Life is Strange’s premise as a franchise is simple: a drama reflecting the real world, with the caveat of a protagonist having some type of “superpowers.” Perhaps it’s a “curse,” if you choose to describe it through the lips of Alex Chen, the protagonist of True Colors. In this case, Alex can sense emotions; stronger emotions appear as aura, and there are other little nuances that you unlock through gameplay.
That power is by no means going to be your concern every moment of the game, as the true force of True Colors is the world around the superpowered protagonist. The focus on modern characters, settings, and story that made the Life is Strange anthology a success returns in True Colors, this time via a small American town.
If you’re new, there’s no need for backstory, as this is its own deal that you can hop right into with no prior knowledge of LiS games. But is Life is Strange: New Colors worth the trek to new lands?
Riveting and Bingeable
Alex is an orphan who has been in a shelter until her brother, separated eight years before, finds her and invites her to live with him. The game starts upon her arrival in Haven Springs, Colorado, a proper “small town” where much of the commerce and income comes from a major mining corporation. And while it’s technically spoilers, the marketing of the game discusses her brother’s death, which becomes the driving point of the game’s story.
As always, Life is Strange divides its story into chapters. However, in True Colors, all five main chapters were made available at launch. It’s a change from the former episodic releases of the Life is Strange games, which tended to release with pauses of three or more months, not including development delays. I’ll admit, I much prefer this format in the era of bingeable media. It felt like barreling through a riveting Netflix show, one that I could choose to explore more deeply and spend more time with if I truly wanted. And it didn’t feel too long, either, though I wish there were more chapters to pace out certain scenes and points better.
Speaking of dramas, Life Is Strange, as always, does a fantastic job centering itself on the “drama” aspect less than the “modern fantasy” aspect without sacrificing the latter. The Empathy trait plays into both the actual world of the game and the player’s understanding of it extremely well.
The plot this all centers around is Netflix-worthy, too. The first chapter feels like it jumped the shark a bit when you dig too deep into the premise, but the execution feels relatively natural regardless. Once you get over this, the rest of the plot plays out at a reasonable pace and feels like a mystery worth pursuing. It’s not all stuffed into a few days, either; text messages and social media posts provide more context about time passed and interactions that need not happen in-person. It makes some of the grieving that happens feel more real.
Getting to know the characters is an important part of Life is Strange, and they’re all frankly lovable, even the ones I love to hate. Alex herself is definitely a “chaotic bisexual;” in short, she dishes out great one-liners and is, as the kids would say, “relatable” in an authentic way. In the short time you know him, Alex’s brother Gabe easily demonstrates why the whole town ends up mourning him. And both romantic options, Ryan and Steph, have unique enough personalities that make them endearing as both friends and potential partners. I even began to wonder about background characters that would loiter or say hi, and characters displayed in antagonistic light had their points of sympathy. As much as I enjoyed the mystery of Haven Springs alone, the cast really kept me coming back.
The game does plenty of exploration of the wider themes that set the premise for Alex’s character: living life as an impoverished Asian, the troubles that come from a troubled childhood, the neglected lives of orphans. While I can’t speak on the full experience of parentlessness, the teams behind the Life is Strange titles tend to put some care (and not-so-subtle presentation) into its difficult, if often secondary, subjects: suicide in the first game, racism and xenophobia in the second. But in all cases, while the messages behind them are often blunt, they lay an interesting, necessary foundation to the game’s characters and give them fuller life and soul.
On a lighter note, the atmosphere of the game was quite lovely as well, from scenery to music. Leading up to True Colors’ release, I’d received frequent emails from the Square Enix press team about the importance of music, and I felt it from the second Alex pulled into Haven Springs. There’s plenty of diegetic music, existing within the world of the game, that played an important part in many scenes. In short, a lot of great musical and sound design choices. The graphics were also gorgeous; I recommend leveraging some of the “sit” points to soak in the mix of music and setting.
If you’ve played the first Life is Strange, this may all feel like oddly familiar praise. I’ll admit to not having fully played the second game introduced, but a lot of the complexity that Life is Strange 2 introduced seemed to vanish. Maybe it’s for the better, as the first LiS was damn strong on its own, and falling back to the strengths is always a safe strategy. This just meant that True Colors had to do those things well, and I’d argue Deck Nine, which took over the franchise and absorbed some of DONTNOD’s original LiS team and Telltale Studios staff, accomplished this.
