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Review: Life is Strange: Episode 5 – Polarized (Sony PlayStation 4)

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Life is Strange: Episode 5 – Polarized
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Genre: Interactive Drama
Release Date: 10/20/2015

(Note: This review will feature text copied from my review of episode one. As things like graphics, audio, and core mechanics are unlikely to change between episodes, there’s hardly a good reason to rewrite bits for that. These copied sections will be in italics. Feel free to read them and/or skip them as you see fit.)

We’re finally here. Life is Strange has been an incredible journey thanks to its focus on exploration, character development, and solid storytelling. It’s been a veritable breath of fresh air in a genre often more focused on quick-time-events and faux player choice. However, all good things must come to and end. Polarized certainly packs the emotional punch of its predecessors and then some, although how it goes about delivering said punch may not sit well with everyone.

lis51When we last left Max Caulfield, things had certainly gone to hell. Her time powers allowed her to supposedly go back and fix a tragic event in Chloe’s life, only to find out that something just as horrific had occurred as a result. Then, the case of Rachel Amber finally saw some light at the end of the tunnel, only for that light to turn out to be a shallow grave in a junkyard. Even worse, the final moments left Max captured by the culprit and Chloe presumably dead from a gunshot. We knew Max’s time powers were going to come into affect. The only question was how things would ultimately shake down.

Polarized is by far the most abstract episode in the season. As Max uses her powers to dive between timelines and realities, it can become quite difficult to piece together what’s actually happened and what’s been stopped. The final moments are a literal chaotic storm that will likely leave you bewildered. Throughout all of it though, Max retains the things that made her such a likable protagonist from the start.

While time travel has always been a key part of the series, this episode abuses the concept constantly. As such, many of the decisions you make feel a bit hollow. It becomes more about curiosity than anything else. You can be as truthful and hurtful as you like, just to see how someone will react. After all, you’ll be changing time in just a few moments anyway, and they won’t remember a thing that just happened. So it becomes more about how the player wants Max to act. It also heavily implies that many, if not all, of your prior decisions really aren’t that important. While some scenes will play out differently for sure, it feels like the progression you’ve made is a bit stifled at times.

However, the end result is still a positive one. Either of the two possible endings are certainly to have an emotional impact, and you’ll be forced to make a choice you (and Max) would rather not make. It will certainly leave an impression on you.

lis52For the most part, Life is Strange looks great. The models and environments are well detailed, there’s a good use of color, and nothing looks strangely out of place. A couple of issues bog it down though. The hair for example, has the complexion of cheap plastic. It almost looks like characters are wearing helmets. Facial hair doesn’t fare much better either. Those that have it look like they’ve simply drawn it on with marker. More importantly, the lip syncing is terrible to the point of distraction. It feels like the audio is simply out of sync with the visuals. Unfortunately, these issues are consistent throughout the game and make it hard to enjoy an otherwise well put together little world.

Things fare better in the aural department. Those indie songs fit the mood to a tee, and sound pretty nice to boot. The voice acting is also quite good across the board. A few lines are overacted a bit, but that can just as easily be attributed to the fact that teenagers actually act like that. It’s not odd at all that Max would get into an all too serious reverie about some silly bit of graffiti or lament the state of her self portrait. That’s what kids do. It’s a solid package across the board really. It’s just a shame those words don’t match the lip movements.

Much like the various recent TT games, Life is Strange keeps a minimalist approach. However, this game keeps a few of the puzzle elements that those games have ditched. The time rewinding mechanic also throws a fresh perspective on the genre.

There’s actually freedom to explore and discover in the game. While you can only really progress the plot by completing certain actions, you’re often given a fairly well sized area to walk around in. You can hunt for photo ops, talk to people, and get Max’s input on various things as well. Talking to people helps flesh out the story, and adds a lot of depth. There’s one plot line about a girl who went missing in the months prior to the start of story, and you’ll find out a lot more by talking to non-essential people than you will on the main path. It’s really all about walking around and pressing one of two or so face buttons. It’s simple, but effective.

lis53When a puzzle does show up, it’s often only a couple of steps in complexity. For example, you’ll only need to perform two actions in order to get the popular girls to stop blocking your way into the dorm. The trick is in using the time reversal to see what things you can interact with. In one case, you need to hide in a closet. If you attempt to open the door, a floor lamp falls into it and knocks everything over. A quick time reversal allows you to move the lamp first and thus save you from the accident. To reverse time, you need only hold down a shoulder button. The game has skip options to allow you fast forward through stuff you’ve already seen before/maneuver through time faster. Best of all, this mechanic lets you change your mind about even the biggest decisions in the game. The catch is that you can only reverse time so far, and once you leave the area, those decisions are set in stone. Still, it takes a lot of the anxiety out of making a choice. You can see what all the options do and pick the path you think is best.

When it comes to making choices in the game, your options are usually limited. Fans used to TT’s four option method might be disappointed to know that this game usually offers only two or three choices. This is most likely to give more meaning to those choices and to keep the time reversals from getting out of hand. On the other hand, you’re free to talk to someone until you’ve exhausted all dialogue options, which is nice. It’s certainly less on-rails than comparable games. It’s not quite to the point where you can call it a true adventure game, but it’s much closer than you’d expect.

It should be noted that there is less to explore in this episode. Because Max is quickly jumping from time to time so much, she is often held to a single room or spot for long periods of time. When you do get to explore, it’s as good as it always was. The finale here is more about pushing your towards the final choice, however, and it’s kind of disappointing. You’ll get the chance to have final moments with the various characters at least.

lis54Also, the gameplay kind of stalls out in a lengthier, more surreal stealth section. While we got one in a prior episode, the added length and repetitive uses of the time power that results gets old really fast. There’s also far less puzzle solving. It pretty much boils down to one area of the game where you have the chance to save a bunch of people. And again, it kind of feels moot when you know you’re about to time jump again.

I certainly can’t blame anyone for feeling let down by some of the choices made in this episode. The more abstract nature combined with the abuse of the time jumping mechanic makes harder to stay emotionally invested in the goings on in Arcadia Bay this time around. However, the game ends on a strong note, and many of its transgressions can be forgiven if you look at the big picture. At the very least, you won’t find another Interactive Drama this year that packs the emotional punch of this game.

Short Attention Span Summary

diehardjack1-150x150“Polarized” is an apt name for the final episode of Life is Strange. It kind of takes a different approach to its storytelling. It backs away from the exploration and mostly linear storytelling of the previous episodes in favor or a more abstract finale. The decisions you’ve made, and make still matter. They just matter to you as a player more than they do to how the plot ends up resolving. Either way, this is an emotional ride that suits a season that has never failed to illicit a tear or two. It’s worth checking out, despite the bumps along the way.

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