Life Is Strange: True Colors Review
And before you can say “gentle acoustic guitar music”, Life Is Strange rolls back into our lives. There’s something comforting about the series’ take on small town Americana and the progressive nature of both its themes and its cast. Both Dontnod and Deck Nine (the latter taking up development duties here) are comfortable with the niche they’ve carved out in the point-and-click world and see no reason to change a warm, familiar format. Can True Colors avoid taking the obvious road and evolve the series?
If you’re unfamiliar with the LIS franchise, it goes thusly: supernatural powers upset the status quo for teenage/early 20s protagonists, onlookers either decry their abilities and try to ostracise them, or assist them to come to terms with what’s happening to them, and there’s usually an underlying story driving them forward while helping them understand what’s happening to them. Compared to the time-rewind of the first game and the earth-shaking telekinesis shenanigans of the second, True Colors mixes things up a little, and is all the better for it.
To start with, it’s the first game in the series to release all of its chapters at once. In the age of binging box sets, this may prove to be a welcome change for fans — and potentially developers charged with the nightmare of balancing release dates and consistent quality for a five-episode series. Secondly, the supernatural element is once again not overt, just as it was in the game’s debut, meaning that relationships can be broken or formed depending on how much you want to reveal about the power you possess.
Alex Chen has been in and out of foster care for most of her teenage life. Arriving in Haven Springs, nestled in the shadow of the Colorado mountains, she is reunited with her brother Gabe. She is a typical 21 year old: savvy, rooted to her phone, happy to express her emotions. However, Alex has a secret: she is an empath of sorts, who can tune into people’s emotions and feel exactly what they do. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the reaction — a bit like Deanna Troi, but probably more powerful and certainly better acted. When I first learned about the MacGuffin for this game I wasn’t sold. How is empathy a fun thing to play with? I needn’t have worried. While the stakes may feel significantly lower than Groundhog Day-ing your way through murders in a university or laying waste to rogue cops and cult churches, Alex’s ability works in Life Is Strange’s favour by encapsulating everything that the series is about. The reason the franchise has been so successful is due to the (usually) likeable characters, (occasionally) believable dialogue, and (fairly) realistic situations that you find yourself in. The powers have always felt like a bystander in the actual game rather than the sole reason for playing; sure, it was cool to undo decisions you made in the original, but the purpose for doing so was the important factor. With True Colors, it feels like the gamey mechanics of tapping into people’s emotions has finally meshed with the narrative drive of what makes Life Is Strange so great.
Alex can dive into the underlying causes of those emotions too, leading to other objects in the area becoming important tools for her investigation. An elderly lady’s fear of developing dementia resulted in a scavenger hunt around a shop, trying to retrace the woman’s steps to understand what she’d done that morning. A sculptor’s anger was illustrated by her artwork being chipped away piece by piece as I uncovered clues, eventually revealing the true source of her rage. Each instance is thematically potent and beautifully portrayed. Often, the revelations of this inquiry will result in a heavy binary choice for Alex, both of which have consequences further down the line.
Outside of the main storyline, finding resonating objects acts as the game’s list of collectables but with far more emotional investment than simply taking photos or making drawings. Indeed, learning more about the town’s characters by tuning into their personalities can often lead to surprising results in later chapters.
The cast’s voice-acting is impeccable, as you might expect from a Life Is Strange game. If anything, Deck Nine has nailed the naturalistic dialogue far better than Dontnod’s instalments. That may be due to a less bombastic storyline or a simple evolution of the series, but either way the slight awkwardness of teen chat from the second game and the right-on hipster vibe of the first are nowhere to be seen. Each of the town’s residents has a distinct personality, while even the side characters have story arcs — such as “Guy” and “Girl”, who start the game hesitantly talking about a date. Though you have little to do with them in terms of interactivity, watching their romance evolve is fantastic; mini stories like this flesh out the town and give it a lovely homely feeling.
Alex documents everything in her journal, naturally (this is a LIS game after all), but there’s a nod to social media and instant messaging too which helps you get a feel for her character before you start playing her properly. Being able to scroll through her past messages is a great way of establishing intimacy in a natural, accessible way. The MyBlock feed also offers plenty of personality for the town’s inhabitants as they poke fun at each other in a public forum. Alex’s experiences are accompanied by songs and chords too, doodled in her journal should you wish to pick up a six-string for some angsty lols.
I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning the plot as I think it would be better to come into the game with very little knowledge of what happens. Suffice to say that the first chapter sets up a storyline with a conclusion that has repercussions for the rest of the game. Each chapter also has a distinct feeling to it. The middle entry takes the D&D game idea from Deck Nine’s own Before The Storm and transforms it into a town-wide live-action roleplaying game. It’s goofy, yet fits perfectly within the storyline, as well as being the kind of thing that could only be organised in a small town of close-knit people. The fourth chapter focuses on a festival with a devastating twist I never saw coming, while the final one delivers a gut punch of psychotherapy and a dramatic showdown. Only the second chapter felt a little slow in terms of pushing the story forward, but even that had some lovely moments. The game certainly benefited from releasing as a complete package, since the overall quality is consistently high.
True Colors is also the best looking entry to date, which is unsurprising but nevertheless delightful to explore. Haven Springs is a Kinkade painting come to life, but on the right side of twee. Small-town cliches are nodded to but never acted upon, the colours pop with dazzling saturation and it’s all soundtracked by Angus and Julia Stone, Phoebe Bridgers and mxmtoon amongst other indie darlings as well as, erm, Dido. In short, it’s the most Life Is Strange-iest soundtrack to date and will likely be as well received in the bedroom of emo kids as it would in the front seat of a North Carolina OAP’s pickup truck.
And even with all of this, I came out of True Colors feeling like I’d missed a ton of content. There were so many times I was wrapped up in the conversations I was having with people and the impact that they would have on Alex (or vice versa) that I’d forgotten I could look around a location and search for people I could scan and potentially help. Each chapter has a ton of Easter eggs dotted around and fistfuls of plot threads that interweave and progress. There are two arcade games to play (and I actually finished Arkanoid!). Every relationship feeds into the greater picture and it all feels natural. There are two romantic options, both of which I wanted to explore but only one of which I could follow. The replay value for True Colors is far higher than any of the other games in the series and actually makes me interested in doing so — and I say this as someone who hates the thought of trawling through a game to experience multiple endings. With Haven Springs and Alex Chen, Deck Nine has set the standard for the kind of storytelling we will expect to see from Life Is Strange from now on; if Dontnod takes on the next entry it certainly has its work cut out, but would we expect anything other than a bittersweet result for such a series?
You can subscribe to Jump Chat Roll on your favourite podcast players including:
Let us know in the comments if you enjoyed this podcast, and if there are any topics you'd like to hear us tackle in future episodes!