When Hardcore Gamer had the opportunity to speak with Hannah Telle, voice actor for Life Is Strange heroine Max Caulfield, in an exclusive interview last month, she claimed that the finale in developer Dontnod Entertainment’s episodic title, Episode 5: Polarized, would be the moment in which her character would undergo a “Transformation.” “This is the episode where Max truly comes into her own,” Telle explained. “She’s operating from a place of strength, power and self-trust.” Having completed Episode 5: Polarized and finally being able to put Telle’s comment into context, I couldn’t agree any more with what she had to say regarding the character development Max received. Not only does Dontnod offer a fitting conclusion to Max’s coming-of-age story in Episode 5: Polarized, but witnessing the character transition from a young and tenacious 18-year-old photographer with a pessimistic outlook to a strong, confident woman filled with self-belief and the determination to control her own destiny has been nothing short of emotional, thrilling, captivating and fantastic.
With Episode 4: Dark Room concluding on a truly shocking cliffhanger — easily one of the best endings in any episodic video game to date — it was a significant task for the opening segment of Episode 5: Polarized to reach the high expectations that Life Is Strange fans have come to expect from Dontnod Entertainment. Episode 5: Polarized does not disappoint in this department at all, considering that there’s a spine-chilling feeling at seeing the opening credits appearing on the screen while a helpless Max is strapped into a chair in the Dark Room. From the nerve-racking opening to an emotional conclusion (depending on the choice made by the player), Episode 5: Polarized is without a doubt the darkest episode in Life Is Strange, tackling a whole host of real-life issues (drugs, sexual assault, etc.) directly and incorporating psychological elements that would have any individual questioning their own sanity. Sure, Episode 5: Polarized stumbles at certain points due to the various plot points and answers it must condense into a single episode of Life Is Strange (roughly lasting from three to five hours), but it’s also one of its main strengths, mainly for the fact that every path the story travels down has something interesting for the player to explore or an enticing story moment waiting to unfold.
Dontnod Entertainment brings the whole story of Life Is Strange into a full circle with Episode 5: Polarized, tying it in with some of the integral scenes from Episode 1: Chrysalis, Episode 2: Out of Time, Episode 3: Chaos Theory and Episode 4: Dark Room. Jumping through alternate realities, witnessing Max use her time-bending powers to its full extent and observing what could happen to one’s past, present and future by making the slightest change is what makes Episode 5: Polarized such an incredible experience. Reaching the end of Life Is Strange makes the symbolic meaning behind the blue butterfly and the concept of chaos theory even more fascinating to look into, as well as an appreciation for the attention to detail that Dontnod put into all five episodes of Life Is Strange.
Episode 5: Polarized isn’t as perfect as it’s made out to be, unfortunately, as some of the game-changing decisions end up creating an ‘illusion of free will’ often seen in Telltale Games’ titles. Let me explain what I mean by illusion of free will: basically, it’s the idea that despite picking a certain decision that could (and should) drastically alter the story of a title, it ends up being less important than originally thought, as the narrative eventually has everyone ending up at the same destination. There are few choice-driven titles that can shatter the so-called illusion of free will, with Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn being a prime example of how a single decision can result in a character’s death and have repercussions on the narrative. Yes, there have been particular Life Is Strange segments where you are in control of selecting a major decision, but at the same time, there seems to be a lot of wasted potential for some of the minor choices not having a long-lasting impact in the story. If we’re talking about the importance of these decisions directly relating to Max, however, then there is a lot of credit due to Dontnod. The French-based developer succeeded in creating the drama of an adolescent person feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders (even more so with Max having supernatural powers, of course), as I felt that by the time I reached the end of Episode 5’s story, it was all about connecting with every single person and all of them playing an important role in shaping Max’s journey.
It is more satisfying to notice the dialogue flow even better with the improvements made to writing, with the Life Is Strange cast deserving nothing more than praise for their stellar performances in Episode 5. Hannah Telle, who has been a standout across the first four Life Is Strange episodes, once again steals the limelight in Episode 5, with her performance as Max reaching new heights. Episode 5 does, however, miss out on the on-screen exchanges between Hannah Telle and Ashly Burch (the voice of Chloe Price), mainly for the plot skipping across alternative realities and having the two barely interact with one another until the later stages of the episode. Although it’s disappointing that one of the most consistent factors about Life Is Strange slightly fades in Episode 5: Polarized, it does serve as a major positive, with Dontnod Entertainment able to thrust characters such as David Madsen on screen and, in the process, build some outstanding character development. Additionally, Telle is at the forefront of making each moment in Episode 5 that little bit special, especially for how well she can bounce off other actors in specific scenes.
Mark Jefferson, Max’s teacher at Blackwell Academy, moves from being a simple supporting character to playing more of a central role in Episode 5, mainly for the fact that we learned what he had really been getting up to in Arcadia Bay at the end of Episode 4. While he is the living definition of the word ‘cliché’ — something that Max also points out to him — I couldn’t help but overlook this factor due to voice actor Derek Phillips making him such a disturbing and chilling character in his portrayal. It was excellent to watch him be so twisted in the name of art. If anything, Jefferson almost felt like a psychopath plucked straight from NBC’s Hannibal, as I felt I could hear Will Graham saying “This is my design” every time Jefferson told Max about the purpose that each of his victims had in furthering his ‘art.’
Over the course of Life Is Strange’s first four episodes, there were signs that Dontnod Entertainment wasn’t simply wavering any criticism it was receiving for Life Is Strange, as there was a drastic improvement in lip-syncing, dialogue, writing and storytelling. Of course, there will always be limitations for a title like Life Is Strange so late into the development cycle of each episode, but it hasn’t stopped the developer from pushing itself to the edge in seeing a more noticeable change. This becomes more and more apparent in Episode 5, with the concluding episode in Life is Strange truly showcasing the journey that the developer has made since Episode 1 was released 10 months ago.
If there is one way to best describe the experience that Episode 5: Polarized has to offer, then it can easily be done through the word that Dontnod Entertainment specifically chose to feature in the title of the fifth and final episode for Life Is Strange. It will no doubt polarize people on whether or not they believe it’s a satisfying (or fulfilling) conclusion to what has been such a spectacular title. Making the final choice I did (let’s call it ‘Ending B’) and that particular cutscene that followed might have been slightly underwhelming, but I appreciated it nonetheless. From Episode 1 to Episode 5, it has truly been a series about watching a young person’s life unfold before their very own eyes and having to deal with both trivial choices and life-changing decisions. Life Is Strange cannot be dismissed as a strong contender for GOTY, despite there being fierce competition from critically acclaimed titles like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Bloodborne and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Life Is Strange deserves every ounce of recognition it receives; it offers a compelling story that’s heartwarming, poignant and powerful, but some people may also look back on it and remember it as the sleeper hit of 2015. Memorable characters, fantastic acting, unique visuals and a well-executed story are among the few things that have solidified Life Is Strange as not only one of the best titles of 2015, but also one of the video games that everyone must experience for themselves.