Life is Strange - Polarized Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Who would have thought this game would become a water-cooler discussion point and, more importantly, one of the best game this year. After the shocking twist of the penultimate episode, Life is Strange’s final chapter is simultaneously perfect and disappointing. Nevertheless, this schizophrenic attempt to tie up loose ends creates a thrilling, interesting and emotionally tough denouement. Dontnod’s approach to the Telltale template yields creative and thematic flourishes, but does it all feel satisfactory?
Without spoiling anything, the plot focuses on Max’s meddling with time in relation to the immensely disturbing Dark Room. Arcadia Bay’s time is limited with the storm approaching - add in almost every character encountered so far in the story and you’ve got what could be a very confusing bundle of threads to bring together.
The revelations of the previous episode pave the way for a more experimental, abstract narrative, wrapped in the trappings of the impending storm apocalypse we’ve already seen. If Dontnod do anything with Polarized, it’s overstretch themselves. Everything seems ramped up to full power - a world away from the high school drama with added time travel that we saw in earlier instalments. Of course, this isn’t to say the characters seem out of place. Max has actually grown into a likable protagonist, resolute in the face of danger and always trying to do right by her friends. Likewise the supporting ensemble cast have grown beyond their slightly cut-out stereotypes we saw in the first episode. Depending on your choices each cast will be different, but there’s real emotional levity to be found in the concluding chapter.
It’s also good to see that, despite the horrifically dark tone and impending doom, the hazy, gauzy artstyle and folk guitar soundtrack are still present and correct. Life is Strange might not be technically perfect - the lip sync is still off but if you care about that you have no life - but it damn well has a strong art direction. If there were any game that captures the sun-drenched wonder and angst we saw in equally ‘down with the kids’ show The OC, it’s this. Polarized pushes things even further with some decidedly strange dream sequences - a handy way to reuse assets without the feeling of repetition.
Unfortunately, it’s these sequences as well as a disorientating barrage of time travel that prove disappointing. The ending isn’t bad by any means, but so many plot devices appear like deus ex machina, rescuing Max from apparently inescapable situations while leaving some hefty plot holes in their wake. In some ways a focus on high school drama with a sprinkling of the supernatural would have been preferable. In setting the stakes so high, Dontnod set themselves up for a fall - namely that it stretches believability. Yes, we’re talking about a college student who can manipulate time, but the smalltown goings felt personal and relative. A massive storm looming down on a town gives the final act a degree of spectacle but does come at the cost of those in-depth conversations and environmental storytelling.
Luckily there are brief moments that show Dontnod haven’t forgotten about your previous decisions nor the light character touches that make Arcadia Bay’s residents so memorable. Even during scenes heavy on QTEs and more game-like mechanics there’s a chance for a favourite character to shine through. Certain options presented to Max also seem to confirm that Dontnod have been tweaking the series based on fan feedback - one late stage especially.
Whereas previous episodes had a stronger reliance on conversation, Polarized feels far more traditional in terms of interactivity. Certain sections include basic stealth rules and there’s a clever opening scenario that foreshadows the quick-wittedness required for later fraught decisions. Nothing’s terribly difficult to work out and there is a degree of trial and error but it feels permissible given how attached you become to the ensemble cast. As for choices, this episode has some difficult, some minor and one blatantly signposted decision that doesn’t hold the awe factor the developers might have expected. Bizarrely, this episode also felt far less emotional - previous pivotal plot points had us shocked and saddened, tempered by the introspective quieter moments, whereas the escalation of Polarized can feel disjointed at times.
It says a great deal that Life is Strange is potentially a Game of the Year for this reviewer. Never before has an episodic game and it’s plotline inspired a need for discussion. Add in unique, beautiful art direction that positively encourages the lead to sit down and contemplate life and you have something special. Rumours of a second season produce mixed emotions. While Dontnod have breathed new life into a genre Telltale had seemingly found growing stagnant, there’s something pure in a contained experience, flaws and triumphs considered. One can only hope that Arcadia Bay is left alone and a new protagonist found. What is wonderful about Life is Strange is that, like Max, it is imbued with the power of time manipulation. No game has taken this reviewer back to his teenage years with such power and clarity - the awkwardness of college, the beauty to be found in sunlight over the bay, the friendships that felt both timeless and fleeting. Polarized might be an ending that sits awkwardly against its forbears but it’s the conclusion to a brilliant series. Dontnod chased the original and succeeded.