Please note the following review contains some story spoilers for Life is Strange: True Colors concerning plot points already revealed in pre-release marketing. Some readers may wish the skip the second paragraph of this review to avoid these. It’s also completely safe to read the conclusion and review score at the bottom of the page, so you may prefer to skip straight to those instead.
After the release of Psychonauts 2 and now the newest Life is Strange title, it feels like a great time for video games to really explore the concept of empathy and how it can be translated into gameplay that serves a unique storytelling experience. One’s a goofy platformer that has players entering abstract worlds inside the minds of its characters, and one’s a narrative drama centred around a tragic death in a small town, but the two are surprisingly similar in their impact. Like Double Fine’s masterpiece adventure, Life is Strange: True Colors proves that video games still have plenty of untapped potential amongst entertainment mediums to make people feel things. So many things.
It all starts with Alex Chen. After being separated from her brother, Gabe, and moving through the foster system as a child, Alex eventually finds her opportunity to leave the care of a group home when Gabe tracks her down out of the blue. He invites Alex to stay with him in the small town of Haven Springs, Colorado where the two are finally reunited and everything seems to be on the up – until Gabe is killed in a tragic accident involving the mining corporation Typhon, that keeps Haven Springs alive. Not content with Typhon’s efforts to sweep the accident under the rug and go about business as usual, Alex decides to press the issue and get to the bottom of how events were allowed to unfold the way they did. She’s also got one hell of an ace up her sleeve when it comes to uncovering secrets – yep, it wouldn’t be Life is Strange without a cool superpower.
Like many of us, Alex can be described quite accurately as an empath. She’s uniquely attuned to the feelings of those around her and prone to mirroring those feelings should they be quite strong, but it runs much deeper than any real-life examples. Alex can see the auras of her peers’ emotions in vivid colour – red for anger, blue for sadness and purple for fear to name the most common examples – and her almost symbiotic connection to what they’re feeling can result in her taking on these feelings completely. The way this works within True Colors’ gameplay is that Alex is able to explore the deeper thoughts behind the words of Haven’s residents as she attempts to get to the truth. The way it manifests in the events of her story, well, those are best experienced fresh.
At the end of it all though, this is definitely the best use of ‘powers’ in the series to date, if not for the excellent storytelling mechanic then at least for the visually abstract encounters during sections where Haven’s residents experience emotions strong enough to pull Alex into a kind of mental realm (hello again, Psychonauts). The emotions that Alex can tap into aren’t limited to people either, objects around Haven will often have memories attached to them that can play a part in the main ‘objective’ at the time, contribute to optional content or just add flavour to the game world.
It’s still a narrative experience that moves along linearly, but there’s more opportunity than ever to not just explore your immediate surroundings but move around different areas and discover new things, make time for yourself, reflect on events, and just soak in the world. It’s not freedom for freedom’s sake, either. Whole character stories and morsels of context are tucked away in Haven’s popular spots and it’s entirely possible to ignore large portions of them by sticking to the critical path.
Deck Nine cleverly gives each moment the appropriate amount of breathing room, so you’ll regularly still be routed down the proper path, but when Alex does get the chance to pop her head into Jed’s bar or Charlotte’s weed dispensary it’s often worth doing. Even minor conversations between NPCs are that much more engaging because every bit of dialogue is more than set dressing, it’s another chance to drive home Alex’s experience by allowing her to peer into the history of other’s thoughts and feelings.
It’s still a narrative experience that moves along linearly, but there’s more opportunity than ever to not just explore your immediate surroundings but move around different areas and discover new things, make time for yourself, reflect on events, and just soak in the world
The only downside to True Colors’ more open exploration is that frequent (though not overly long) load screens going between rooms or buildings do become a nuisance, especially on a current-gen console where it’s something we’re used to seeing less of, but that’s a very minor criticism.
In bringing Haven Springs to life, Deck Nine’s artists have done an exemplary job of furthering the lightly-stylised and impasto-textured visual style that the series has refined over time, with True Colors nailing it on nearly all fronts. Environments are packed with detail and lovingly crafted, the whole town of Haven Springs feels lived in and dense with history. Incredible use of light and colour, plus the arthouse cinematography typical of Life is Strange brings it all together into a video game that’s frankly stunning to behold. There are, in honesty, some occasionally distracting low-res textures and awkward visual blemishes that’ll hopefully buff out in time, but nothing that takes away from the whole.
