I’ve been meaning to write about this since I finished playing but just didn’t have chance until now.
There are spoilers here, but I’m assuming you’re coming to this having played all 4 episodes yourself. Read at your own risk! If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read this post.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know how much I have loved this series and Episode 5 is no different. Before I started playing, I knew from the trailers and the end of Episode 4 that this episode was going to be hard going, after all you start by waking up in the dreaded ‘Dark Room,’ awaiting torture and possible death.
The start of this episode feels very similar to other episodes: making choices, rewinding time when things go badly and trying again to make things right and leap to an alternative timeline. I knew this episode was too good to be true when it seemed that my torturer had been caught, arrested and I was on my way to a photography exhibit for the Everyday Heroes competition in the first fifteen minutes or so. Like other episodes in the series, you begin this episode expecting one narrative and you end up with another. This isn’t a bad thing. At least it kept me on my toes.
It turns out that this episode is all about self sacrifice and whilst it may feel good to bust a criminal and reap the rewards, the apocalypse that has been looming over the game for all previous four episodes comes into play now. You have to sacrifice your own success and make changes to the timeline in order to attempt to save Arcadia Bay and your friend Chloe.
The second half of Polarized is innovative in its approach and moves into Twin Peaks territory with it’s surreal scenes that are twisted versions of past events of the last four episodes. I particularly loved the P.T. style corridor scene where every door you step through returns you to the beginning, only with subtle scene differences and the scene in the school hallway where everything is backwards.
However, I was disappointed that the torturer and mastermind of the Dark Room, Mr Jefferson, turned out to be a cliched one dimensional villain. He may as well have been wearing a pencil moustache and laughing with a sinister ‘MWAH HA HA!’ as he spilled the beans about his previous murders and how he had framed Nathan for them. There was also some exposition where he very quickly explained that he had killed Nathan. Given Nathan was meant to be a significant character, I felt a bit short changed here. Besides, if he had killed his scapegoat, then surely it was pointless framing him in the first place? Way to go criminal genius! It felt as though this part had been rushed through to quickly get to the apocalypse.
The final choice between saving Arcadia Bay or sacrificing Chloe has very literally polarized opinion online, with gamers complaining that their choices in previous episodes amount to nothing in this episode’s final moments. But I think they are missing the point.
They are correct. It doesn’t matter what choices Max makes.
In the end, your choice whether to water a plant or report someone having a gun are meaningless. You cannot change the future. It will happen regardless of what you do. (As someone who suffers with an anxiety disorder, this makes perfect sense to me!)
I do understand gamers frustration at lack of player agency in the first half of the episode though. A lot of time is spent watching cut scenes rather than exploring your surroundings and interacting with it. I can’t help wondering if this episode was rushed by developers to satisfy player demand or whether more cut scenes were included to have more control over the player experience for this finale.
I know that some people also had issues with unresolved storylines. It is never explained why Max can suddenly turn back time. For me this wasn’t an issue (I’ve ready plenty of books where the reader has to just accept the status quo – The Road being a notable example) but it is worth mentioning that this is never resolved.
Despite these flaws none of this ruined my opinion of the series and I agonised for some time before making my final choice at the end of the game.
I have to say looking back on the series, Life Is Strange is without doubt my favourite game in years, despite the cheesy dialogue. I will miss the anticipation of waiting for the next episode to be released. I love the immersive world of Arcadia Bay and how this game took risks with narrative and genre. It has had some of the best cliffhangers that I’ve seen in a while (Chloe in a wheelchair at the end of Episode 3 – jeez!) and I think the episodic nature of release has worked to the game’s advantage. I would also replay this game, something that I very rarely do.
It may be over but hey, at least there will finally be some official merc. Hands up who wants a Hot Dog Man t-shirt! 😉
If you want a spoiler free introduction to Life Is Strange then I wrote a review of Episodes 1-3 without any here. If you haven’t played Episode 4 yet, come back to this review once you have and we can chat about it. I would love to hear about other people’s experiences playing this game.
I had always intended never to give spoilers in a review, however, given the cliffhanger in the last episode and the tone of Episode 4, I fell it would be very difficult to write anything about it properly without spoilers to either what has happened previously, or what happens in this episode. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
So, given the cliffhanger at the end of Episode 3, I was really looking forward to seeing what life was like for Max and Chloe in the alternative timeline of Episode 4. I felt guilty for having said how annoying I thought Chloe was in the first three episodes when I saw how my choices had affected her. This is another brilliant move by Dontnod, in that you feel so invested in the characters, that they have been able to manipulate your emotions. And they manipulate you further, making you consider the difficult issues of disability, euthanasia and whether your power to change time really is so great after all.