Future Life is Strange games are going to have a hard time following up from the Empathy power. As you progress, just like other Life is Strange installations, Empathy starts to play a more direct role in the story. You help figure out why others are feeling a certain way through extended interactions, using objects connected to their moods to understand past actions and rationales. By the end, you can also take their emotions for yourself, relieving them of that burden.
It makes for an engaging, lived-in world. As a collectibles bonus, you’re able to gather “memories” that give you history on certain major characters. These are entirely optional, but they feel like they exist in lieu of messily-placed flashbacks. Plus, NPCs throughout the streets are often interactable, and you get to intrude just a bit into what they’re thinking. In some cases, you can even assist them in their menial tasks and conundrums.
When using these powers in major scenes, it feels like the game asks you—are their emotions yours to feel? Where and when is empathy too much? You often do help when it feels essential for the moment, but at the other pivotal moments when your power becomes a choice, the choice taps into your real-life empathy. Like any good pick-your-own-adventure game, you’re left to think about what the consequences of your actions are. In the case of True Colors, the game does a splendid job with not making certain “questionable” choices feel punishing.
I’ll also admit that perhaps my praise of the decision-making narrative is biased due to my outcomes. Every outcome, even the ones I had no idea diverged, seemed to align with what I wanted. At the time I played, less than a week after the global release, only 11% of players had achieved what one would consider the “best ending” in the game’s major climax. And as I browsed the other endings, it was a frequent theme: a lot of players didn’t achieve many of the things I had.
But maybe I achieved these things because the “empathy” that the studio claims to want to teach was already there. Not to toot my own horn (and I’m really sorry because I sort of am), but I wanted to genuinely understand and sympathize with everyone. It made a lot of the harder choices that I knew were really right more difficult. Normally, I’m just really frank in my video game dialogue choices. Yet honesty isn’t always “right,” and a few choices in this game really emphasized this thought. When two of these choices felt like it accumulated into a good ending—and when one character praised the protagonist for a positive trait affiliated with their choice—I sighed out a breath of relief.
Does Life is Strange: True Colors teach empathy? I’d argue no, it gamifies it. Hell, I’m clearly gamifying it already. But it reminds you that there are consequences to even the most well-intended, like plenty of other fantastic modern choose-your-own-adventure, dialogue-based games, or “walking simulators,” or whatever else you’d call them tend to manage. (A “live-in drama?” “Drama game?” I dunno. We need a better name for these.)
I played True Colors on the PlayStation 5, because (1) that was apparently the code we had; (2) I wanted to see how a game like this, which is often hand-crafted with love by a smaller studio, is handled by the monster of a console; and (3) I just wanted to lie down on my apartment’s new futon-sofa. Generally, True Colors was fine on the PC, but there was certainly fraying at the seams.
My biggest complaint is a two-parter of complaints about cutscene design and rendering speed for a whopping mega-sized “immersion” complaint. I think True Colors attempts to render too fast for its own good, which is worrying because it already takes a lot of time to load each new screen. I had a lot of instances where a cutscene would simply cut away in a jarring manner, with no music nor cutscene fading, which was just poor direction. But when many other cutscenes loaded back in, characters and the like would be missing and load in a second or two later.
There were also some less-than-mild, noticeable bugs throughout. I forgot to keep track of all of them, but plenty were jarring in my memory. In the third chapter, the skin texture of the kid accompanying Alex turned black, followed by several crashes in transitions between areas. Another memorable one was an NPC perpetually walking in the background of the fourth chapter. I remember dialogue that I knew wasn’t meant to be there popping up (which I remember as a bug in the first game). I also experienced quite a few full-game crashes, which was bearable due to the autosave feature, but still.
Some good news is that at least the game looked absolutely gorgeous in high-definition, or whatever you call “sort of 4k but not really.” This was definitely not a game meant to be scaled up to 4k, but it really did its best, and it was nice for it. More bad news is that it still took quite a few seconds to load. Like, was I really playing a PS5 at that point?
I’m still calling it “playable” on the PS5 regardless. Is it generous? Probably. The crashes were annoying, but, again, autosave. And yes, I did have to sit through buggy textures for one major character for an entire chapter. To me, it’s such a slow-paced game (not in a bad way) that I didn’t really feel particularly affected. With the magic of PS5’s half-decent loading times, I could easily pop back where I left off.
If you were already a fan of Life is Strange, then Haven Springs is absolutely worth a visit. True Colors doesn’t introduce much new, but it continues the series’ strongest points in a powerful new story that’s sure to have you chasing it down until the very end. And while the PlayStation 5 performance left a lot to be desired, it didn’t discount the experience enough to stop me from playing. Alex Chen will have a place in my heart for a good while.