Developers: Dontnod Entertainment
Publishers: Square Enix
Plot: Alone and terrified, Max must use her powers to avenge Chloe and Rachel Amber, but has she been tearing apart the very fabric of time?!
Life is Strange, after Episode Two’s game-changing twist, has always been able to craft a good ending. After Episode Four, this goes double. However, the problem with writing such a good twist and cliff-hanger is that you have to be able to follow up with a sucker punch of a narrative, otherwise the gamers at home feel cheated out of a rollercoaster finish. Life is Strange starts by throwing away its structure and going for something that feels totally new. Episode Three and Four tip-toed away from the procedural layout of each level, but Episode Five scraps it almost completely. Most of the characters are reduced to cameos (poor Victoria only ever crops up in ‘dream’ sequences), and every new set-piece is something totally different from anything Dontnod have given us before. For a while, this is a great decision. As we play through the climax to what has been one of the most cult-creating series of 2015, we have no idea what to expect next. It starts off in the Dark Room, as we come face to face with the villain behind everything, Mr. Jefferson. The gameplay is reduced to Max being strapped in a chair, every line of dialogue a potential life-saver or fatal wrong move. Choices feel even more important, especially in a tense shoot-out between Jefferson and a saviour, where your actions control the outcome of the battle. It only gets more inventive from there, Max working her way through what can only be described as an apocalypse. It is very clear throughout the whole time we are playing Life is Strange that we are playing the ending to one of the greatest gaming series that has been released since Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
Storywise, it is phenomenal, full of moments that just hit home. As someone whose biggest pet peeve with this series has been Max being a fairly blank character, I enjoyed playing her with a bit more bite, which the script allowed. Some moments, a confrontation with Victoria, felt tonally false, yet as you face Mr. Jefferson, revealed as the serial killer after Episode Four’s shock ending, it is a satisfying moment. In fact, Derek Phillips, who voices Mr. Jefferson holds his own too, as he is allowed to go full bad guy. While there is no physical contact between him and his victims, as the series has hinted to in the past, his desire to photograph them in their weakened state feels just as sexually intrusive, allowing for a truly chilling opening scene. However, the true story behind Life is Strange has always been between Max and Chloe, their friendship being pushed to extremes by the chaos of the events of the game. The biggest gamble here for Dontnod would be removing Chloe from the story (the other big twist from last time was Life is Strange’s best character taking a bullet to the skull), and continuing this important theme. While Chloe is always present through the cracked shards of time, Max is well and truly alone for a lot of Episode Five. Even when paired with other characters, they don’t ever feel truly present, perhaps one scene with Warren in a demolished diner being the only time you truly feel like you are connecting with a real person. However, Max and Chloe’s friendship develops even when one of them isn’t there, their bond felt through the decisions Max makes and the disastrous consequences of her actions. The ending (there are two, which we will get to in a moment), is a sucker-punch to the gut, especially one path your character can take, where she is trapped in that bathroom from the start and forced to re-watch a horrible moment from her past. Dontnod builds the moment up with both false hope, horror and overwhelming sadness, so that one scene will remain with the viewer for quite some time. And how can I not talk about the bizarre dream sequence that makes up most of the action of Polarised? Max learns that by travelling through time, she has been causing the hurricane and weather patterns that doom Arcadia Bay. As time folds back onto itself, you are treated to a lengthy segment, as you wander through a fractured timeline in Max’s own head, previous scenes being folded into nightmarish alternate realities and every character from before transforming into terrifying monsters. Imagine the Scarecrow sequences from Arkham Asylum, but a version that feeds into the emotional weight built up from four episodes spent bonding with people in this universe. While it might annoy some (it is rather tricky to complete with the same pace that the rest of the level managed to maintain), it definitely makes Polarised an ending you will not forget.
But perhaps Life is Strange’s eventual downfall comes from the obvious. No, it is not a perfect ending with a very disappointing final choice. It is clear that the game wants you to follow one of its endings, so it quickly sums up one of its epilogues, focusing most of the emotional weight into the other one. That is a black mark for any gaming series that sells itself as a game where every choice matters. The other flaw with the choice scenario is that a lot of the decisions we have made previously throughout the game are left undone, because of the time travel element of Life is Strange. It is a common problem with any kind of time travel story, in movies, TV and now games. Perhaps we should have seen it coming a mile off. However, once you have let the awe of Polarised die down, it is true that there is a slight sensation that you have been cheated out of the storyline you personalised to your own gameplay throughout the five episodes. It all comes down to the balance between creating a good story and a good game. And when it comes to story, Life is Strange is phenomenal. I cared more for the characters than I believed I would, truly buying into the atmosphere and universe of Arcadia Bay. I was emotionally invested in every one of the five parts of the series. However, especially with Polarised, this came as a detriment to the actual gameplay. It could even be argued that the nightmare segment is a forced attempt to sneak some actual game elements into the level at any cost. It is a shame, because Life is Strange ends slightly unevenly. It feels harsh to criticise a near perfect gaming series for a slightly off-hand ending (not a bad one, just one that’s satisfaction fades quite quickly upon reflection), but I am left with little choice.
Final Verdict: Life is Strange ends with a worthy finish, the themes and characters climaxing explosively. It is a shame that the time travel kills off a lot of Life is Strange’s USP.