Life Is Strange

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And here we are, at the end.

This is going to be review of the entirety of Life Is Strange as well as the final episode, Polarized. Unlike my previous reviews, it will be as vague as possible and will contain no spoilers. Swing back over to the episode one review to get an explanation of the general plot and gameplay, and then read on to find out if it was all worth it in the long run.

…I mean the answer to that is “yes”, but read the rest anyway.

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At the end of episode 4 Max and Chloe found themselves in a precarious situation, having just solved the big central mystery of the series. At the beginning of the final chapter Max is once again forced to rely on her time travel powers to try and make things right, but in the process she’ll have to face up to the reality she’s been desperately running away from all this time: sometimes you just can’t fix everything. Life is always sad and painful (and, yes, strange), and the best we can do is do the best with what we have.

Episode five has proven to be polarizing (joakes); prior to playing it I found myself fretting over descriptions like “train wreck” and “hot garbage”. Now that I’m on the other side I’m kind of baffled by those reactions. I found that the ending wrapped everything up in a satisfying way, paid off all the big emotional beats that had been building for the last four episodes and tried some daring new directions as well. Pretty much the only thing that isn’t addressed at all is the actual origin and nature of Max’s time control powers (the characters even pointedly talk about how they’re never going to be able to solve this mystery), but I had stopped expecting the game to provide any answers on that front a long time ago. That’s just not where Life Is Strange’s priorities were, and I’m okay with that.

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If episode five has a flaw it’s that it tries to do too much in too short a time, but then that’s not surprising because over-stuffing itself has been the game’s achilles heel from the start. Looking back over the full breadth of the story, it’s clear now that it tried to juggle far too many characters and plotlines when Chloe and Max should have been the sole focus. Even though previous episodes took ample time to give us the two of them interacting and expanding their relationship, I still found myself wanting more, and episode five was no exception. Yes, game, it’s cool that you’re taking these unusual tonal shifts and playing with the gameplay mechanics in interesting ways, but that’s not really what I’m here for.

My opinion on the game comes with a heavy amount of personal bias, I’ll freely admit. I identified heavily with Max as a character. Like, heavily. This is maybe the first game I’ve ever played where I felt as though I was essentially playing as myself, and as it turns out that kind of emotional connection can paper over a lot of flaws. The character animations are weird and stiff? Don’t care. The over-stuffed nature of the plot leads to some rushed pacing, sometimes at critical moments? Shrug. The teen-speak was cringe-inducing? Whatever. I just wanted to spend more time walking in Max Caulfield’s shoes. Everything else came second.

(And actually I started liking the teen speak eventually)

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There is probably a better, leaner version of Life Is Strange that cuts down on the plot complexity and dials things back to focus more heavily on the central relationship. Does part of me wish we got that game instead of this one? Sure, a bit. But what we got is flawed, beautiful, moving and artistically interesting. It’s exactly the kind of game I want more of, and just because it doesn’t work perfectly doesn’t mean I’m not going to applaud it.

You might not agree. There’s a good chance you won’t, in fact– while the reviews for the previous episodes weren’t as all over the place as they were for episode five, there’s no denying Life Is Strange has received a distinctly mixed reaction. But for me it represents something special and personal, warts and all.

Hella thanks, Dontnod. I’m glad you got to make this game.

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6 thoughts on “Life Is Strange

  1. Patrick

    Cat : is that a joke?

    *SPOILERS FROM HERE ON*
    I liked the ending and the last episode. I really liked that it wasn’t just an “escape the serial killer” episode. I also liked that there was no sexual assault going on, especially now that we had to play through. And I liked that Nathan was misguided, not just crazy and evil.

    I liked that the morally right ending feels hollow and the egotistical ending feels right.

    I also liked how the small things I did through 4 episodes played into the nightmare. Saving people from being sprayed with water or hit by a football is taking the easy way to make things right. And where would that stop? I would practically have to shadow Alyssa because the universe seems as intent on ruining her day as it is on killing Chloe.

