Review: Life is Strange: Episode 5 – Polarized (2015)

Life is Strange: Episode 5 - Polarized sees Max Caulfield face monsters both supernatural and human, and she must face the toughest decision of her life.

Life is Strange has a lot going for it: great cast, sharp and witty dialogue, unique style, and a story that, while not completely original by itself, knows when to tug on the emotional strings so that you wouldn’t notice. Ultimately, while the series ends on a high note, I couldn’t help but feel that somehow the final episode should be something more. And yet, as bittersweet as that is, I’m okay with that.

From the beginning Life is Strange has taken inspiration from projects such as The Butterfly Effect (2004) and Donnie Darko (2001), films that certainly don’t skimp on the psychological side of their subject matter and are far more concerned with the emotional one. Polarized, however, it seems that Dontnod has taken much more inspiration with psychologically challenging media such as Twin Peaks (1990), Hannibal (2013), and Vanilla Sky (2001). Movies that will mess with your head.

In terms of a gamer’s experience this means a step away from the gorgeous Oregon settings that made Life is Strange so beautiful and unique. Instead (barring one or two instances) the game areas are bleak and greyish, either through intentional design or due to weather. Other times, the primary colours are black and baleful orange – a sign that the universe is collapsing. It gives Polarized a unique look compared to the other four episodes, sure, but it also makes the game clash visually. No where is this more true than in what is kindly called “The Nightmare Sequence” by the fandom. I call it “Max’s Private Hell.”

Welcome to Max’s private hell.

The sequence itself isn’t bad; from a storytelling perspective it really helps us to understand Max’s thought processes and helps us get into her head, but it would have helped to have some foreshadowing to it – maybe smaller, similar sequences in earlier episodes? And from a gameplay perspective, this ‘Nightmare Sequence’ primarily makes use of the stealth minigame introduced way back in Episode 3: Chaos Theory as well as the normally dialogue reliant gameplay established elsewhere. While I would have perhaps liked to have seen a little more variation in terms of gameplay throughout the five episodes, from a storytelling perspective it does make sense that Max is avoiding the “things” (whatever they are) in the nightmare sequence.

And this pattern continues throughout Polarized. Instead of introducing new gameplay, Dontnod has instead decided to rely on what’s tried and true. You could argue that the final episode isn’t the time to introduce something new and it’s normally bad form for a reviewer to say “What if?” but I feel that there was a wasted opportunity in one sequence. About half-way through the game, Max has to drive from the bunker where she was held towards the Two Whales Diner in the middle of Arcadia Bay during the storm, and in the game, this sequence is as a cut-scene. To be fair, this cut-scene really helps to further cement the apocalyptic feeling of Polarized: it has some great music, the visuals are interesting, and concludes one side character’s storyline.

But, if Dontnod had been given just a little bit more time, and perhaps just a few more resources, they could have created a really fun driving minigame here, where Max, driving towards Arcadia Bay, would have to use both the car and time travel powers to avoid being hit by falling debris. Not only would this have given the player just a little bit more indication about how dangerous the storm is, but it could have also been fun and a challenge. They wouldn’t even had to remove the cut-scene to make it work. Most of the resources needed to create such a scene had already been used in-game.

Now, I can see the game’s ending being very divisive, and indeed a quick look through Tumblr and Facebook comments reveals that a lot of people aren’t taking it well, at all. I thought both outcomes were very emotional, but on my part I didn’t see them both as endings per say. One outcome, the longer one with Spanish Sahara by Foals playing in the background and the montage of changed events, was a definitive ending to the story. Nothing else could have happened after that. To quote a wise man, it was “the end of a beautiful journey.”

“Polarized is a step away from the gorgeous Oregon settings that made Life is Strange so beautiful and unique.”

But the other outcome, the one where Obstacles by Syd Matters plays again, is not an ending – it’s the start of something new. Some people have said they felt cheated by this ending, that there was no closure. But that’s the point. There’s no closure because the story isn’t ending in that outcome. It’s the start of a new journey and nobody knows what’s going to happen. Life will go on.

I’m not going to lie, I hated the longer “Foals” outcome. Loathed it. When I first saw it I felt cheated by the possibility that all the choices that I made in game ultimately would have meant nothing. People may disagree with me there, and I realize that with this game there is no “canon” so to speak, but for me, that outcome is absolutely out of canon.

In terms of voice acting, while Ashly Burch continued to absolutely dominate with her portrayal of Chloe Price (an amazing feat considering she was only in three scenes), the other voice actors once again proved their mettle. With her performance, Hannah Telle imbued Max Caulfield with a brilliant mix of fading innocence, sadness, hope and righteous fury; it’s difficult to say what makes this performance work as well as it does, but whatever it is, it manages to set the scene for both outcomes.

Another stand-out performance came from Derek Phillips, whose portrayal of the Hannibal Lecter-like Mark Jefferson scared the bejeezus out of me. In previous episodes, Jefferson was portrayed as that cool hipster teacher, the one who all the kids like, the professor who holds classes outside because it’s a nice day. A little banal, maybe, but cool nonetheless. But here we finally see the character for what he truly is: an absolutely terrifying psychopath. It seems that John Oliver was right when he said that, “Where there is banality, there is evil.”

I want to make it clear though that throughout Life is Strange, in every episode, every voice actor has given an excellent performance. The dialogue may have divided people (not me), but in my opinion every voice actor gave their all and they shine in their respective roles.

Likewise, Dontnod’s choice of music, both in terms of Jonathan Morali’s original score and the licensed soundtrack, have always been absolutely breathtaking and given the game a very unique feeling – the feeling of youth passing into adulthood and the nostalgia and sadness that comes from that. It’s a soundtrack that tugs at the heart strings and uplifts at the same time, is both punky and hipster-ish. It is, quite honestly, my favourite soundtrack ever.

“Like the title says – life is strange.”

Ultimately, Polarized is going to polarize opinion on Life is Strange. To some, it may come off as a disappointment, but to me, it a beautiful, bitter-sweet final chapter to my favourite video game ever. It’s true, I would have liked to have seen more, had more episodes, more varied gameplay, more music, but I guess that’s always the case, isn’t it? You always want more. There were tough decisions and high emotions, sure, but there was also beauty and heart and humour, and to see it pass into the past saddens me. But I guess that’s life.

It’s strange when you think about it, things not lasting forever, but, like the title says, life is strange.

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