All of the Life is Strange games up to this point have had one major theme in common. They're about growing up and coming of age to a certain degree. Life is Strange: True Colors maintains that core idea to a big extent, but the prevailing themes for Deck Nine's latest entry into the series involve emotion, empathy, community, and even mental health. And, narratively, it proves to be one of the franchise's best efforts to date.
Starting a new life
Life is Strange: True Colors follows a young girl named Alex Chen, who is being released from the state's care in order to start a new life with her older brother in Haven Springs. It's a small town, one where everybody knows each other by name, and it's one where Gabe Chen is among its most beloved residents. Alex is starting with a clean slate and with every Haven Springs resident knowing one another so intimately, how she treats everyone plays a big factor in how certain story elements play out.
A horrible tragedy claims Gabe's life by the end of Chapter 1, at which point the main plot kicks in. Alex suspects foul play and the rest of the game largely involves trying to implicate a mining company in her brother's death. This central plot incorporates a large percentage of the Haven Springs community and Alex's success not only hinges on what she can find, but in how she treats her neighbors, since some of them may be willing to lend their help.
Dialogue choices are plentiful and consequential in True Colors, though this game returns to the old format used prior to Life is Strange 2, in that players will have all the time they want to explore an area and talk to as many people as possible. There's no pressure that someone you'll want to talk to will move somewhere else or a moment where too much time will pass and an event will trigger and close off conversation possibilities. That turns out to be a good thing, because Deck Nine wants players to find everybody, not just for easter eggs, but also to help shape the story's ultimate outcome, which can unfold across one of six different endings.
I will say that I was only slightly disappointed by the story's resolution. It's going to be hard to dance around spoilers, but I will endeavor to do so. There's a big twist at the end of Chapter 4 and the way that climax is ultimately dealt with in Chapter 5 felt frustrating to watch. One major detail from the Chapter 4 ending should have been brought up during the Chapter 5 climax and the characters never do so, so that felt annoying. Outside of that, the resolution plays out brilliantly and factors in all of the player's relationships, conversations, and decisions to that point. My choices felt like they mattered, but also any dialogue instances that I missed felt like they mattered, which made me want to go back and explore every little thing that I skipped over.
In touch with your feelings
True Colors' core mechanic involves being in touch with emotions. Alex has the supernatural ability to read auras and experience what others are feeling. Throughout the start of the game, those emotions are exclusively negative. She feels sadness, fear, and anger. If an emotion is powerful enough, she'll become consumed by it herself.
However, True Colors is a story of growth. Over time, Alex will come to read positive emotions and realize that there is room for happiness in her everyday life. She learns it through the human connections that she makes. Despite that, letting go of the negative is not easy and this game's story doesn't pretend that it is. There are toxic elements in many of Alex's neighbors and when she discovers them, they pose some of True Colors' most pressing quandaries.
Alex is capable of absorbing toxic emotions, but players have to consider the consequences that come with that. For example, Alex can absorb a dangerous rage level from one of her friends, but the consequence could be that she loses control and lashes out at a different character, jeopardizing their relationship. Players have to weigh the pros and cons and consider heavily whether they want to use Alex's power or explore a potential alternate solution. Sometimes alternate solutions are possible, but other times, they aren't, making these binary decisions some of True Colors' most harrowing moments.
Narratively, Alex's ability helps advance the story, but it also acts as a catalyst to a greater theme: mental health. In reading others, Alex comes to think about her own emotions, reflect on the grief that she feels over most of the game, and come to terms with the best way to address it. While it doesn't feel like True Colors effectively conveys that everybody deals with their own personal mental health issues differently, it does express how the main character particularly deals with them. For Alex, she finds comfort in herself, particularly through the several "Zen moments" sprinkled throughout the game, and in her friends, who not only empathize with her situation, but also want to see justice done for her brother.
A single reading
I would be remiss if I didn't note that True Colors is the first Life is Strange game to release as a full game. It's still divided into five chapters, which is mainly done for narrative purposes. However, players no longer have to wait weeks for the next part of the story. That turns out to be for the best, because the way the chapters are divided, they provide players with a good basis for how much progress they're making and it also allows the developer to dedicate each chapter to a certain theme or plot point. For example, one chapter is dedicated to a LARP and another is dedicated to the town's Spring Festival.
As a whole, I found True Colors to be a rewarding experience. Alex is a marvelous main character, somebody who's openly flawed but sincerely trying to be better, both for herself and for others. The supporting cast are all interesting characters in their own right, each with their own motivations and their own connections to Alex's brother, which gradually become connections to Alex herself. Players can get to know these characters even further by finding hidden items, which are triggered similarly to how Alex reads a character's emotions. These hidden goodies will unlock memories, which play back a special moment in their lives.
The biggest flaw to True Colors is that it's hard to know when you've found everything. There's no way to keep track of who you've talked to, nor is there a map of the town to help you get around. Players will be prompted to explore everything before hitting the end of a chapter, but there's no real way to see if every possible task has been done. That wouldn't be such a big deal, except skipping over conversations entirely, as noted before, can actually influence how the Chapter 5 resolution plays out, which might have players feeling some negative emotions themselves.
Outside of a few flaws, True Colors is the peak of the Life is Strange series to date. The characters are wonderful, the soundtrack is a strong collection of indie rock, the dialogue choices are meaningful and actually matter, the humor is on point, it makes you work for the romance options (should you choose to take one), and there are even a few arcade games to play around with on the side. Beyond that, the themes of empathy, mental health, and essentially starting a new life from scratch resonated heavily with me. Deck Nine incorporated Alex's supernatural power brilliantly and it made True Colors stand out above its predecessors in a big way.
This review is based on a PlayStation digital code provided by the publisher. Life is Strange: True Colors will be available on Thursday, September 9 on Steam, the PlayStation Store, Microsoft Store, and on Google Stadia for $59.99 USD. It is also coming soon to the Nintendo eShop. The game is rated M.
Life is Strange: True Colors
- Uplifting story about empathy wrapped in a compelling mystery
- Relatable and lovable characters
- Haven Springs is a beautifully illustrated town
- Strong indie music soundtrack (and Kings of Leon, I guess)
- Multiple endings
- Certain elements of the resolution didn't necessarily work
- No town map makes it easy to skip over certain areas
- No way to know whether you've talked to everyone and explored everything
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