    I wanted real closure, however. I wanted a scene where I would see, better yet play and experience, even better influence, how Max was changed by all this. Is she traumatized, unable to make decisions? More confident? Does she make friends? Hook up with Brooke? That felt too little.

    I did accept, however, that the universe would trade Arcadia Bay for Chloe.

    Ronan : which ending did you choose? Did Lisa survive?

    Reply
  2. voragoras

    WARNING: This comment *will* contain spoilers. Pls avoid if you don’t want to be spoiled. (Also, apologies, this got hella long, and most of it reads as kind of a brain fart.)

    I agree with most of this! I adored Max as a protagonist, and liked how even her comments on the small interactive elements (e.g. a camera or piece of graffiti) were infused with her personality. Her inner snark was something I could connect with,

    Totally with you on the teen-speak, too. I 100% cringed a lot at some of it, but it was a kind of endearing cringe, where I’d happily use the terms ironically with friends who’ve also played it (even kind of started using them non-ironically, now, oops). It helps that it didn’t saturate the dialogue, either, and that the characters were so likable that embarrassing one-off lines didn’t detract from much.

    Lip-sync and wonky animations? Again, I know they exist, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t play games for lip-sync quality, and the animations weren’t so out there that they became too noticeable. I was far more irked with Witcher 3’s cumbersome handling and controls than I was with the occasional odd gesture in LiS, because one is pervasive and one is just a symptom of the low budget.

    Graphical style was also quite nice in a way that let it work with the low budget while also managing to look good in a unique and creative way; it helped distinguish itself from other games. Was a big fan of that, too.

    Had the same complaints about the previous parts of the game, too, if you can call “this is awesome and I want more of it” a complaint. I’m sure it could’ve been cut down and we could’ve had less focus on Kate, or Nathan, or Warren, but I liked what I got so much that I’m not sure I do want something more streamlined, if it meant some of that got cut.

    I must differ in regards to the ending, though, unfortunately. While I did enjoy it, and while I did think it was capably handled, I was regardless left with a feeling of disappointment after it, for several reasons that I’ll go into more below, with some other stuff that I loved thrown in alongside them as a counterbalance.

    Number 1: The padding. It existed in previous episodes, but it became far more pervasive here, I think, and not in part because there was just so much important stuff to get through. It meant that all of the essential things needed to be kind of rushed over and weren’t really elaborated on as much as they should have been, and I felt like some of the sections should’ve been shortened, even if it meant less gameplay (e.g. I absolutely LOVED the visual aspects of the dream sequence, but did we need 30 minutes or so of a sneak section in the nightmare?).

    Number 2: The pacing. Partly as a result of the padding, I felt that a lot of things here weren’t given the proper amount of dedication that they probably needed. Max told Warren about the time travel, and he just immediately believes her. I know there’s been a lot of wacky geological events going on and Max is his friend and he’s therefore inclined towards accepting it, but he doesn’t even bat an eyelid. I get why he’d jump to going back in time causing the tornado, since that was my first port of call as well, but eh. I’d like to have seen a bit more emphasis on this.
    I also think that the nightmares came a bit out of nowhere, and while I loved them on their own, I also think they didn’t fit in properly with the holistic context of the narrative in Episode 5, and they should’ve been spread out amidst the rest of the episodes (e.g. when she passes out in the junkyard with Chloe), to give Max’s insecurity about her powers a bit of foreshadowing.

    Number 3: The storm. I don’t know what I expected here, but I kind of didn’t expect them to just play it so straight. I was hoping it’d have some kind of allegory, or serve a secondary purpose, in that Max would use her newfound skills and ability to get people to see her side to rewind time, convict Jefferson, and convince people to evacuate. Instead, it was just a regular tornado. I dunno, I was disappointed by it.

