Dark Places”

Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PC, PS3, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One
Released: October 20, 2015
Copy purchased

Life is Strange’s finale is muddled, rushed, and unconfident in how it brings a close to its first season. Comprised of scenes that toy with narrative potential, Polarized attempts to bring new levels of stakes into the picture with results that fail to support Max Caulfield’s transformation as a character. The up-and-down nature of the season has created a disconnect between both its narrative and characters, as quality has wavered greatly over the course of its five-part episodic run. At its best, Life is Strange has explored the emotional whirlwind of teenage relationships in grounded and relatable ways, but at its worst, Life is Strange has fumbled with heavy concepts followed by upsetting repercussions. Polarized occupies a space of purgatory, suffering from a great lack of committed direction and undersold trauma. While there are still notable remnants of what has kept me coming back for more, Life is Strange’s conclusion bites off more than it can chew, choking all the way up until the credits roll.Life is Strange 1Telling an intimate coming of age tale has always been where Dontnod has found its best footing when compared with the rest of the narrative. Underneath its stories of time travel and small town mysteries, Life is Strange’s greatest strength is its portrayal of kids on the verge of becoming adults and their shifting view on the world around them. Lending such care to maintain a focus on growing up is what made previous episodes shine, for without it, Life is Strange loses much of its heart. Polarized is a prime example, as its reliance on unstable performances and writing leads to a messy conclusion with the majority of its peak moments crippled. These underwhelming sequences string together in a series of scenes driven by weak dialogue and uninspired staging. Worse yet, Polarized’s shallow links are strung throughout the entire episode, never seeming to catch a clue when to close the curtains.

Due to its pressure to wrap up the gauntlet of intriguing mysteries discovered over the course of the season, Polarized’s pacing is snappy, but reckless. The disturbing events of episode four landed Max hostage and distraught, with the goal to escape and right the unfolding catastrophe around her. No time is wasted getting to work, as Max pushes her powers to the ultimate trial. While interesting in how it all comes to fruition, Polarized unheedingly removes the importance from almost every pivotal choice leading up to the finale. It’s not the first time Life is Strange has gone back on its narrative progression, for Dark Room doubled back on brave possibilities in a very similar light. While not as immediately distressing as Dark Room’s story retraction, Polarized’s is more wide-spreading and destructive, leaving only small, inconsequential moments of dialogue as the last personable thing to hold on to.Life is Strange 2Polarized’s most triumphant aspect comes from Max’s psychological reflection into both the best and worst moments of her recent life. From the premiere episode where best friends were reunited, to the penultimate episode where friendships were tested, Polarized encompasses the most valuable pieces of Max’s emotionally scattered puzzle. It’s presented in a touching sequence that compiles snippets from Max’s past, each playing out in the form of small clips. During these moments Polarized distances itself drastically from the main unfolding narrative, and they’re much better for it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for Polarized to snap back into routine, disregarding what conscience it has for balancing tone. One moment I’d be temporarily swept up in an unexpectedly emotional scene, and the next, I’d be pounded with the most commonplace cliches in the book. Not only does the constantly unpredictable tone give the entire experience an unnecessary jolt, but it markedly diminishes from the lasting impression.

Leaving Polarized, I feel polarized. Little holds up in terms of tangible resolve, and I felt my choices were disregarded to make room for a forced conclusion. There wasn’t a correlation with the choices presented leading up to the finale, yet rather than molding the conclusion to align with previous episodes, Polarized detaches itself almost entirely from twists that once held weight. What stuck with me the most during past episodes was the grounded bond of friendship and the relatable drama that presented itself with subtlety. Here, and in episode four, subtlety fades into the background, replaced with a more direct and less intellectual path of drama. Episode five shows glimpses of what made the season’s strongest episodes work, but fails to offer them enough room to breath. Much like any conclusion, Polarized’s priorities lie in wrapping up the important plot threads, yet there’s a catch being each plot thread has wavered under the pressure of alternate timelines. Knowing each different outcome from the same situation has had its drawbacks throughout the entire season, yet considering Polarized’s high stakes, Max’s abilities effectively drain both tension and emotion from the finale.Life is Strange 3Conclusion: Life is Strange has been all over the place and back during the course of its five-part episodic run. It’s stretched the gamut emotions, from highlighting the blissful joy of true friendship, to the dark places temptation can drive someone. Polarized had the chance to bring the season to a close with something truly special, and while there are a few standout moments within Max’s head, the finale is far too hesitant in the moves it makes. After seeing what highs the series could reach, it’s disappointing to see Life is Strange so disastrously trip over itself. Aesthetically, the season has held steadfast, with great music, lighting, and framing apparent in every episode. Yet, not even the most elegant aesthetic presentation could waive the bubbling missteps that lie within Polarized’s ham-fisted attempt to bring closure to the season.

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