There’s a real rawness to the emotions I feel as the final episode of Life Is Strange comes to a close. I’ve made countless decisions over the five instalments that have led to this point, some of them trivial, others that decide someone’s fate, and yet I’ve been powerless to stop the story from spiralling out of my control.
For all the serenity of Arcadia Bay’s coastal town and the warm glows of the autumnal sunshine, it hides a dark and disturbing secret that finally came into view over the course of the fourth episode, with Dontnod masterfully delivering yet another in a series of heart-wrenching moments. Yet, with the ability to rewind time, it’s only Max and you, the player, who has all of these moments as memories.
Over the course of the series, we’ve seen Max’ abilities morph. While initially met with an element of glee, as the bedrock of a rediscovered friendship between Max and Chloe, they were soon undercut with a sense of fragility as well as the severe and wide-reaching consequences that they can have. Ultimately, the finale explores one last aspect that is so common in time travel fiction: futility.
Time and again, Max is able to manipulate time from the unsettling and perilous situation that she found herself in at the end of the fourth episode, to reach back in time and try to alter events. Yet for every attempt, another avenue is cut off, another series of cataclysms and unforeseen consequences comes to the fore, and all in the darkening shadow of the vast tornado that Max’ very first vision of the future foretold. It leans heavily on science fiction tropes and existing ideas on time travel, certainly, but the time manipulation serves as a very effective crutch to the characters, their relationship and the story that Dontnod have woven.
Throughout the five episodes, they’ve dealt with a lot of difficult and mature topics, both in terms of how we face mortality, but also within the very real daily lives of teenagers at college or university. Every time, they’ve handled them in an accomplished fashion, while supporting them with the emotional impact that they deserve, regardless of how your choices impact the events.
The finale sees many of the decisions that you made along the way bear out in both major and minor ways. Characters may or may not appear, they might have something to say about how the railway had to be shut down for example, or might extend an olive branch to resolve a more antagonistic relationship. However, it’s not just you that has been making decisions. You may have been able to pick and choose and alter the way that the story has flowed, but much like a stream that grows into a river, you cannot alter the overall destination.
In trying to rewrite history so drastically, both your decisions and the underlying choices and interactions that Max had with other characters along the way come to be viewed in a very different light. Max’s deep-seated uncertainty and insecurity over who she is and her actions only serve to amplify the introspective look back at the journey so far. Not all of it hits home, especially as one or two moments stall in order to present you with some admittedly imaginative puzzles, rather than drive the story forward, but when the story has been spread out over the course of nine months, it still does well to build up to those climactic moments.
The fifth episode has the exact same flaws and problems as the first though. The game’s art style features a wonderful painterly effect, that’s subtly ironic given the fixation on photography as Max’ chosen line of artistry, and while some of the camera angles are excellently placed to capture the environments, when they do need to come in and focus closely on the characters, there’s a distinct lack of nuance to the facial animation and their mouths are distractingly out of sync with the lines of dialogue that are being delivered.
It’s a shame, because this is quite easily the most emotionally charged episode, and this is only strengthened by the typically excellent soundtrack. Tempers flare, tears stream and voices wail, and the faces and lips just don’t do enough to back them up. Thankfully, though it is occasionally distracting, it does little to detract from the story as a whole and the key choices and decision making that you have to go through. If Dontnod are to create a follow up, as they have said they would like to do with a fresh cast of characters, this is one of the key areas that they will need to improve upon, and hopefully with a larger budget so that they don’t need to make compromises elsewhere.
The fifth and final episode of Life Is Strange is a satisfying ending to what has been one of the best examples of modern storytelling within games. The elements of time travel have ben a fascinating and interesting hook that has allowed Dontnod to explore several characters and relationships, to the backdrop of a college campus that’s steeped in mystery. It has its weaknesses and flaws as a game, but this is a deeply impactful game that shouldn’t be missed.
Please note that this score reflects Life Is Strange as a whole.
Version tested: PlayStation 4