Review: Life is Strange Episode 5

Warning: this is a detailed and spoilerrific review of the finale of Life is Strange, so if you haven’t played the game yet, get outta here!

With Episode 5: Polarized, Dontnod has brought Max Caulfield’s time-traveling adventures to a close. Polarized runs a bit shorter than the other episodes, at only about two and a half hours of gameplay, which lines up with the fewer opportunities for exploration and branching dialogue it offers.

The episode opens with Max trapped in a storm bunker turned photo studio with her teacher Mr. Jefferson, a much darker beginning than in any other installment. As she regains consciousness, the player can look around and examine nearby items, eventually realizing that Max’s classmate Victoria is also tied up nearby.

But this is where gameplay diverges from previous episodes. Where, in previous episodes Max can explore the environment before moving on, Polarized gives you a single option: photo-travel out of here and leave Victoria in the horrific dark room/torture chamber. This narrative device is frustrating as it conflicts with opportunities Max has in this episode and others to aid other characters in danger.

Life-is-Strange-finale-review

Instead of grabbing Victoria and getting the hell out of that bunker, the developers give Max one choice: travel back a few hours to a drug-induced photo shoot. While a convenient progression for exposition’s sake, her jumping back and forth through photos of herself doesn’t allow for any exploration or organic discovery by the player.

In fact, it leads primarily to lots of talking, and unfortunately Jefferson’s initial expository monologue comes off as cheesy and out-of-character, playing off of stereotypes of mentally ill villains even though Jefferson claims later that he is totally sane and his clear-headed planning seems to reflect that. His speeches also play into the trope where the villain explains his reasoning to his victim in great detail.

Rather than showing us, the game wants to tell us what’s going on. These issues in the first minutes of gameplay reflect concerns many fans and critics alike have raised about the episode as a whole: that the cliche story elements and changes in play mechanics in the last episode do not do justice to the unique, ground-breaking game.

everyday heroes

In many scenes the player must move Max through motions that feel pointless at best and counter-productive at worst. Walking through a San Francisco gallery talking with artists has no urgency when all the characters and locations the player cares about are back in Arcadia Bay, yet shmooze we must if we want to progress in the story. Saving characters from harm on the way to Two Whales lacks meaning when Max plans to time travel away from that moment immediately after, yet the choices are reflected in the post-credits statistics.

The episode also spends a significant amount of its running time reminding the player of conversations and interactions Max has had in previous episodes. Audio is frequently re-used, but entire scenes from the game reappear as well, as in the maze sequence when Max relives every major moment she shared with Chloe.

That particular nostalgic slideshow provides much-needed relief from the trippy and disturbing mental odyssey Max has just been on, during which we see some of the most creative material of the last episode. The creepy classroom, entirely backwards scene, and endless hallway are all surprising and delightfully innovative yet emotionally difficult moments leading up to the climax of the game.

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During that climax, Max finds herself at the lighthouse with Chloe once again and is confronted with her final choice. Max herself becomes convinced that the tornado is her fault and Chloe seems to agree, giving her an ultimatum of sorts: travel back to the start of it all to let Chloe die, or save Chloe and let the tornado ravage Arcadia Bay.

Understandably, this has not been a popular ending choice with everyone. In each episode, one of the game’s objectives (if not the central objective) has been saving Chloe. She’s the character players know the best besides Max, and even moments before this conversation, Max tells Chloe she is ‘all that matters.’ Letting her die just feels a little off, even if it is for a theoretical greater good.

For players who chose to pursue the romance between Chloe and Max, this conclusion also reinforces tropes around queer relationships in media like the Bury Your Gays trope, where the relationship ends in death for one or both people involved. Life is Strange has consistently received mixed reactions regarding its representation (or lack thereof) of queerness. While the end scene does confirm their relationship, it also leads to death regardless of Max’s choice.

max chloe tornado

Beyond that, when an ending choice is presented in a choice-based game, especially when it fundamentally changes the universe of the game or kills a majority of the game characters, many feel that it takes meaning away from previous player decisions. This is a challenge faced not just by Dontnod, but by the entire genre. Mass Effect 3 is infamous for its end choices, and Telltale is often taken to task for not integrating player’s choices into the closings of their games.

