Originally released in 2015, Life is Strange is a story-driven video game series that boasts a small yet devoted and passionate fanbase of gamers. Life is Strange: True Colors has big boots to fill but, as this review shows, it manages to get the job done.
It is easy to be initially dismissive of these games. On the surface, they appear to be nothing but gamified Netflix teen dramas with a hint of the supernatural sprinkled in. However, their simplistic gameplay together with their expert use of music does a sterling job of capturing those everyday moments of life that are often overlooked but have a profound impact on us.
As revered as the first entry in the series is, the next two games that followed proved to be a tad more polarizing. Life is Strange: Before the Storm serves as a prequel and while most appreciated the return of beloved characters, some felt like it lacks that something special. Life is Strange 2, released in 2018, is brave enough to feature an all-new cast. However, some felt that it strays too far from the formula that made the first game successful.
Life is Strange: True Colors is the latest title in the series. Released on the 10th of September 2021, it is developed by Deck Nine, who are also responsible for Life is Strange: Before the Storm. With the franchise finally coming to next-gen consoles, expectations were understandably high. Fortunately, not only has Deck Nine delivered, they have crafted a heartfelt experience that makes the best use of its medium.
Life is Strange: True Colors is available for purchase on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, and PC. A Nintendo Switch port is also scheduled to release in 2022.
Story – A Trip Around the Emotional Spectrum
Spanning across five episodes, the game’s story paces itself well and remembers to insert plenty of moments of joviality to prepare you for the gut-wrenching scenes. Much like Life is Strange 2, True Colors abandons the cast of the first Life is Strange game. However, unlike Life is Strange 2, you will not be doing a lot of moving around. Instead, you remain situated in the cozy town of Haven. It is a small neighborhood where everybody knows each other, the gossip travels fast, and you never have to ever truly feel alone.
Alex Chen, who serves as the game’s protagonist, arrives in Haven after many painful years of living in the foster care system. Her experiences, rather than break her, have molded her into a fiercely strong woman with an incredible amount of inner resolve and mental fortitude. Of all the protagonists in the series, Alex proves herself to be the most interesting, fleshed-out, and well-written one thus far.
Throughout her interactions with others, it is clear that she has a big heart and a strong desire to help others. Her capacity for compassion is seemingly infinite. However, this is contrasted with her moments of isolation (of which there are many), where you have access to her inner thoughts and are able to discover how much pain she is carrying.
Alex is brought to Haven by her brother, Gabe Chen, who she has been separated from for years after he is sent to juvenile detention for stealing a car. For a brief and beautiful moment Alex the orphan feels like she has a home in Haven, and with the friendly folks she meets, a sense of family is established too. In the blink of an eye, it is all snatched away from her, sending her on a quest to unravel the truth.
The backbone of any Life is Strange game is its characters, and it is no exaggeration to say that True Colors has the best and most captivating cast thus far. While the first game felt at times as though it was ticking off a laundry list of high school clichés, the inhabitants of Haven feel like real people bearing immense problems and tackling relatable issues. Whether it is Charlotte who has to deal with the guilt of blaming those close to her for an unforeseen tragedy or Eleanor who must learn to navigate old age, no character, no matter how much you may treasure them, is spared from the harshness of realism.
It is also through these believable characters that the game delivers one of its deepest messages – sometimes, the truth hurts. This theme manifests when characters have to face a range of searingly painful and sometimes relatable truths that involve jealousy, self-hatred, love-shyness, and the fear of rejection. It is all handled tastefully, and these moments make the game an emotionally rocky ride.
The game’s greatest triumph, perhaps, is how it juggles all these complex characters and still manages to offer multiple endings that satisfyingly wrap up the loose ends and bring about a meaningful conclusion. This is something even the beloved first game struggles to achieve, yet True Colors does with confidence. As a result, even when those credits start rolling, every choice you made still feels like it mattered.
This is a game that is bold and willing to hit you where it hurts. It dives to painful places but offers a gratifying payoff at the end. If you trust and give yourself to the experience, you will be rewarded greatly.
Gameplay – Simple Yet Effective
Life is Strange games follow a pretty standard formula. The protagonist has a power of some sort, which helps them manipulate situations they find themselves in. In the first game, Max Caulfield had the ability to turn back time and re-do her choices. This power is often used to solve relatively simple puzzles that help you to advance the plot or acquire items or information which you need.
The vast majority of the game is spent interacting with the environment which often tells you more about various characters and events in the game. Significant time is also spent talking to other characters and building relationships with them. The things you say to characters matter, and it could affect whether they choose to help or hurt you in the future.
