Charlie loves her video games as much as she loves dumb, charming JRPG protagonists: probably way too much. You can often catch her spending too much time being emotional over LGBT stories in games. She also thinks Yakuza 6 is the best one.
Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
September 10, 2021
From the very get-go, Life is Strange: True Colors is a game intent on absolutely enthralling you. Featuring a strong Asian-American protagonist by the name of Alex Chen, a brand new power and supporting cast while finally ditching the slow episodic release schedule, it’s clear that the latest entry in the beloved adventure series is not here to mess around. Mess around it does not, engaging you deeply from the very first frame to the credits crawl. Bar none, True Colors is amazing.
Life is Strange: True Colors, like the entries prior, is full of many twists and turns. So much of the appeal of these games is getting to witness these reveals and how the characters in-world deal with it. Of course, specifics will as such be spared. What you need to know about this adventure is we’re now placed into the shoes of hero Alex Chen. Fresh out of the foster system, they’ve moved to the town of Haven Springs, reunited with their estranged brother and starting anew.
Chapter one is all about the slow build of establishing Alex’s relationship with both the town and her brother Gabe. Then, Gabe dies tragically in a mining explosion that looks far from accidental. Subsequently, all the remaining chapters are about both exploring what it’s like to live with grief… while unravelling a mystery. At every turn, True Colors is gripping and impactful. That rings true whether it’s pulling at a thread of the conspiracy that is rooted in Haven Springs, or helping someone through their anger at the world for cruelly ripping away a loved one too soon. The mystery on offer here is at the series’ best, though more on that later. It’s high time we talk about the game’s strongest feature, its themes.
“At every turn, True Colors is gripping and impactful.
That rings true whether it’s pulling at a thread of the conspiracy that is rooted in Haven Springs, or helping someone through their anger at the world for cruelly ripping away a loved one too soon.”
Contextually, these themes along with dealing with the wake of the tragedy are also married exceptionally with the gameplay on offer. Life is Strange is a franchise known for the superpowers that the heroes wield in everyday life. In Alex Chen’s case, she has psychic empathy. What this means in-universe is that she can interact with those around her that project auras, reading their emotions and hence getting insight into their thoughts.
On the surface, this looks a little hokey in comparison to the previous powers on offer – the ability to rewind time and telekinesis. However, dig deeper into the lovely little backstory on offer and it’s the one that makes the most sense. Learning more about Alex’s past through journal entries and texts from numbers now blocked, a picture of why our hero is the way that she is becomes clearer. Coming from broken home after broken home, her comfort comes from aiding those around her. Of course, her power is empathy.
There’s plenty of opportunities in-game to see just how this aforementioned gameplay and narrative union excels. In chapter two you learn of one of the locals harboring a secret perhaps key in unravelling the mystery surrounding Gabe’s death. Entirely anxious, he runs off from you after you’ve attuned to his aura. In hot pursuit, you witness what it’s like to be in their shoes and see the anxiety and pressure they’re facing – all the town locals stop in their path in the street and turn and stare at you. Suddenly it feels like every eye is on you. An excellent depiction of what it’s like in said character’s head but also to live with anxiety.
The list goes on. Helping an elderly woman suffering from dementia retrace their steps as the world quite literally crumbles outside their floristry shop… speaking with Charlotte, Gabe’s partner and witnessing her glow red as she experiences anger, trying to find someone to blame for his unjust death… all these moments are palpable. All these moments do well in being utilised to understand that relevant character.
In the slower moments outside of cutscenes, you can interact with any individual or item that exhibits an aura. What this can provide is more information about your surroundings but also new means of opening up options in conversation. Exploring the power of empathy could’ve been so messily done both in gameplay and narrative. Instead, Deck Nine does a stellar job at bridging these two elements together through but one mechanic, investing yourself in characters even further.
True Colors is a loaded game. As stated earlier, I’ll leave the big reveals out. That being said, discussing at least some of its narrative is unavoidable to get the bigger picture. If you’re wanting to enter Life is Strange: True Colors as blind as possible, tune out now. Got at least some of you still with me? Great.
So, your brother Gabe has died brutally as a result of a mine explosion. At the heart of it all, every question that Alex and yourself have about it ties back to Typhon, the mining company that heavily funds Haven Springs. Amidst all the grieving, you’ll soon recruit two of the townspeople, Steph and Ryan, who happen to be two of Gabe’s closest friends and also your two potential flames in-game.
These two will help Alex investigate Typhon and the circumstances surrounding Gabe’s death. In that time, you’ll get to know the two of them quite well. Ryan is a man dressed like a lumberjack with a heart entirely made of gold. Steph, who you may remember from Before the Storm, the prequel to the original game, is a punk girl with a bit of a bite. Simultaneously, she’s a huge dork, super into Dungeons & Dragons. Think of a combination of original series leads, Max and Chloe, actually, and you get the idea. Both are wonderful characters, making who you’ll romance all the harder a decision.
While you’re getting your vengeance for Gabe, there’s plenty of time to take off and get to know the locals and enter into other shenanigans. Simple examples of this are when Alex has a bit of time to herself to explore Haven Springs or playing the arcade cabinets you’ll find in your apartment and the Black Lantern bar. Deeper and more heartfelt examples include the occasions Alex plays her guitar, be it on her own or later on when she gets to rock out on stage with Steph at the Spring Festival.
