Coming off the end of Episode 4 that left Maxine Caulfield in dire circumstances, the ending has finally arrived for Square Enix and Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange, with the fifth (and final) episode seeking to bring a conclusion to its coming of age story that also wraps around an impending apocalypse and elements of the supernatural.
Over the course of its five episodes run, Life is Strange imbued its story of high school life and the pains of young adulthood with a dose of time travel and science-fiction: what would happen if you could go back? What about altering a different timeline of events? Those were the challenges and questions that Maxine had to find answers to, and in Episode 5 (titled “Polarized”), everything comes to a conclusion for the series in ways both emotional and bittersweet.
Following the end of Episode 4 that left Max in the hands of a surprising enemy and with an impending disaster threatening to tear apart the school, “Polarized” quickly starts off in the darkest, most twisted material that the series has seen yet. Life is Strange has addressed numerous issues and topics during its run from bullying, sexual abuse, and suicide, and always in a mature, thoughtful way rather than purely for exploitative or shocking means, and in Episode 5 that too extends further to some genuinely disturbing and harrowing sequences involving kidnapping and worse.
While bound, drugged, and held captive by the game’s main antagonist (which we’ll avoid mentioning here for spoilers), Max soon must find a way out of the oppressive dark room where Blackwell’s killer has been capturing and murdering young girls, and at the same time find a way to restore order and balance to the cataclysmic events waiting to take down Arcadia Bay.
Life is Strange has been remarkably good at balancing its more far-flung, fantastical elements with a pretty grounded take on its more serious subject matters, which by and large Episode 5 continues to follow in that trend even in the face of some truly-upsetting sequences of kidnap, torture, and abuse. However, “Polarized” perhaps flings a little bit too far into its darkest tendencies, especially against some of the series’ more nagging elements like its occasional instances of cheesy or poor dialogue and more egregious “gamey” elements that get in the way of its most powerful element: its gripping story and characters.
These instances don’t occur too often, though in some ways they do take away from some of the episode’s intended emotional and narrative impact. In particular, a stealth sequence from the episode’s second half, while intending to be harrowing and dreamlike, instead comes off as a frustrating trial-and-error puzzle that succeeds more in padding out the episode’s length than providing a more meaningful gameplay experience. While in theory it’s a unique puzzle for the game, in practice it took me out of the moment in a repetitive cycle of rewinding time and avoiding enemies in the area.
The tone and pacing of Life is Strange have always fluctuated a bit from episode-to-episode, and “Polarized” is unfortunately a bit of an appropriate title to some aspects of Episode 5 being a bit inconsistent, and perhaps the weakest episode of the series. The previously-mentioned stealth sequence marks one of the episode’s lower points, while the opening segment in the dark room starts off intense and harrowing, but soon teeters into the kind of monologue-spewing “You’ll never escape my master plan” sequence you would expect from a hokey villain, and end up receiving from the Blackwell killer.
“Polarized” ultimately gets bogged down by a few narrative elements that don’t work quite as intended and some repetitiveness, but many of Life is Strange‘s strongest elements help overcome those problems. As Max and Chloe’s friendship has always been at the heart of Life is Strange, “Polarized” culminates in many of their strongest moments together, especially as the impending forces Max must overcome provide players with some truly difficult choices to make.
Given the trials and tribulation that Life is Strange has put Maxine through in trying to save both Chloe and her other loved ones, “Polarized” does effectively drive toward a (mostly) satisfying conclusion that doesn’t skimp at all on the emotion and power of Max and Chloe’s friendship. Few games have had the same emotional effect on me as some of the most touching and relevant movies I’ve seen and books that I’ve read, though Life is Strange easily enters that realm with swelling emotions and several hard choices that I never wanted to make but had to.
This all culminates in the game’s final moments that do, as a whole, provide a satisfying conclusion to the events and story that Dontnod Entertainment has built over the previous four episodes: however, ultimately the game comes down to two main choices, and I can’t say I quite found myself as fulfilled with one ending as opposed to the other. Having chosen one path (and then watching the other through YouTube), I can say that while I’m glad that my story with Max concluded in the way that I chose, the other path by comparison feels a bit cheap and rushed, lacking the same depth and emotional core I found so satisfying in the conclusion of my playthrough.
“Polarized” will most likely be the most…well, polarizing episode of Life is Strange, and though the episode falters a bit compared to the times it succeeds, it still concludes the tale of Max, Chloe, and the numerous citizens of Arcadia Bay with style, emotion, and nearly every loose thread wrapped up neatly. While “Polarized” maybe suffers the most from some of the more “gamey” elements of Life is Strange, it still brings with it so many of the qualities that made Life is Strange a unique, if not quite perfect episodic experience.
From a dreamlike sequence ripped straight out of Twin Peaks, to a gripping murder mystery, to a touching story of friendship and support, Life is Strange has been daring and unafraid to try something different, and “Polarized” caps off the season with a poignant and touching picture to remember the series by, even if the end result is a little overexposed.