It’s impossible to discuss the final episode of Life Is Strange without a) crying in a soggy mess on the floor and b) revealing spoilers. I’ll keep these first two paragraphs spoiler free for the uninitiated, and focus on the hard boiled pros and cons of a now revolutionary series. If you’ve yet to follow Max and Chloe on their weird and wonderful time-hopping adventure, you need only know a few things. Though it got off to an uneven start, Life Is Strange‘s final episode keeps up the lofty standard set by it’s previous two instalments. It confidently juggles a branching coming of age narrative, a truly twisted thriller sub-plot, supernatural mumbo-jumbo, furiously difficult choice-making mechanics, and even freaking stealth sections in what is ultimately a heartbreaking and tragic circus act.
Though Polarized is slightly less choice-heavy than its predecessors, it makes up for it with huge narrative pay-offs, and plenty of smaller, more tender moments that have now become idiosyncratic of Life Is Strange. I can say little else without letting the cat(s) out of the bag, but I can say this: when a story about two teenage girls can bring a grown(ish) man to floods of tears, it’s doing something very right.
[MAJOR SPOILERS AFTER THE BREAK. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.]
After Dark Room‘s bombshell revelation as to the identity of Rachel Amber’s kidnapper/killer/creepy photo taker, Polarized finds Max strapped to a chair in the perpetrator’s secret bunker. Since Max is completely restricted, she must call on her previous time-bending experience in order to escape. The trouble is, her bright idea to jump into photographs (and the pasts they represent) lands her in more trouble than before. Just like when she entered the pre-David Madsen, post-Chloe’s car-crash alternate reality of episode 4, Max learns that completely changing the past is not always best for the future.
She also learns that Mr Jefferson, her once dreamy-eyed, hipster prince of an art teacher, is actually scum. I mean real scum. Jefferson is one of the most memorable and disturbing villains I’ve seen in any game, and he does it all without clown make-up or severe deformities. In scenes that will genuinely distress a significant amount of players, Jefferson verbally abuses Max, whilst slithering around his sterile cavern taking uncomfortably close snapshots of her incapacitated body. Life Is Strange does a really fine job of making its less instantly likeable characters sympathetic (more on that in a moment), but it’s always great to have a clear cut, stone cold bad-guy, and Mark Jefferson will be appearing on pop-culture’s “Biggest Bastard” lists right next Joffrey Baratheon.
After a series of convoluted and complicated time-reversals, Max manages to escape into a seemingly perfect future wherein Jefferson is locked up, she is in San Francisco celebrating her “Everyday Heroes” prize, and a giant storm is about to rip her home and everyone she has ever loved into tiny little pieces. So Max must push her powers to breaking point in order to save Chloe, whilst also incriminating Mr Jefferson as the sadist he is. Such heavy step re-tracing and backtracking would be obtuse, were it not for the previous four episodes’ taking great efforts to make every character and locale feel iconic. Just like looking at a photograph, we instantly know what happened at say, the junk yard, or the swimming pool, because the events that occurred there are etched into our brains.
Polarized‘s biggest strength is that it builds upon everything that has been great about Life Is Strange so far. The people whom once felt awkward and annoying now feel like magnificently flawed, three-dimensional characters. Max is the most glaring example of this. In episode 1, Max was a nosey, slang-spouting selfie-taker with a habit for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Polarized captures her for who she truly is, a sentimental and helpful woman, struggling to break out of adolescence and find her way.
It is because Life Is Strange has so thoroughly nailed its characters, that everything else falls into place so seamlessly. In a penultimate dream-like sequence, Chloe encounters all of the important figures from her past as they stalk her through the broken corridors of Blackwell Academy. Of course, this is a repeat of the stealth-beats that worked so well at Blackwell’s swimming pool, but its the twisted re-imaginings of her teenage friends and colleagues that gives this sequence such an eerie sense of dread. Even the loveable, down on his luck Warren takes on a sinister turn, as do the likes of Kate Marsh and David Madsen.
Though episode 5 inevitably ends with a binary choice – it was bound to happen, there’s no way such a huge variety of decisions could have an impact on the series’ finale – it’s a real doozie, one that equals The Walking Dead Game‘s finale in terms of emotional punch and gravitas. This is no Mass Effect 3 ending; Max must decide between the two most important things in her life, and doing so is utterly heartbreaking.
Life Is Strange has proven that episodic games can achieve great things when done right. So much of what works in episode 5 comes down to what didn’t work in episodes one and two. There are cheeky digs at the main characters’ over the top youth vernacular, as well as an entire sequence condemning the infamously terrible bottle-finding section from episode two.
Life Is Strange has done for interactive storytelling what The Walking Dead and The Last of Us did a few years back. It has accomplished new feats of narrative delivery – not always successfully, but in a way that is sure to be remembered and remixed for years to come. Rather fittingly, it has become something resembling the Twin Peaks of videogames – a weird, cult-hit that’s chock full of character, drama, and surreal stories.
In my episode one review, I stated that I was confident in Life Is Strange‘s formula paying off in the end (how’s this for a meta-meta exercise in time travel?), and I’m happy to stand by that initial proclamation. It might not be perfect, but that’s what makes it special. Y’know, sort of like every teenager.