Life is Strange: True Colors presents the most fine-tuned version of this formula yet. Alex’s power takes the form of super heightened empathy. Not only can she acutely sense the emotions of others, but she can also choose to take on their emotions and treat them as her own. Additionally, she can also access memories imprinted onto objects by strong emotions. At its best, her power functions much like mind-reading. As any series veteran would know, however, there is always a downside to these kinds of things and even well-meaning uses of this power can end badly.
Emotions are represented using colored auras that outline characters. Purple represents anxiety and fear, blue represents sadness, yellow represents happiness, and red represents anger. By pulling down on the L2 trigger, you can cause Alex to focus on certain characters and gain temporary access to their inner emotional world. This gives you a glance at what is going on behind the mask they show to the public.
As a gameplay mechanic, this cuts to the core of what all Life is Strange games try to do – make us connect with basic humanity. These raw glances into the emotional rodeo show that each person in the small town of Haven is trying to survive are painful to watch at times, but it is also oddly comforting to know that these struggles that are usually kept secret are not something alien or strange, but instead are what make us truly human.
Through the use of the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback, you can feel the intensity of key scenes in your hands, and the use of adaptive triggers whenever you activate your powers is subtle but effective. Through Alex’s power, you are shown that to understand others, you not only have to see things from their perspective but also feel things as they do too. It is a lesson in selflessness and it requires the arduous task of shrinking that rascally ego.
Where the series has often stumbled is with its implementation of choices. Past games have often ended in ways that made your previous choices feel worthless. With True Colors, that is not the case. For the first time, it truly feels like what you do matters.
The scope of decisions available to you is also wider. An area this is prevalent in is with Alex’s romantic life. Alex is presented with two possible romantic partners. One is Ryan, who is a clean-cut, outdoorsy guy. He is there for Alex during her darkest hours. The other is Steph, the local DJ who is a music snob just like Alex. Who you give your heart to is your choice. However, if you prefer, you can choose neither.
As with all Life is Strange games, exploration is also a key aspect of gameplay. For almost every episode, Haven is yours to explore as you please. While previous titles have felt linear, True Colors opens up and makes you feel like Haven is a place that is truly alive and ready for you to live in.
When you are not ready to head to your next objective, there is the opportunity to mosey up and down Main Street to chat with locals and see who is feeling what. A few of the businesses are also open for you to visit including Lethe Flowers, Steph’s record store, Silver Dragon dispensary, and The Black Lantern bar. By the end of the game, you will be as attached to Haven as you are to any of the characters.
True Colors takes the Life is Strange formula and goes bigger and better. The areas where it deviates from the norm are equally as stunning. In Alex’s apartment and in The Black Lantern are arcade machines where you can play mini arcade games whenever you are not busy solving mysteries. Chapter three of the game, in particular, takes an unexpected turn and provides perhaps the most fun moments in the series. To say more would be to spoil the experience for you, but it is not one to be missed.
Little details are also appreciated, such as the ability to change Alex’s clothing and the ability to use the jukebox in The Black Lantern.
Graphics and Audio – Best in Show
Due to the nature of the game, one of the main themes is emotions. Hence, facial animations are vitally important for expressing the emotions of characters in a way that will be believable to the player. Life is Strange games are not known for their visual magnificence. However, True Colors features some of the most awe-inspiring facial animations seen in a video game.
The faces of characters never feel stiff. Instead, their faces look soft, fleshy, and ready to mold into any expression. When a face contorts into anger, the emotion conveyed is unfailingly convincing. The game is filled with close-up facial shots that speak more powerfully than words ever could.
On PC and next-gen consoles, the game supports ray-tracing. It runs at 60fps on PC but is locked to 30fps on all consoles. Although there have been many complaints about this, a story-driven game like True Colors does not require high framerates for you to enjoy it to its fullest.
While the game runs mostly fine on PS5, there are a few moments where the framerate is inconsistent. Worst of all, you can expect load times whenever entering and exiting buildings, and when transitioning between scenes. It is borderline inexplicable how this is the case considering the relatively small scope of the game, but yet even on the PS5, you can expect up to 10 second long load times.
The audio of the game is top-notch. It features a soundtrack that both complements and enhances the feel of Haven and gives you a window into Alex’s personality. The right songs inserted at the right moments help key scenes hit hard, though it is never overplayed or tacky. Scenes like Alex losing herself to Dido’s Thank You and letting the lyrics “it’s not so bad” wash over her as her domestic life crumbles around her are both tear-jerking and impossible to forget.
Life is Strange: True Colors was reviewed on PS5.