Life is Strange: True Colors dials up the charm at the expense of the supernatural, but can it latch on with characters alone?
It’s been some time since I sat down Life is Strange. But six years later, arriving in the golden sun coated mountain town of Haven Springs in Life is Strange: True Colors felt like being reunited with a long-lost friend. Something that was oddly comparative to our hero’s narrative set-up.
Alex Chen arrives in this picturesque town nestled in the Colorado mountains, meeting with her brother that she hasn’t seen in years. There is tension blended with awkwardness. Both have a deep bond with one and other, but years of a tumultuous foster care system has changed both parties. It instantly felt like a far more mature version of a Life is Strange game; perhaps my time apart from the franchise has allowed me to see how far it has come.
Gone are angsty teens, describing everything with a “hella” preface. In its stead are characters that feel real and surprisingly likeable, whilst still maintaining the typical Life is Strange seasoning. And accompanying them is a sun-kissed visual overhaul that really fills in a lot of the performative gaps that dotted around the series to date.
As tedious as the “old school” of video game reviews is, I really have to focus on the visuals of the game, as they cement a lot of what works in Life is Strange: True Colors. I played on PS5, and with the help of real-time ray tracing, characters had twinkles in their eyes, sparkles in their teeth, and shine to their hair. With more dynamic facial animations and the help of mo-capped performances, True Colors achieves the authentic feel the franchise so dearly aspires towards.
It sadly doesn’t apply to every character, as the visual quality really varies on a person-by-person basis. Speaking of compromises to the experience, certain areas of the game ran so poorly that it was almost nauseating. But of course, this wouldn’t be Life is Strange without calming sunset cinematography, and – before you can complain about frame rate too much – Deck Nine throws a pretty sunset at you.
I immediately settled into True Colors’ cosy town vibes as, unlike Arcadia Bay, Haven Springs seemed like the kind of place you want to stay in. Local flower shops, relaxed record stores and a friendly bar where the owner knows everyone’s name. Haven immediately sets you at ease, and it is helped by a brilliant cast of likeable characters. As you chip away at the peripheral characters, however, at the game’s heart is a relationship between Alex and her brother.
My biggest gripe with the first Life Is Strange was how much it relied on you caring about Chloe. Despite enjoying the game overall, its emotional climax immediately toppled over for me as someone that never got on with Chloe and her boisterous personality. Deck Nine, the studio taking over from Dontnod, has taken that same risk with Alex and Gabe, but – for me at least – it paid off this time. In spades.
True Colors’ narrative isn’t quite as twisty and turny as its forebears. As is tradition, Alex is gifted (or cursed) with a power. Here she visually sees the emotions of others, feels those emotions herself and even gains some insight into why those emotions are being felt.
While of course, this does work into the central mystery of Haven Springs, it acts more as a catalyst to understand and empathise with the characters that surround you. With this quieter, more character-based approach, there are several moments within Life is Strange: True Colors that genuinely moved me to tears.
Released as one complete season rather than serialised over many months, it lacks that “cliffhanger” narrative hook between each of its five chapters, but the more I played more. I found I didn’t mind. I began to get into a routine where I would look forward to sitting down on the couch with a cup of tea and getting back to the characters of Haven Springs. Alex, in particular, was a complete joy to watch unravel and become her more comfortable self across the duration of its story.
With True Colors’ character focus, there is a surprising linearity to its choice system. The results of my actions only really came to a head in a singular scene at the end of the game. I’d imagine that this will disappoint some fans of the series. Similarly, the game provides answers to questions that largely felt out of the blue in its last act. Not just because it spends its majority focusing solely on Alex, abandoning all of those other characters for most of its runtime, but because there really were very few clues speckled across the way to suggest it. However, by and large, it didn’t negate my overall experience.
Life Is Strange: True Colors is a cosy experience that focuses much more on its themes and characters than its actual narrative. And it is all the better for it. It wraps you up in its mountainous setting, draws you in with likeable characters and lingers on the mind with a true sense of melancholy.
Along with the terrific performances and great character development, there is a superb visual overhaul that turns those characters into real people. I can’t tell you how many screenshots I took of Alex and the game’s beautiful setting. It sadly falters in the final stretch with some awkward choice-based design and a more contained episode. But at the end of the day, I’ll always be happy for my little escape to Haven Springs.
Game: Life is Strange: True Colors
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Stadia, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Deck Nine
Release Date: Out Now