‘Life Is Strange: True Colors’ review: as beautiful as it is heart-wrenching

Life Is Strange grows up

Loss, grief, and acceptance are popular narrative fodder in pop culture. I can think of a few examples where this idea has been conveyed effectively on screen, but the way it plays out in Life is Strange: True Colors offers up an experience so sincere, so heartfelt, it’ll be a tale you won’t forget.

The Life Is Strange franchise is known for telling some of the most impactful stories. You might think you’re familiar with them at this point: an awkward teenager with powers tries to make sense of the world, a young boy struggling to deal with life-altering change. Yet, as the series’ audience has grown up, Life Is Strange: True Colors has too, now putting you in the shoes of an adult with an established past. Our playable protagonist is Alex Chen, a young woman with a difficult backstory, who arrives in Haven Springs to reunite with her long-lost brother Gabe after eight years apart. But when he mysteriously dies in an accident, Alex pursues the answers she’s looking for, all while trying to figure out how to accept the power she calls a “curse”.

From the very first chapter, Alex is presented as a closed-off, sensitive individual given her backstory, but she quickly becomes an extremely likeable character who only grew more charming the longer I spent with her. She’s a caring soul who constantly looks to affirm the emotions of the people around her and the journey she has is perhaps as poignant as anything we’ve seen before. As you’re playing as a 21-year-old who mainly interacts with other adults around you, this means that social interactions are mature with little to no cheesy teen dialogue. Alex is a layered character with a traumatic backstory, but even with all that complication, Deck Nine was able to create a character so believable and deserving of the main role that she’s become my new favourite.

Life Is Strange: True Colors
Life Is Strange: True Colors. Credit: Square Enix

Life Is Strange is bold in the way it presents real-life subjects in its games, with one of the most common themes being love. It’s been commonplace within the other game’s in the series for the player to choose the sexual preference of the main character themself, but in True Colors, Alex is already established as being bisexual. The change to make the main character canonically queer is a welcome one, as these relationships aren’t often normalized in media, and it just makes Alex feel as authentic as she is written and performed.

This Life Is Strange tale ditches its episodic nature and is instead split into five chapters, and it’s greater for it, making for a solid, cohesive story that doesn’t suffer when handling multiple storylines. At times, I found there to be moments where the narrative build-up felt quite slow with some underwhelming and predictable plot points that were revealed later down the road; the main focus of discovering the reason behind Gabe’s time sometimes felt overshadowed by side content and I was worried that the great experience I was having with everything else wasn’t going to result in a rewarding finale. However, the more I played the more the puzzle pieces started falling into place which eventually resulted in a satisfying and unexpected conclusion. The quality of writing in True Colors is excellent and doesn’t cling to overused, cliched ideas that have been seen before. Instead, it’s thought-provoking and inspiring and it at times moved me to tears.

Time spent doing other activities like engaging with characters and exploring your environments is rewarded in True Colors. There is so much to discover in Haven Springs that even after my first playthrough the game told me I’d missed a whole lot more that I wasn’t aware of. The game sticks with its minimal view then interact blueprint but it works well alongside everything else the game offers. Although you do get to spend a fair bit of time with each main character, we get to learn even more about them by reading through Alex’s journal and text messages. Instead of using these texts as a way to push the narrative to the next point, the game presents them to the player in a readable format informing you that Alex’s new relationships are even developing off-screen as well.

Life Is Strange: True Colors. Credit: Square Enix

Speaking of, the game’s small cast of characters, all of whom are voiced superbly, are all memorable. You’re quickly introduced to the residents of Haven Springs quite early on in the game and are constantly drip-fed new information about them as the chapters unfold, with each having time in the spotlight. In particular, Steph and Ryan, the two romanceable characters in the game. Both of them are well-rounded individuals who play a big part in Alex’s journey and are a joy to spend time with. What I loved most about Steph and Ryan is that they aren’t placed in the story solely to be the love interest and they don’t adhere to stereotypes they could have been given with how their characters are written. They aren’t onlookers in the story but are actively at the player’s side, making their role in the story just as important as anything else. It’s a notable step up for the franchise and an appreciated one.

Alex’s life in Haven Springs presents itself as a much more cinematic experience. There’s no exaggeration when I say that True Colors is absolutely stunning. Every camera shot, whether it be of a mountain landscape, a close-up of a piece of decor in a record store, or the silhouette of a character captured by the light of a sunset, is beautiful. Most sequences play out as if you’re watching a tv show drama and on several occasions I found myself zoning out during Alex’s “Zen” moments while listening to the melancholic music that compliments the art style. And although the game did have a few minor performance hiccups at times, it’s truly the best the Life Is Strange has ever looked.

Alongside all this, we have the principal gameplay element every Life Is Strange game is known for and that’s the choice system, placing you in the position throughout the game to make a crucial decision that will change the course of your path. I’m happy to say that with True Colors, these binary choices present themselves quite regularly and have a greater impact on the plot just as they do with other storylines. It’s common for these games to put the player in difficult situations that often have us weighing the scales, but in True Colors, I felt that agonizing decision-making pull at me just as much.

Life Is Strange: True Colors. Credit: Square Enix

True Colors is simplistic with its game design and sticks with the staple formula the franchise is best known for, albeit dialogue being its most important asset. The game does make room for the player to explore the vibrant town of Haven Springs freely on multiple occasions so the experience doesn’t feel as restricting as I feared it would be. But it’s Alex’s supernatural power that takes the main focus which allows her to interact with the emotional aura of the people around her, letting her absorb and understand them herself – sometimes affecting her in the most extreme ways.

Perhaps most important of all, there’s the brave way True Colors is able to present the action of empathy in gameplay form, and it’s simply fantastic. Through gorgeous and uniquely built gameplay sequences the game allows you to explore what the feeling of anger, fear or grief might look like visually, empowering you to go even deeper into the emotions of a particular character in the most profound ways. Going into True Colors I was curious to see how this concept would translate to gameplay, and it succeeded in some of the most nuanced and interactive methods possible. We’ve seen what the power of time travel and telekinesis is capable of doing in the most unusual circumstances, but Alex’s power of enhanced empathy makes for a much more appealing narrative.

Life Is Strange: True Colors returns to its franchise roots – a small isolated town, a close-knit community, a mystery to solve – but this tragic story is so much more than what we’ve seen before. With fantastic gameplay to help demonstrate the concept of empathy, a strong story, one of the best-written protagonists in the universe thus far, as well as inspiring interactive moments, the game is deserving of its spot in the series.

Life Is Strange: True Colors launches September 10 on PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC, and Google Stadia. This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.

The Verdict

Life Is Strange: True Colors sets out to explore the concept of empathy and it succeeds. The game is able to discuss and handle many serious topics with care while also managing to tell a meaningful story of loss and acceptance. The game introduces one of the best protagonists in the franchise yet and excels in its core gameplay mechanics.

Pros

  • Losing the episodic blueprint greatly benefits the narrative
  • A strong cast of characters and vocal performances
  • Visually stunning
  • A rewarding story
  • Choices have weight
  • Beautiful soundtrack

Cons

  • A few plot reveals were predictable
  • Minor hiccups in performance
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