My only criticism (at the time of playing) was that given the anticipation I had awaiting the episode’s release, I felt the time spent in the alternative timeline was not really long enough. I would have liked to have seen how the butterfly effect had altered other areas of Max’s life too, but you never get to play out any part of that. The reason, is of course, that ultimately none of this timeline really matters, and by the time you get to the end of this episode, you will have forgotten how eager you were to play around as one of Victoria’s cronies at Blackwell.
And I am pleased to report that this first part of the episode did give me more sympathy for the character of Chloe when I returned to the previous version of reality. The word ‘hella’ was music to my ears!
In the rest of Episode 4, you are finally pulling all the clues together to try and solve the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the secrets of The Vortex Club which means that there is less roaming around looking at character’s CD collections and more meaningful issues to solve. Max makes more than one reference to Sherlock Holmes during this stage as the episode moves at breakneck pace as you move from one location to the next, picking up clues and solving mysteries. It feels as though there are fewer choices that you are in control of in this episode, and that it is all about storytelling and plot. There are still the same issues with terrible dialogue, but at this point you are so invested in the characters that who cares about that!
Then there is a notable shift in tone, about halfway through, when you find the barn owned by the Prescotts, or more accurately ‘The torture bunker’ hidden underneath it. Even the lighting changes as you enter the passageway leading to this place. And the game just gets darker from here when you finally find the body of Rachel Amber. This, I felt was a real significant moment in that there is always a glimmer of hope in previous episodes that she might still be alive. When you find her, you know that whoever is responsible is not the sort of person to be messed with!
Of course, the impending doom of the apocalypse continues to hangs over Arcadia Bay throughout the episode. There are beached whales, two moons in the sky, and you can’t help but wonder if all that playing around with time has somehow influenced it all. And of course there is the ‘End Of The World’ party as a big hint that there is still something worse to come but most of the time, you are more concerned with following the trail of Rachel Amber and the Vortex Club.
One of the interesting aspects of this episode is that you start to view some characters differently. For example, even though Nathan Prescott is clearly a disturbed individual (he has the psychiatric report to prove it) you can see how the overbearing relationship with his father is the influencing force. Likewise, when you realise Victoria is most likely the next victim of the Prescott’s own brand of torture porn, you suddenly stop viewing her as your nemesis and desperately try to save her. (Incidentally, because I had opted to taught Victoria about the spilled paint in an earlier episode, she now refused to believe my warnings about her intended fate. Once again, my choices came back to bite me.) Likewise, suspicions grow about other previously good characters. I had Mr Jefferson as a suspect long before the final scene. He always seemed too involved with Kate and Victoria to be a completely moral character, but I know that some of my friends playing Episode 4, found this to be very shocking. As one friend put it he trusted him because he ‘was blinded by his beauty.’
Once again, it is very clever plotting by Dontnod in that you are so busy finding evidence against Frank and Nathan that you don’t really consider him to be a threat and the game does not give you any opportunity to investigate him at all.
When the final scene in the junk yard arrived and Chloe was shot, I felt so sad. Typically, it is impossible to rewind this event. She may have been annoying at times but having another character share the action with you, makes a difference. And let’s be honest, Chloe is really the badass one. Without her to encourage her, Max is unlikely to be much of a fighter.
So, I have mixed feelings about Episode 5. I know, right from the word go, that the next episode is going to be very, very dark. Max is alone, presumably in the ‘torture bunker’ and I have a couple of theories about what will happen next:
I wouldn’t be surprised if the denouement is very much like the French horror film Martyrs, after all there have been characters referring to the Vortex Club as a religious cult a number of times. My friend Karl thinks (and I think he may be right on the money here) that Max will die at the end of the next episode and that the entire game is Max trying to rewind time to prevent it happening a la Donnie Darko/the game Limbo.
Twitter has obviously been going crazy about this episode but I saw this tweet on twitter that for me, hits the nail on the head:
How was it for you? What theories do you have about Episode 5? Feel free to comment below.
I’ve often said that I think that narratives in video games are just as valid as those in other forms of media, and that, when done well, the narrative in a game can be just as compelling as any piece of fiction. Most of the games I enjoy playing are low on combat (unless I’m casual gaming), but big on either story or character which is why I’ve decided to write reviews about these types of video games as well as the books I read.
I first heard about Life Is Strange from another blogger, Gaming Backlog a few weeks back and knew straight away it would be the sort of game I would enjoy. However, the first point to make is that the game using the ‘point and click’ mechanic to play, so if you are someone who only goes for games where you want plenty of combat then this may not be your bag! The second point to make is that the game is episodic, so at the moment, the final two episodes are unavailable. This is therefore, only a review of half a story.