Dontnod undoubtedly faced obstacles wrapping up their story: they’re a small studio with a limited budget and a 6 – 8 week episode release timeline. Even though they took about twice that long on Polarized, Life is Strange’s gorgeous art style, intricate world-building, and unique characters deserved more time, space, and nuance than the episodic format afforded them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve wanted Dontnod to give a project more room to blossom–Remember Me’s beautifully designed world and intriguing story were held back by frustrating game mechanics and similar budget constraints. It feels safe to say that small studios like Dontnod deserve more freedom and financial support, that nuanced subject matter like that of Life is Strange should be treated with the utmost respect, and that choice-based games should not be shackled to the five episode arc if they have a greater story to tell.

It’s also probably safe to say that trusting our French friends to give us a happy ending is usually a mistake.

life is strange tornado

Thanks for reading! As always, your input is welcome in the comments.

Review: King’s Quest A Knight to Remember

While not an original King’s Quest adventurer, when I heard about the episodic King’s Quest reboot The Odd Gentlemen was working on, I knew immediately that I wanted to play it. A fantasy adventure game with beautiful graphics and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that is short enough I can play an episode in a night? That’s a pretty easy sell for me.

Set in the kingdom of Daventry, the game follows King’s Quest’s original protagonist Graham on his quest to become a knight and eventually king. Framing the story, we hear the elderly Graham telling his granddaughter Gwendolyn stories of his youth, a fitting homage to the similarly sharp-witted film The Princess Bride.

The game also shares an actor with the film–Wallace Shawn, who played Vizzini in The Princess Bride movie and video game–but features plenty of other celebrity voices as well. Christopher Lloyd plays old Graham, while Josh Keaton gives a charming performance as his young counterpart. While Gwendolyn’s young actor Maggie Elizabeth Jones and the voice of the blacksmith Zelda Wiliams both sounded wooden to me at times, Loretta Divine and Kevin Michael Richardson each had me laughing out loud due to their excellent delivery.

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Speaking of laughing, this game is full of puns, contributing to its goofy tone. Don’t let the game fool you though: this story is dark at times and does not shy away from heavy themes of violence and death. Even with its irreverence (or maybe because of it), gameplay showed traces of Crash Bandicoot and other games I played as a kid. Without being a KQ veteran, I still felt properly nostalgic.

The graphics are contemporary and beautiful, despite clipping in any scene involving cape animation, and the elements of choice The Odd Gentlemen built in will feel familiar to fans of Fable or Telltale adventure games. While there is no tutorial or run down of lore, the world-building is solid and I didn’t feel confused by the game mechanics.

The design and controls are fairly intuitive, and the first quest is straight-forward enough that learning as you go is actually enjoyable. (Of course, for those who do feel lost, Polygon published a great rundown of the series to date.) With all of these elements working in its favor, it’s hard to be mad at A Knight to Remember for what it gets wrong, but it does make a few missteps.

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Unskippable dialogue you hear every time you die or re-enter an area grates on your nerves after a while, and with no map, fast-travel, or reload mechanics, sometimes even the simplest puzzle takes a long time as you traipse back and forth across Daventry. It’s also hard to tell whether any choices you make in the game aside from your dialogue with Gwendolyn actually influences her actions, but I suppose that’s something only time will tell.

Overall, King’s Quest’s gorgeous and richly detailed graphics, strong voice performances, attention to world-building, and silly but sincere story make it worth a play, even if it isn’t quite sure where to challenge the player and where to make something like getting around a little easier. I look forward to its future installments, especially if any of them require playing as Gwendolyn.

Did you play the original Sierra Quest games? What did you think of the reboot? Let me know in the comments!