    Number 6: The loose ends. I didn’t like that Dontnod built up this great feeling of Twin Peaks-level surrealism that was never realised, and has so many dangling hints that ended up being completely irrelevant. All of the symbolism–the Vortex Club? The Prescotts’ storm bunker? Samuel and the spirit animals? The totem? Max’s nosebleeds and overuse of her powers?– seemed to have been abandoned and “yep idk it’s just a literal random storm, nobody but Max is involved”.
    Oh, and above all, Lisa?! Wherefore art thou, my love?

    Number 4: Jefferson. This isn’t really a legitimate criticism as much as a personal opinion, but I felt like they went a little OTT with his psycho dialogue. I liked the bits where he focused on his “passion” for photography, but the whole “narrate my evil plan” fell into Bond villain territory, and so I was a bit disengaged with him as a threat. I did like the different ways in which you had to escape the Dark Room, though, and the ways you could manipulate his commitment to art in order to gain the advantage. Also really loved the fight with Jefferson via the proxy of David.

    Number 5: The theme. I know this is a bit trite, but I was expecting some kind of cohesive theme or “moral” to it all, such as Max learning to take the initiative or be more confident or take the fall for her decisions. You could argue, I suppose, that the Save Bay ending does get this across in a way, in that it shows Max smiling as she sees the butterfly at Chloe’s funeral flying off, but I’d argue in return that storm in and of itself reinforces the opposite. It says Max is better off having not done anything that day, and just sat back and let it happen. It encourages her to second-guess herself whenever she wants to take action, because you might accidentally cause a tornado and kill a bunch of people.

    Number 6: The actual endings, although I’d like to preface this with a) these aren’t “criticisms” as much as personal complaints and b) I didn’t care that it was a binary choice independent of the rest of your choices. As long as it’s a solid narrative, I don’t care about having a “choice” (I’d even argue that the main narrative is the sole thing players shouldn’t be able to have any choice in, because there’ll always be sacrifices you have to make in accommodating the plot to include so many options, and the main narrative needs to have a certain defined path it needs to follow, which can’t be deviated from just because ~choice~), but I do care about how they actually played out.
    I feel like the Save Bay ending was far more fleshed out (which I don’t mind on account of budgetary reasons, but still disappoints me), but I don’t like that it clashes with the rest of the game, in which the main focus is Max gaining the confidence to do things on her own without rewinding decisions. I felt like the scene with Kate reinforced this, but the Save Bay ending flies in its face. I felt it was thematically inconsistent. I will say that it was goddamn masterfully done, though; I loved the focus on Max’s reaction to the scene rather than the scene itself, and I got a heart punch when she reacted to the gunshot. I felt proper gutted that this Chloe also never got to experience that week of friendship with Max, dying bitter and alone, and that Max had to let go of her best friend only a week after going through Hell with her. Hella sad. 😦
    The Save Bae ending, on the other hand, felt far less fleshed out, but far more “in-character”, in that Max accepts the consequences of her actions and stops trying to “fix” everything with her rewind powers, and choosing to persist in her prioritisation of Chloe above all. She did all of this to save Chloe, and even if it means sacrificing Bay, she’ll continue on saving Chloe. I also liked that there wasn’t a kiss scene here, because I felt like that would’ve really undermined the point of the scene, which was that both characters felt crap for making the decision, but couldn’t bring themselves to make the alternative one. Chloe’s reaction to Max putting her first was also quite touching. On the other hand, the fact that they merrily drove off smiling into the sunset without even checking for survivors felt tonally dissonant, and although there was a budgetary limitation, I do have to bring the choices they made into severe question.
    I dunno. I felt a little underwhelmed by both of them. But I also liked a lot of them, too.

