Polarized is the embodiment of all the successes Life is Strange has made with adventure games. It illustrates and uses its own mechanic in a way I never thought would be possible. It makes the tale of its two characters so painfully involving that you can’t help but invest. It solidifies the world you’ve become so familiar with and have fought so hard to understand and protect. But most of all, it reinforces the central theme of love and friendship, in a way that doesn’t feel cheap, but powerful, poetic, and downright beautiful.
Life is Strange piqued my interest last year because it seemed too good to be true for me: a video game tackling the ever-drowning topic of teenage supernatural drama. On face value, this probably turned a lot of players off, and fans of the genre like me may have squealed with delight. Past that, I was excited to see a company outside of Telltale produce and develop an episodic adventure game. Getting away from that formula was really important to me to sustain that genre, and between King’s Quest and this, more legs are entering this race. But what Dontnod has done here is beyond just bringing a popular television genre into the fold of game development; they’ve told an excellent and heartfelt story that matters in an episodic format. They’ve built up a series from absolutely nothing and shown that episodic games can workwithout feeling formulaic or forcing in mechanics like QTE-based combat.
The only real fumbles of Polarized come in with certain happenings that seem a little out of left field. I don’t want to spoil anything, but they by no means hinder the experience. The focal point of the episode is meeting up with a specific character, and there aren’t really any distractions to that, but certain characters pop up along the way that seem convenient. If I had to hedge one complaint against the episode, it’d be that, but the delivery still shines through. Any underdeveloped or seemingly underdeveloped character from the series, David, Frank and even principal Wells, get some time in the limelight to shine. The performances are subtle and enriching, making the world and the friends you fight for all the more believable. None of it felt tabbed on to the last minute either, and it never strayed in focus.
The episode also used some of the puzzle and time mechanics established through each of the four preceding it to a wonderful degree. Almost every puzzle was different and varied, and save for a completely unnecessary stealth section, all the mechanical components of Polarized were just cool. It’s weird to say, but the time mechanic of Life is Strange comes together in a dazzling way that honestly makes Max feel like the superhero she’s been training to become leading up to this finale. At times it’s even exhilarating saving the lives of those in trouble as the apocalyptic storm approaches Arcadia Bay.
But the focal of Polarized can’t be taken off of the story, which wraps up in a hugely satisfying way. In both reflecting on the journey of Life is Strange itself, the characters you’ve interacted with along the way, and every single decision you’ve made up until the finale. Everything mattered, especially to me, the player, in those final moments. The emotions, the characters, and the results of your choices deliver, making Dontnod five for five as far as power-hitting episodes in this series, a first for episodic games.
What ties it all together is the relationship between Max and Chloe, which, above all else, feelsso genuine and real. Both in performance, in writing and in the relationship built up with the player themselves across the past four episodes, especially episode four, they create in a single full-length game what Mass Effect made in three. They make a love for a friend in a way that I haven’t really experienced before in a game. With such a shifted focus to romantic interests and having multiple characters that just tend to fall in love with you if you answer some dialogue options, Life is Strange establishes a friendship that is by no means easy. It’s complicated, and you’ll fight, and it will hurt, but you keep pressing forward in the darkest moments of Polarizedbecause you care about that friend in need more than anything else.
That’s a powerful feeling, and Life is Strange is, at its core, about that very relationship. They earn it in just about every way.
This series has only gotten better as it’s progressed, with Polarized standing as maybe the best finale in an episodic game I have played to date. Delivering on all the themes of teenage life established up to this point, Life is Strange’s finale is heart-wrenching, beautiful, and exhilarating, all at once. I have never had to make a harder choice in any video game, and the final seconds of this one will stick with me for a long time to come.
Life is Strange Episode 5 was reviewed via a retail version purchased by the reviewer on the PlayStation Store for PS4.