WARNING: This review contains no spoilers for episode five but does contain spoilers for the first four episodes of Life Is Strange. For a spoiler-filled discussion, head here.
Life Is Strange - Polarized
Platforms: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360, PS3.
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out Now
Video games driven by player choice are only as fondly-remembered as their endings. Mass Effect 3 was a fine game, but for many its ending soured everything that came before. Telltale's The Walking Dead: Season 1 on the other hand finished strong, and has long been thought of as the best of its particular, episodic sub-genre. Until now.
In my review of episode four I said developers Dontnod Entertainment "had something truly special" with Life Is Strange, and all the they had to do was finish strong. It's hard to imagine how the series could have finished any stronger. Episode five brings to a close one of the most talked about, most surprising, most unlikely games of the year, and one of its very best.
Episode four ended with Chloe dead at the hands of teacher Mr Jefferson, who drugged and kidnapped protagonist Maxine 'Max' Caufield and took her to his "Dark Room" - where he drugged and photographed other young women. The finale starts with Max attempting to escape.
From there, episode five packs an incredible amount into its two hour runtime – twisting expectations, bringing closure to the relationships Max has built over the course of the season and delivering on a sense of scale while still focusing on the small and personal.
No friendship has been portrayed as well in a video game as that of Max and Chloe – and that's where the heart of the story lies. Life Is Strange is about time-manipulating powers, a big approaching super-storm, about murder and mystery – but it's ultimately about friendship and about the lack of control young people feel over their lives as they grow up. There are insecurities and doubts, and Dontnod weaves both into a life or death story wonderfully.
The developers' skills have also clearly improved with each episode, in terms of pacing, what's fun and what isn't (there's a brilliant gag about a laborious task from a previous episode). While it focuses on the story rather than solving puzzles (there's nothing like episode four's excellent detective work) it does give the player mazes of dialogue to solve and maintains its tension throughout.
I criticised episode three for not giving the player enough to do, instead leading them through a succession of plot points dragged out over too long a time. Episode five is similarly plot-heavy, and some more not like that, but for me it works so much better because it's the pay-off, and the player's investments makes each decision Max makes impactful. Will this work? What will happen if it doesn't? What will happen if it does?
The ending likely won't be to everyone's liking (games like these are never unanimously adored) but for me the multiple endings tied together everything the series has been about, bringing all the threads together to a single moment of choice that will define Max. In a game about a character exploring who she is, that's what I wanted.
On the whole, Life Is Strange is an fantastic deconstruction of choice and dialogue driven adventure games, using both effectively to tell a brilliant coming of age tale. Its final episode is exactly what it needed to be – bringing the journey to an emotional but satisfying conclusion without ever feeling cheap or undermining the choices of players.
Dontnod brings one of the best video game stories in years to a tense, powerful and satisfying conclusion. Life Is Strange has been a triumph. The surprise game of 2015.