    Number 7: The plot holes. I don’t care that Max’s powers weren’t explained, because I don’t think they needed to be; explaining them at this point would be an unnecessary burden on the narrative.
    However, the endings don’t… make sense, for several reasons:
    a) There are ways to prevent Chloe’s death without using time travel. As far as I know, being shot in the stomach isn’t an instant death, so Max could’ve gone to get help, or she could have shouted out to Nathan without rewinding time to use the fire alarm.
    b) We’re still in an alternate universe. Max is in a new timeline where she ripped up her Everyday Heroes photo in her room, so in theory time should be messed up regardless of Chloe’s death, because Max already went back even further and still used time travel to alter the past.
    c) As a follow-on from b: It’s implied that it’s not time travel itself that causes the problem, but changing one specific thing with time travel. So why does the universe want Chloe specifically dead? If the universe does want Chloe dead, the tornado is only going to be the first problem; the universe won’t stop there, it’ll keep coming after her, a la Final Destination.
    d) Why does avoiding Chloe’s death cause a tornado, but not William’s, or Kate’s?
    e) As a follow-on from c+d: The fact that none of these cause a tornado, and that Chloe dies at the end of 4 and the storm is still coming, seems to imply it was a chance occurrence that came from preventing her death in the bathroom, but that raises its own problems, namely (and forgive the awkward phrasing here, but it’s difficult to articulate my thoughts onto paper unless I do it this way):

    a) A tornado does not occur when saving other lives with time travel.
    b) Saving Chloe’s life at the end of Episode 5 does not result in a repeat tornado another week later.
    c) Therefore, the tornado caused by Chloe not dying in the bathroom is due to random chance.
    d) Therefore, it is not Chloe’s death that causes the tornado, but the circumstances around it.

    e) The tornado can be prevented with further time travel.
    f) Changing Chloe’s death scene with further time travel does not cause another tornado.
    g) Therefore, you can change Chloe’s death scene with time travel without necessitating another tornado.

    h) Changing the past causes an alternate universe.
    i) Each rewind changes the circumstances further.
    j) Therefore, each alternative universe has a fresh set of circumstances.

    k) There are multiple ways to save Chloe in the bathroom.
    l) Only one of them is confirmed to trigger a tornado event string.
    m) Given [d] and [j], all alternative paths taken to save Chloe in the bathroom will each have fresh probabilities.
    n) Therefore, taking an alternate path to save Chloe is just as likely to prevent the tornado as killing her is.

    So, either Chloe’s death is still perfectly preventable, or it seriously is just fate that hates Chloe. Not preventing Chloe’s death also uses time travel, so that also has a chance of causing a tornado, which means you’d logically be in the same position. I might have got some of the stuff wrong, but that was the best way I could think of to explain myself.

    I dunno, I might be overthinking it, but this stuff was the first thing to occur to me as it happened.

    Reply
    1. Point of Contention

      Late to the party but just played. But what I don’t get that’s kinda similar to what you’re working out here is the fact that letting chloe die stops the tornado.

      I don’t think Chloe staying alive is the cause of the tornado… the game makes it pretty clear that Max time traveling is disturbing space and time and the dead animals, tornado, eco-disaster, etc is a result of the time traveling and fucking up time-lines.

      It never at any point says chloe staying alive causes the tornado. Just that the time travel and changes do.

      So then… how would time traveling again suddenly stop the tornado? She goes back in time, shouldn’t that just make it worse?

      Or is it because in the alternate reality where she lets chloe die there, she never has a reason to use her powers, so in the new reality she inhabits she never went around time traveling, and therefore the weather doesn’t happen. ???

      My problem with the ending is it, at least I don’t think, was not a good culmination of everything in the previous episodes. It seems like they took the easy, quickest way out and went for the most emotionally charged final choice – either kill the one you’ve been trying to save, or kill everyone else to finally save her once and for all. And while being the most emotional, it was the least true it could have been to the rest of the story, and honestly acted as such a “convenient” ending to scrap everything Max had worked through. It rendered the whole story kind of pointless. “You can either choose to have had your entire week cease to exist and lose everything you did, or you can choose to have everyone die, all those people you had to save or talk to or socially navigate.”

      That ending doesn’t grow out of the previous episodes very well 😐

      I don’t mind that all of the choices before didn’t matter for the last choice… I just wish the ending was more relevant to the rest of the game. Too much of a cop out

      Reply

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