuously, the game really hammers home how messy it is to try and control things beyond your natural ability and, even though it nearly works out, it’s never quite what Max is expecting. Life is chaos and we can’t control it, as Max discovers when she has to throw herself back into the Dark Room.
Gameplay-wise, I struggled a little with that fight scene between David and Jefferson, mainly because I somehow forgot I could rewind further than I was doing and hit a bit of a dead end consequently. But it was a damn cool way to do a fight scene and I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see some kind of fight with Max’s powers until I saw it in action. Having to fight through David was a lot of fun and it was so damn satisfying to finally beat down Jefferson.
David probably had one of the most compelling arcs in the series and it seemed very appropriate that he got to be the hero in some form in the end. The hints were all through the game that he genuinely cared about the people in his life but at the same time, it’s just too easy to get into Max’s head and we become blind to things that should be obvious. There’s also a very real statement along the way about the damage that war can do to a person and along with Kate’s bullying arc, Life is Strange has done a really interesting job of folding in a lot of real world issues into the fantastical story.
At this point in my Max’s arc, I’ve become a broken Max. The world is unravelling despite all my best efforts and so it’s time to stop playing the superhero. That means it’s time to be honest, even if I suspect this is all going to get rewound soon enough. So I told David and Frank about Chloe and Rachel, which made for some really, really great scenes that did a lot to improve both characters. David’s reaction to Chloe’s death is genuinely awful and so doesn’t even make it satisfying when he finally shoots Jefferson.
This honesty has to continue with Chloe, whose life we have royally fucked with in every way possible. I was actually dreading telling Chloe the truth, especially when she was already at her most furious, in shock from finding Rachel. But this is where the story really impressed me: she didn’t get mad. To be honest, no one quite reacted how I expected them to this episode, from David or Frank and even Warren. Turns out the little nerd wasn’t so bad after all, even though I was so sure earlier he was going to end up dangerous in some way. A little clingy to be sure, but he gets a hug at least for his help. Interesting you get a choice to kiss him, but that didn’t feel like an appropriate ending for my Max at all.
Much of this episode is devoted to the mind fuck that is Max’s hell. I can see why some people wouldn’t be too fond of this, but thematically it works well enough. The way Episode 4 ended, there was only so much left for the story to do with the murder mystery so it makes more sense to devote the majority of this episode to the core of Life is Strange: Max and Chloe. And hell is trippy as fuck. From the blood rain, Jefferson’s distorted conversation, the never-ending corridors and the reverse opening credits from Episode 1, everything about this trip was a visual joy, even if it was creepy as shit. Playing as Victoria for that a minute there was especially fun. For a while there I actually thought Max might have died from power overuse, but instead this was every mis-use of time travel catching up at once.
Things get pretty dark from there, even more so than usual. William’s text is like a punch to the gut and then we get to the diner. It’s like the Scrubs finale, but depressing as hell. This sequence impressed me because it comes down to Life is Strange being a character journey again. There was no realistic way that the game could ever incorporate every consequence and decision throughout the game, but what it can do instead is look at those choices and call you out on your actions, good or bad.
Now for the ending. I spent the whole episode dreading this moment because there was no way we were coming out of it easy. In the end, the final choice is the only one that really matters and it’s one of the most difficult game decisions I’ve made in a very long time. The Donnie Darko influences throughout the series always implied where the story was going, but I was surprised to find Max turned out to be the only character who was definitely going to live. It’s the reverse-Darko and that only makes things harder. It would be too easy to sacrifice yourself and so much harder to sacrifice someone you care about.
The time travel resolution being so strongly tied to Chloe’s death probably didn’t satisfy a lot of people, which would be fair. To me, fortunately it works. Saving Chloe was just the first crack in the window that is Time. From there, every single decision or moment that diverts from the original timeline puts more and more pressure on the crack, causing more and more physical repercussions until the window inevitably smashes and it’s tornado time.
The world gets weirder the further we get from the diversion moment, in tandem with how big the timeline diversions become. Chloe and Max hanging out and investigating Rachel isn’t a huge diversion and so only causes some small consequences. But Nathan and Victoria both survived in the original timeline and both died by the end of the week. Two deaths, three if you include Jefferson at David’s hands, that shouldn’t have happened. It’s reasonable to assume that in the original timeline, Nathan was arrested immediately following shooting Chloe and gave up Jefferson after being questioned, keeping all three of them alive without Max having to get involved at all.
The satisfying thing about Life of Strange‘s twists and turns is that they make sense when you look back. Jefferson being the killer? It’s all there from the very first time we meet him and the same goes for Chloe’s overall importance. There are a few bumps along the way and a few threads that aren’t quite tied up, like where did Max’s powers come from? What was up with the doe visions, beyond Chloe owning the snow doe? But lacking those answers didn’t ruin my experience and although it may have played out predictably in some ways, the execution was beautiful.
The character development has especially been my favourite part of my game and, in the end, that’s what my decision came down to. You could argue that none of the decisions really mattered, since either time gets reset or everybody dies. But this is where they did matter, in a significant way. Nobody else may remember, but Max does. This was always a character story and every choice made mattered to Max and how you played the game really makes the decision for you.
So I sacrificed Chloe. It fucking hurt. But it had to be done. Not just because of how much time I spent with the people of the town and getting to know them, but because I’d spent the whole game trying to save Chloe and constantly meddling in her life in a way that I had no right. It was fitting to let the final choice be hers, not Max’s, and in that way it made sense and it felt earned. And yes, Max got to kiss the girl! Damn right I was cheering her on to just kiss her already.
Although it came down to just the one final decision, the road to get there could have taken any number of forms and that’s what made this game such a joy to go through. It felt like character mattered and my decisions mattered to my character, which is perhaps the most vital component of a great story. My Life is Strange ultimately turned out to be, at its core, a love story. And that felt pretty right.
The little thoughts:
- I actually really like that we never met Rachel. Revealing her to be alive or saving her in some way felt like something a little too expected, and would also risk taking away from the Max/Chloe relationship.
- I love that, at the time of writing this, the end-of-game stats for choosing Chloe or the Bay are almost 50/50. That decision took a good couple of minutes to make.
- Yes! Alyssa saved my life in the only payoff I could possibly have wanted from that running gag. In the midst of all that horror, I really needed that moment of levity.
- Anyone else have no animation for Max’s face when was talking to Warren in the diner? Didn’t take me out of the scene too badly, but still jarring.
- “Life is… weird”. So close, internal dialogue.
- The final song of the game is absolutely perfect and makes that last scene even harder to watch. Hold on, I think there’s something in my eye…
Thanks to everyone for somehow making it through this five-part article about one guy getting emotional over a spectacular game. Now get out there and play some games! (Specifically this one)
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