Life is Strange's final episode is titled Polarized, which is the most accurate way to describe my feelings after reaching the series' conclusion. Developer Dontnod's first episodic series tackles themes and explores emotional spaces few games have: the difficulties of being a teenager struggling for acceptance, the complicated push-and-pull of friendship between young women, the delicate balance between fear and bravery when dealing with other volatile young people. It's a story about kids--or kids on the brink of becoming adults--becoming people they never thought they'd be and learning things about one another that change their perspectives on each other, and life itself. I loved becoming Max Caulfield, using her time-rewinding powers to keep a promise no matter what the cost. But the series' finale ultimately stumbles and falls over its own conceits, sabotaging its most powerful moments with goofy dialogue and--at its more egregious--a tedious stealth sequence.
Polarized opens with Max in the dark room from the previous episode, desperate to escape and make things right. Her method of escape and the consequences stemming from this decision are predictable. In the first half of the episode, Max learns what happens when she gets everything she wants, or at least thinks she's getting everything. It all comes at a price, one that the series has been hamfistedly hinting at since Episode One. I don't mind the obviousness so much as the complete detachment of this episodes' choices from the rest of the series. Nothing you've done matters by the time you get to Polarized, with the only tweaks made by your past decisions reflected in short bits of dialogue.
This episode does an excellent job showing Max the horrors her time traveling escapades have wrought on the people around her, but some of these more serious moments are completely undermined by silly presentation, a critique that also extends to some of the acting. A serious sequence at the start of the episode, meant to be horrifying no doubt, ends up being straight-up goofy due to dialogue and the way it's delivered. Max has to watch a certain character be killed over and over again, and after each rewind the killer spouts the same line of enthusiastic, comically insulting dialogue. The sequence is set up so that you're meant to explore three or four different options and keep rewinding before you find the right one that will save a life, but hearing this same dialogue over and over again was laughable. It became funny instead of serious, draining the urgency out of an otherwise tense scene.
There are, however, moments that make you feel genuinely uncomfortable, and it's in these that you and Max start to question her supposed altruism. Max isn't the selfless time warrior she seems to be, and in this final episode some of her dialogue options are downright vitriolic. She's become hard and a little cruel, almost ruthless in her relentlessness to keep Chloe alive and save Arcadia Bay from the impending storm. Watching Max lash out, reflect, and then crumble is the best part of this episode.
There is some great psychological spelunking going on in this episode, but it's hard to enjoy the unsettling atmosphere when you're forced to wade through it in a poorly-designed stealth sequence. This sequence, which is quite long, forces you to sneak through a labyrinthine environment with a least two flashlight-wielding characters trying to catch you at the same time. This sequence forces you do the same thing over and over to determine the guards position and find an exit--take a few steps, rewind, take a few more, rewind. It's repetitive and a cheap way of shoehorning in a puzzle using Max's time powers and it completely pulled me out of the mood. It also doesn't help that at the start the setting is very dark, with no clear direction on how to get through. So it's up to trial and error and rewinding to figure out which way to go.
The episode also spends a hefty amount of time rehashing old events, reminding Max of conversations and interactions from previous episodes in the form of audio playing over her endless wandering. She retreads familiar places and learns nothing new, although it does provide a very chilling look inside her mind. She's worn out, scared, and utterly broken. It's clear she feels she's failed everyone, and with the apocalyptic tornado waiting just offshore of the sleepy Northwestern town, she's pressured to move fast through a sequence of events that looks and functions almost exactly like the final baffling, surrealist episode of David Lynch's Twin Peaks.
While all of this is going on, the storm Max created with the butterfly effect of her powers--Max says she created the storm but we never learn exactly how her decisions affect it--closes in on the town. The wind howls and rain drenches Max as she picks her way through the wreckage of buildings along the ocean--and yet there is no urgency. The people she encounters are calm. The sea level is rising and no one is even attempting to leave the shoreline. The tornado of the century is happening feet away and no one's hair moves. I had a hard time buying the "everyone is going to die" thing because Polarized fails to sell its apocalyptic stakes in any meaningful way.
All of this wraps up with a final choice, that--should you choose to go back and see both--is unbalanced. One possible ending is short and somewhat shallow, while the other rolls the most crushing scene in the series and then sends you on a sprawling visual journey in which Max appears to have learned something about how life works. It genuinely feels like one ending is an afterthought. But this choice is so divorced from everything you've done so far, the logical leaps characters make to come to this decision are curve balls. It's a heartbreaking climax handled clumsily.
Life is Strange paints an excellent, vivid picture of a young woman's struggle for acceptance and justice, but trips itself up by trying to make things gamey. The series is at its best when it's just letting you explore; in the beginning you're roaming the world around you, picking through pieces of other's lives, and by the end you're treading Max's subconscious. The story of Max and Chloe is a beautiful tale, but it's marred by bizarre logical leaps and leftover plot holes. Aggravating out-of-place fetch quests and stealth sequences crack the somber atmosphere and very hamfistedly remind you that you're playing a game. It's unfortunate, because I do love Life is Strange's story. I just wish the ending wasn't so mismanaged.