Every thought, every emotion – fleeting or otherwise – is made all the more impactful by the most convincing performances I’ve witnessed in the genre. Full performance capture plays a key role, with astounding results that the studio should be proud of, but bringing it home is a perfectly-picked cast who bring a level of humanity to each scene that’s nothing short of mesmerising. In true Life is Strange fashion, the soundtrack is exemplary and Alex is afforded ample chances to just kick back on a bench or a pier and watch the world go by as a poignant tune plays. Angus and Julia Stone (of Angus & Julia Stone fame) have crafted an entire new record just for this release and it fits the series’ tone to perfection. Alex gets a chance to show off her singing voice too, with artist mxmtoon lending the character her pipes for a couple of rousing covers.
If you’re lucky enough to be playing on a PS5 console, you’ll also notice subtle touches of adaptive trigger feedback as well as the lights on the front of the controller matching the relevant emotions on-screen which is a nice touch.
Of course a notable change in this new Life is Strange game is its release schedule – namely that it’s all out at once as opposed to the episodic format of old. In practice this makes less of a difference than you’d think, at least to the way in which the narrative flows, with events still portioned out over five distinct chapters that are each quite self-contained. The bonus is that fans don’t need to wait weeks or months for the next episode, it can be binged in one go from launch day, though the emotional breather between major events is mighty welcome given some of the shit that goes down.
Even at the halfway point I could already start to see choices I’d made early on that felt like natural, trivial things and would later haunt me not because they’d caused some ripple effect in a branching storyline but because in hindsight I hadn’t considered what my choices said about me. That’s something that’s never really captured in these types of games and it feels like a subtle but critical turning point for the franchise. It also meant that when those big decisions came around, many of them were nothing short of agonising, and I’d find myself forgetting about the mechanics of the game or trying to predict my potential outcomes and genuinely searching my soul for the answers.
The bonus is that fans don’t need to wait weeks or months for the next episode, it can be binged in one go from launch day
I often find myself drawn to Healer roles in games and RPGs, but had never expected to play one in a narrative adventure – LARP or otherwise. Alex Chen is very much a healer, and this game is about discovering how powerful empathy is in being able to heal not just those around her but herself as well. Alex is an infallible human, in my opinion. Not because she’s perfect, or even remotely has her shit together, but she gets it. She’s a proof-of-concept, a study that shows that truly understanding and empathising with those around us could only ever lead to a constant stream of acts of kindness.
I knew going in that True Colors was going to inspire more than a few tears from me, but I had no idea how many of those would be tears of joy and catharsis. I remember talking to the game’s Senior Staff Writer, Felice Kuan, and Alex’s voice actor, Erika Mori, ahead of release and telling them that as a fairly empathetic person myself the idea of playing a psychic empath sounded like “a fucking nightmare.” It’s definitely been an affecting experience, but thankfully a net positive one.
True Colors communicates not just the concept of empathy but the experience of being an empath in highly emotional situations. It’s also a stark reminder of how important, crucial even, it is to allow ourselves to feel not just for others but on behalf of them. People that are deep in their feelings, whether it’s anger, pain or even joy, aren’t always easy to deal with but it’s through understanding that relationships can grow and healing can start. It’s a lesson I’ve been learning for 30 years and somehow this one game condenses a lifetime of wisdom into a digestible, enjoyable and contemplative 8–10 hour experience.
Life is Strange: True Colors is food for the soul, a healing balm on the wounds held open by 18 months of isolation and a reminder of the transcendence of human connection over circumstance. It’s a lesson that’s timeless, but one that couldn’t have come at a better time. Through Alex Chen and her unique abilities, Deck Nine has crafted an experience that tells stories in an entirely new way, and one that affected me like little else has. True Colors is easily the best entry in the series and will no doubt serve as a benchmark for the future.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Deck Nine Interactive
- Square Enix
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC / Stadia
- September 10, 2021