I knew the end was coming, and yet it still managed to sneak up on me: Life is Strange concludes with episode five, Polarized, bringing Dontnod and Square Enix’s episodic tale of love, friendship, and loss to an end. Max Caulfield’s journey through time comes to a close in Polarized, and with the nature of the game’s ending, the title fits the climax. Regardless of the personal opinions that may be floating around in cyberspace and a couple strange plot points, strong writing and a powerful conclusion make the final chapter of Life is Strange an excellent ending to an excellent series.
Here’s the spoiler-free review: play Life is Strange. Play the whole season, take a couple days to a week between episodes to the let the effects really sink in. The conclusion is appropriate, and in my opinion, fantastic and deserving of praise.
Now, for inevitable spoilers that come from talking about the ending of a game.
Polarized essentially divides itself in to two parts, the first of which deals with Max as she attempts to escape the Prescott-funded dark room. Though this part carried the most terror, the most fear, it also didn’t feel completely true to the rest of the game. Jefferson’s emergence as the mustache-twisting psychopath felt cheap considering his lack of involvement in a majority of the game’s incidents. That said, every other character in the game is somehow relatable, shows a side of humanity over the course of the game. Jefferson, on the other hand, is one-dimensional, Max’s idol…I suppose this sets him up for the fall.
There’s no real rhyme or reason to WHY he’s committed the manipulations and crimes he has, and psychopathy just feels so far out of left field in the rest of the game’s logical, cause-and-effect scenarios that it shocks a bit in the wrong way. Still, Max’s escape from the dark room carries energy, revulsion, and suspense, and though its ending involved another deus ex machina with David Madsen’s entrance, it offers a chance for David’s redemption while opening the door to the conclusion.
Max’s escape from the dark room obviously can’t end the game; Chloe’s been killed, and there’s no way Max will stand for that. Polarized’s second part begins when Max finds the picture Warren took of them together before entering the party near the end of Episode 4; it’s far enough in the past that she can prevent Chloe from ever being shot, and she can use the knowledge she’s gained from the trip through time to convict Jefferson for his crimes. But even as she manages to get Jefferson arrested and fly to San Francisco as the winner of the Everyday Heroes contest, she finds that doesn’t fix the world: the storm still comes to Arcadia Bay, and with it she loses Chloe again.
Regardless of the circumstance, Max can’t seem to fix everything: she resorts to flashbacks within flashbacks, tearing up space and time in the process. The game gets trippy and experimental, and parts become completely confounding, but two things are clear: Max’s first priority is Chloe, and the guilt Max carries from her inability to save everyone rides her conscience. No matter how much power she has to manipulate time, she can’t save everyone from pain.
Polarized’s power comes from the narrative funnel it creates, wrapping you around the drain over and over again until you finally come to the inevitable, painful choice at the end. After all of the tragedy, the heartache, the love and the loss that Max experiences as she rewinds time to try to make the world right, it comes down to one final decision: alter time, or don’t? The blue butterfly present since the beginning of the game is a constant reminder: each decision has a cost, some more dramatic than you’d have ever imagined, and eventually those prices must be paid. Episodes 3 and 4 seem to almost forget about the paranormal tornado that threatens to destroy Arcadia Bay; after all, Max is tied up in her relationship with Chloe, investigating Rachel Amber’s disappearance, and other more immediate concerns.
But Max divines that the storm comes as a result of her attempts to alter time, a manifestation of chaos theory threatening to destroy her hometown. There’s only one way to stop the storm, and that’s to never have created its circumstances in the first place, going back to the bathroom where Chloe is murdered, and letting that murder take place.
Ironically, in my review for Episode 4, I said that echoes of Mass Effect 3’s ending made me afraid to play Episode 5. On the surface, it’s easy to look at Life is Strange’s final choice: Sacrifice Arcadia Bay, or Sacrifice Chloe, as a similar experience: either choice eradicates the world explored in the game, either physically with a storm, or metaphysically by it never happening in the first place. Life is Strange was always about the lesson though, not the choices: you can’t get everything right, and you still have to make a choice. The decisions made throughout all five episodes may not shape the world of the game, but instead they shape the player.
The decision Max, and by extension the player, will truly only be understood by Max and the player; the rest of the world only gets to live in the world shaped by their actions. It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, and delivered all too perfectly: Max’s love for Chloe is certain, but how will she express it?
Both of the game’s endings take place at sunrise, new days coming in the wake of destruction. Whether Chloe or Arcadia Bay is lost is up to the player, but life does go on after the story’s conclusion. It’s a fitting metaphor for life: we go through our intense battles, but regardless of what happens, life goes on. Though I think players will be tempted to mark one ending or the other as “good” and “bad,” at their core, both are simply iterations of life, and that’s what makes the ending so beautiful.
Series concluding episode Polarized, while not perfect, brings Life is Strange to a great conclusion, cementing it as one of the great storytelling adventures gaming has to offer us. Giving us a chance to question many societal standards about love, sex, violence, government, and culture, regardless of what we believe at the end, it’s even more clear just how strange real life is, even without time-traveling powers.