In my household, we actually call this game ‘The Hipster Simulator Game’ due to the iconography, plait shirts and fantastic soundtrack which includes artists like Alt J and Amanda Palmer. The soundtrack by the way, actually has to be ‘turned on’ during most scenes, by your character using the music player in that particular room. The graphic style of the game makes it look as though it has been hand painted by an art student. All of this adds to the charm of the game.
So as for the plot of Life Is Strange: you play the character of Max, who has recently started studying photography at Blackwell Academy. (Just a quick aside – it is refreshing playing a female character who doesn’t get kidnapped/killed/raped in order to move the plot along and doesn’t have two giant bouncy globes on her chest to distract you from the gameplay!) You start the game sitting in class, taking a few polaroids (how very retro) of the items around you and avoiding the bitchy Victoria. So far, so high school drama.
However, you very quickly discover that for some inexplicable reason, Max is able to rewind time. This has huge implications on the narrative of the game. You can now walk around campus and talk to characters, choosing your responses and if you think you may have handled the situation badly, hey presto, you can rewind time and choose another option. Bear in mind that every major decision you make will have implications for your character later on. (It’s a bit like a cross between Heavy Rain and 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.) This means you can steal useful items without anyone spotting you if you rewind time after the event, or you can alter circumstances to prevent characters hurting themselves or others. Think of it as an interactive ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ graphic novel.
This is where the game is the most fun. Although for someone like me, who finds it hard to decide what to have for lunch on a daily basis, it meant agonising over my choices until I made a decision and then sometimes I would quickly rewind to change it again, and still obsess over whether or not I had done the right thing.
But there is more to Life Is Strange than just pretending to be a hipster girl. It turns out that there is a sinister side to Blackwell Academy and Arcadia Bay. Firstly, there is a student, Rachel Amber, who has gone missing. Arcadia Bay also has some pretty strange freak weather, such as tornados and snow in the middle of Summer. And, there are the disturbing events of the exclusive Vortex Club to investigate, if you can ever make it onto their guest list, that is. All of this gives the game a real Twin Peaks feel. (There are actually a number of Twin Peaks easter eggs hidden in the game if you look closely enough for them. In fact, there are lots of pop culture and literary references. For starters, Max’s surname is Caulfield like the protagonist in Catcher In the Rye.)
And then there is Chloe.
Chloe is your dysfunctional best friend and she is hella annoying. (I have since wondered if this is on purpose)
She is hella angry.
And hella sweary.
And she says hella a lot.
Which brings me to the one flaw of the game and that is the terrible, clunky dialogue. Chloe alone is responsible for cringeworthy gems such as ‘ready for the mosh pit Shaka brah,’ ‘you got hella cash’ and ‘this s***-pit has taken everyone I’ve ever loved.’ I suppose this highlights the difficulty in writing dialogue that represents teen slang. Realistic slang dates very quickly. Slang that is not already well used sounds ridiculous. All slang sounds stupid when overused. And in Life is Strange, it is definitely overused.
However, one of the strengths of Life Is Strange is its themes. Once again, like Twin Peaks, characters have their fair share of secrets and by the end of Episode 2 it seems that Arcadia Bay is very dark place indeed. The unpleasant nature of social media, drugs, bereavement, sexual exploitation, bullying and attempted suicide are all explicit themes of the game, along with several hints that the apocalypse might be on the way. Such deep and meaningful themes make the game quite different to other games that I’ve played.
So, when I played it, I downloaded episode 1 and played it through to the end. It was fun making choices and being a teenage hipster but I didn’t bother with the second episode until another friend at work started playing it too as at the time, the narrative didn’t grip me enough. However, in conversation, we realised that we had both made very different choices to one another and that he had experienced some events that I hadn’t, due to those choices. We thought it would be fun to see how our games compare.
So I downloaded episode 2 and boy, did some of my choices come back to haunt me! The themes start to get dark here, and there is a major event in this episode (due to the bad choices I made) that can really alter the narrative of the story. (My friend, incidentally, had a different but no less dramatic outcome. People were overhearing our conversations at work and thought we were talking about a soap opera, not a video game.) This is where the decision to release this game as a series of episodes is a genius move. Its episodic nature means that in each episode the plot is structured like the chapter of a novel, with mini cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that urge you to keep going.
So I immediately downloaded episode 3 to continue playing.
The end of episode 3…OH MY GOODNESS! There is such a shocking twist in the plot (and maybe genre now, who knows?) caused by my rewinding and choices that I CANNOT WAIT for episode 4 to be released.
In the words of Chloe I’m sure it’ll be hella awesome!