Life is Strange: Episode 5 - Polarized
When Dontnod first debuted Life is Strange early this year, I immediately took to it. It felt fresh and it tackled issues we're not used to seeing in games, such as bullying, death, and suicidal thoughts. But throughout the project, I've been frustrated with how these portrayals have been handled just as much as I've been rooting it on. I'm glad to say the finale left me cheering and brought the narrative together in a satisfying way. It captured something raw and authentic about the human condition that so many games fail to create.
Episode 5 begins right where the previous game left off. Maxine and Chloe have finally discovered the true culprit behind former classmate Rachel's disappearance, and the truth is even more horrifying than expected. From here on out, we see Maxine struggle to manipulate her time-traveling powers to make things "right." Dontnod gives you a glimpse into her subconscious and raises some great questions about life in general. Is there really a perfect solution to anything? Are you robbing people of living life by making things pan out in a certain way? I like how it puts this great power in your hands, but then makes you second-guess how you've used it.
Up until this point, players have used their powers differently. Dontnod does an outstanding job of still telling its own story, while making choices mean something to the narrative. Certain characters will show up in scenes based on your choices, and additional options are also available at certain moments. It stays true to how you've played the game; however, it's not perfect. Sometimes characters and romances are shoehorned in just to be another choice. For example, Warren, Maxine's best guy friend who's crushing on her, comes off more creepy than endearing. He ultimately adds nothing of value to the plot.
The narrative comes down to the friendship between Maxine and Chloe. Scenes that focus on their bond have always been my favorite moments in the game, and it's the heart of this episode. We all have that friend who we might not see for a while, but then we see them again and it's just like old times. Dontnod shows the strong bond of these two in such a genuine way, proving time and time again just how much both of these girls care about each other. The most interesting parts of the finale aren't so much the conclusions to the big mysteries, but how Maxine and Chloe's friendship is affected by the chaos around them. This can either bring people together or tear them apart. Dontnod makes this relationship intriguing beyond just that conflict though, and also explores how far we'll go for the people we love. The result is touching and easy to relate to. Themes of growing up, letting go, and cherishing memories all come through nicely.
For all that I loved about Episode 5's writing, the gameplay doesn't shine as brightly. Plenty of sequences feel like dead weight, with an annoying stealth section taking the cake. This section feels tacked on to pad out the finale instead of being worthwhile content. You're in a dark room with flashlights all around that you must avoid, but it gets hard to keep track of the multiple streams of light. Another section has you going through tons of identical doors and halls listening to voiceovers before you advance. These were my least favorite parts of the experience, especially since they both go on too long. At these points, you just want answers and Dontnod seems to prolong it as much as possible with unnecessary mind games.
Even so, Life is Strange remains one of the more moving experiences I've had in a virtual world. Video games are growing as a medium, and Life is Strange is proof that mature stories can be deeply affecting in this format. Despite all its supernatural elements, Life is Strange is relatable, and that's what gives its ending the biggest punch. It makes you reexamine everything you've done up until that point. Sure, the project has had its share of missteps, but it's also been full of powerful moments that surpass your average experience with a video game.