A highlight is when you get to exchange in some good, old fashioned LARP (that is, Live Action Role Playing). Ethan, Charlotte’s son has lost a father figure role in his life since Gabe’s departure. In order to cheer him up, Steph organises this LARP adventure where Alex, as a bard, joins a Viking Ethan. Wandering around the town, now captured like a renaissance fair, you’ll run into other townsfolk playing a role in the fantasy adventure. Here you get to see Ethan be that excitable kid he was when you first met him two chapters prior. Wrap up the journey and Alex gets a read of Ethan’s aura, seeing him glow golden. His happiness is still there, even if it’s brief.
What this and other moments achieve is a better sense of community than Life is Strange has ever reached before. The original Life is Strange tried to show this off with Arcadia Bay and its characters and in retrospect, never quite pulled this off. In that instance, Chloe and Max were still the heroes at the end of the day, with everyone else as a backdrop. However, with True Colors, I can get a detailed idea of just about everyone’s character. Chapter five does well in highlighting Alex as an Asian American character while detailing her broken home life and what got her to where she is in Haven Springs today. Other characters just get a little blunter and to the point, if you’re close enough with them, just giving you their deal.
This cast also all come unite together and do so well, even in times of tragedy. Despite mourning one of their own, they know there’s life ahead of them, and that they have to look out for themselves and the people they care about. I love that. This is a game filled with just as many shining moments of humanity as it is with the juxtaposed corruption of Typhon. I cried, laughed and smiled with glee just as much as I felt anger on Gabe’s behalf.
So, you’ve got your believable characters, but what else helps establish this cast? A believable world. Whether it’s visually, audibly or through several gameplay functions, True Colors is substantial in this regard also. Across the town, care has been taken to truly paint it as a lived and breathed in area, with just a few slight concessions. Those that are keen-eyed open-world explorers may feel limited by the fact you largely can only openly explore when the game wants you to. Those houses in the distance, clearly indicating to be where these characters you’ve grown to know and love reside? You never get to go inside them.
Still, there’s plenty of gorgeous sights to take in. Haven Springs is captured within a valley, surrounded by tall, picturesque mountains and deep lakes. Deer will appear every so often by the creek that runs through town. Sunlight makes the cobble paths glisten. Sitting on the town jetty and just basking in the world is entirely beneficial and damn near tranquil. It’s so, so lovely. Environments you can explore around town include shopfronts such as the record store where you’ll find Steph in a booth hosting her radio show, the local florist or a weed dispensary shop owned by Charlotte. What can I say? It’s a different time in Colorado these days.
These shops help boost the idea of a lowly town, staying on its feet by commerce supported by its people. While The Black Lantern is the bar that serves as the main haunt for its locals, these other locations are also good spots to hang out in. The record store for example lets you zen out and sit by a turntable, taking a spin of a Phoebe Bridgers song. One but many examples of the excellent soundtrack on offer. Angus and Julia Stone teamed up to bring you a generous amount of original songs for True Colors, and they’re all (much like their music) homely, much like Haven Springs. Exploring the town with this music backing, wandering through alleys or back walls of the Black Lantern and you see artworks created by Charlotte, even more highlighting the town’s investment in one another… a sense of home is so clear in this game.
That’s just the thing. Haven Springs is a town that really looks after its own. This is also shown by the neat little touch that is an app on Alex’s phone called MyBlock. This can be accessed in menus at any time and is equivalent to a dedicated social network forum for the town. Here, you can find out quite a lot about even the more minor of characters by reading into their posts and replies. Whether it’s reminders of upcoming events or courtesy messages, this only boosts the feeling of community that Haven Spring offers, even if there’s a deep and dark underbelly underneath.
Throughout chapter one, I had concerns that the choices you make in-game will be a bit inconsequential. I’m pleased to report this is quite untrue. Specifically, you will want to maintain as positive a relationship as possible with as many of the townsfolk as you can. It’ll play a big role in confronting the big bad later on. Sure, I would’ve liked to see smaller choices interlope with smaller moments, but I can’t fault Deck Nine for that all that much. I’ve played a damn good amount of games in the “choices matter” category at this point. There’s no pleasing everyone with the somewhat excessive demands that have come from the genre over the years.
If there’s any downside to Life is Strange: True Colors, it’s the jankiness the franchise can’t seem to overcome. Where the game succeeds in finally opening itself up a little more, letting players explore and find the nitty-gritty of a setting, these series long issues become a little more prevalent. It’s never enough to ruin the game, but in the more free-roaming segments, NPC models, animations and scripted paths they take can be rough. While every entry in the series so far has in my opinion been taking leaps and bounds above the one prior, it’s a shame the tech still isn’t quite nailed.
Regardless, Deck Nine have absolutely stuck the landing with True Colors and made this one of the most memorable and moving adventures yet. Even with the small flaws, it’s well worth the price of admission.
While the original game remains a touchstone for me, Life is Strange: True Colors is the best iteration the series has seen yet. The narrative adventure also betters the diversity the franchise is already beloved for, providing an exceptional hero in an authentic, badass Asian-American woman that can be LGBTQ+ (should they so choose it). Filled to the brim with narrative and character twists at every turn, this is a game that made me laugh, cry and fall in love. With moments that hit like a bullet train, Life is Strange: True Colors is a must-play. Jump on in and feel all the feelings, friends. You’ll be glad you did.