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Life is Strange Episode 5: Polarized

It’s been a long road to see the end of Life is Strange. The series may take place over the course of one singular week, but for fans it will have taken 10 long months to soak in the full story of the life of pseudo-time-traveling super heroine Max Caulfield, and the intense re-kindled relationship with her close friend Chloe Price. In previous episodes time was reversed, realities were jumped, various sets of wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey tomfoolery was embarked on, but throughout the series Life is Strange always put its unique brand of storytelling, and diverse cast of characters at the forefront. It was this inimitable line-up that made the story grow to feel important, and something truly worth caring about.

Life is Strange may be a series about time travel, but it never once forgets that people are its most important facet. Episode Five is no different.

Even though Life is Strange has always been a series with time travel elements at its core, Episode Five is the least shy of all to use it as a starting point to propel its adventure forward. There is barely a chance to take a breath  and process events before the episode begins to weave its complex story. As with all great narratives that dabble in science fiction and the supernatural, there is a human element at the shining center of this episode that keeps the would be madness grounded. Life is Strange needed elements of time travel and time jumping to tell the tale it wanted to tell, but it never gets obsessed with it. It is, and has always been consistently there to enhance the story that lay above.

What we are now playing with is no longer simply the conversational time travel the series had use to great effect previously, we are now deep in the serious bird and whale murdering type that Max has already learned will lead to ruin. We know that time hates to be rewritten, and because of this we know the road ahead will be dangerous, but it soon becomes apparent it is necessary to take this grievous path to see the story through.

If you are looking for a one line summary of what Episode Five contains, let’s just say it presents a selection of horrible choices, and forces a response with equally fucked up answers. It does not pull many of its punches either. It can go to dark places, and dwell in them long enough to be uncomfortable. People in this episode are vindictive and angry, and some can deliver obsessive psychopathic monologues that can be downright scary. Max is justifiably angry herself, and she should be. If the developer’s intention was to present an ominous tone, it is vividly apparent early on, and only grows clearer as the episode develops. If I was to hit on a slight downside, the villainous tones of some characters are almost a bit too forceful and in your face to be wholly believable, but they most certainly get their point across.

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Over its three hour runtime, this episode does not share as many big playthrough altering choices as the last few outings of the series, but the ones that are there are more hard hitting than ever before. Progressing towards the end of the episode, it begins to get harder to make choices, let alone feel like you’re making the right one. If you are the kind of person that likes to jump onto Youtube to watch people both play and react to the series, Episode Five is the best concoction yet to give Let’s Players complete emotional breakdowns. Hopefully you will garner some entertainment from their dismay.

Without delving into specifics, Episode Five feels like an exciting hotpot of clever ideas. If you felt previous episodes lingered too long in some locations, Episode Five is constantly a changing kaleidoscope, always wanting to show something new. Arguably one of the more impressive events on show is an inventive mid-episode scene that can play out a huge number of ways. I won’t go too deep into its details, but it involves learning information and retaining it to use earlier – effect before cause. This slight time-puzzle element leads to action, drama and a tiny bit of musical based humour all getting presented in one highly effective ten minute gameplay chunk – and it’s great to be part of. I’d like to say more, but revealing too much would ruin what is impressive about it. What is perhaps even more special is that the episode is constantly brimming with such moments.

Steven Spielberg once said he could easily blow the shark up at the end of Jaws as he had the audience invested with a tense two-hour buildup. Life is Strange is one and the same. Due to the impressive growth of the series over four episodes, we can now begin to accept events in this world we would have rejected 12 short hours ago. We can laugh as Max almost breaks the fourth wall as she confronts her true nemesis again – green bottles. We can watch characters struggle as they try to avoid uttering the game’s titular line in conversation. We can get lost in seriously messed up hallucinogenic helltrips, that’s arguably one of the better horror moments of the year. If your reasoning led you to believe it was impossible for a video game to effectively showcase a teenager developing into an adult, and a girl becoming a woman, that is executed with aplomb here too. It’s such an impressive coming of age story it almost passes by without notice.

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For all the various choices presented over the series, Life is Strange‘s story can only end in a couple of ways, and some may have a problem with that. However, in my opinion this decision works, as the endings on offer are justified, believable and definite. With this decision Dontnod do not have to chase red threads on sprawling whiteboards to find out what a player did in which parts of the game and why. They likely already know the ins and outs of this anyway, but displaying a long list of bullet points in visual form, and sloppily connecting one to the next does not bring closure. At best it rarely works.

Even if all decisions you made will not be miraculously represented in the game’s closing moments, that’s not to say they are lost to the world. The decisions are of course referenced, with bits and pieces inserted and removed from this very episode as it advances to suit. There is an early line spoken; “You brought yourself here by your own choice,” and that rings true as the episode develops. It is obvious all these choices are still relevant, as they come together to tell the tale of how each player approached the end of their respective journeys. It is not as if Dontnod have tossed them aside as if they never happened. They happened, they always will have happened, and if you enjoyed the road to get here they have always matter to you.

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As the end approaches, it feels right to be alongside Max Caulfield in her effort to seek closure once and for all. Even though Episode Five may be a continuous torrent of truly dire situations, it is an experience that demands attention. Intense monologues – both venomous and heartbreaking – are its standout moments. Its clever narrative offers a sense of finality that can fill you with terror, happiness, and heartbreak in equal parts. Thank you for the year that was Life is Strange – it’s been emotional.

10 out of 10