Link Roundup: Arcade Mode

game controllers

With the beginning of fall comes a whole new round of TV shows, movies, and other media to consume. I’ve been trying to keep up with series premieres and whatnot, finish King’s Quest and Blues and Bullets, and keep the blog posts coming, but life won’t stop getting in the way so this week I decided to feature other people’s interesting words about pop culture and nerd stuff instead of my own. While this blog covers multiple media forms, video games have been occupying my brain lately so here are some things about games I found on the internet and enjoyed:

+ If you’re a fan of Telltale or have been playing Life is Strange, FemHype’s two-part look at world-building in episodic games is definitely worth the read.

+ In the spirit of Halloween, I also checked out We Know The Devil, the recently released visual novel horror game. It is a thought-provoking experience, and this analysis of gender and sexuality in the game from blogger emberling enhances the stimulating experience.

+ Feminist Frequency put out a new video in their Tropes vs. Women series at the end of August, but it took me until the end of September to watch it because I’ve been slacking on my YouTube binge-watching. If you’re in the same boat, here’s a link to make your life easier.

+ As usual, I’ve been watching a lot of Geek Remix lately, and right now I’m in the middle of their Soma playthrough. It reminds me of the time I demo’d Narcosis on a VR headset at SXSW game expo–there were many screams, flinches, and curse words.

+ Speaking of Soma, Kotaku had an interesting article this week about the game’s conservative use of achievements.

+ The countdown to Mass Effect Andromeda is long and painful, but to ease our sorrows Bioware announced on September 29th that a Mass Effect ride will open in California’s Great America in 2016!!! Have no doubt: I will wear Shepard cosplay on the ride, and I will cry.

Now for a couple of oldies but goodies:

+ Unfortunately I missed it the first time around, but writer/artist/dev/all around good human Chris Solarski’s piece for Gamasutra about the aesthetics of game design has stood the test of time. If you haven’t read his book, I highly recommend it.

+ And lastly, during my research and writing about Morrowind last month, I came across this gem of a series about metaphysics in the game from blogger and game developer Kateri.

Okay, that’s it for now. Keep your eyes peeled next week for a review of King’s Quest Chapter 1, and let me know what other content you’d like to see in the comments. Thanks for reading!

What I’m… Wednesday: Mike and Max

What I’m Watching

I’m a little late to the party, but Sunday I saw Magic Mike XXL and damn if that wasn’t the most delightful experience! I’m sure they were making some of the ‘progressive’ choices based on what they thought would make the most money, but the fact that they catered to/represented bisexual women, women of color, gay men, and people with different body sizes and types was so refreshing to me. I also loved the dialogue throughout the movie about all that women deal with and how important it is to ask them what they want. Of course, the many talented and attractive dancers didn’t hurt either. This movie certainly didn’t have a strong plot or the same levity as the first Magic Mike film, but it was incredibly enjoyable.

What I’m Playing

life is strange ep 4 title screen

In case you haven’t heard me screaming it from the rooftops, LIFE IS STRANGE EPISODE 4 CAME OUT YESTERDAY!!! I have completed my first playthrough and I am excited to do some critical thinking and writing about it, but for now I’m still kind of processing how I feel about what transpired. I can say this episode is fast-paced and dark–darker than any previous installment–and many aspects of the game this time around felt more emotionally meaningful to me, whether a choice the player had to make, a line of dialogue, or an item or location in the game. I find it difficult to successfully theorize about single episodes when the season or series they belong to hasn’t finished yet, but I promise there is more to come from this blog on my favorite episodic game to date.

What I’m Listening To

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of covers. It’s always interested me how songs change when another artist performs them, and many of my favorite arrangements of songs are not the original versions. Of course, sometimes covers cannot be found on music streaming services like Google Play or Spotify, so please enjoy this YouTube playlist curated by yours truly.

Thanks for reading! What did you guys think about Episode 4? What is your favorite cover of a song? Let me know in the comments below!