For those of you keeping track, my opinion of the franchise of Life is Strange has been basically on a downhill trend ever since its inception. I quite liked the original by devs DontNod and then also kinda-sorta liked the prequel Before the Storm, but believe it was basically ruined by an absolutely garbage ending where the only possible excuse could be that the studio ran out of time and money. At the time I sort of dismissed BtS as just a side-show given that it was made by DeckNine and hoped that the “proper” sequel of Life is Strange 2 (again by DontNod) would again be good again…
And we know how that turned out…
Given that Life is Strange: True Colours was once again returning the questionably capable hands of DeckNine I had basically all but written off this current instalment in the franchise and it is, again, one of those games I only played because it was on Game Pass.
I saw this is me giving the franchise a last chance. Playing it for an hour or two so I could laughingly chat to my friends about how absolutely dreadful the series has become and questioning how it continues to drag its corpse onwards.
In case the tone of this hasn’t been clear, allow me to now clarify: I now have a fairly decent amount of egg on my face because I actually think True Colours might be the best game in the LiS franchise, full stop.
So, now that DontNod absolutely ballsed up the “proper” sequel and DeckNine kinda fucked their first attempt at a side entry… Who the fuck do we actually trust with these games any more?!
In True Colours you play as Alex Chen, an early twenty-something/late-teens? girl who has been in the foster system most of her teenage life and has just been rediscovered by her older brother Gabe who has brought her out to live with him in the tiny Colorado mining town of Haven Springs. After having been separated for many years of their life the early game is all about building a relationship with your older brother and the community of Haven Springs. In true LiS fashion it’s all about self-actualisation and discovering one’s “place” in the world, with Alex starting to form relationships with others in the tight-knit small town.
Like every other game in the series, True Colours is a narrative-driven game in which the gameplay primarily consists of making dialogue and story decisions broken up occasionally with 3rd-person exploration and interaction sequences. It has its niche, y’know, let’s not judge…
On top of this, True Colours continues the use of supernatural powers in the LiS series, with Alex having the ability to “feel” other people’s emotions. Whenever she is close to someone who is feeling a particularly strong emotion such as anger or grief, she shares that emotion and feels it herself, to the point that you are told that as a child she has lost control on multiple occasions because of other people’s emotions overwhelming her own.
Now, if you are anything like me, that whole premise might make you roll your eyes a little bit given the current social climate. Basically, she’s a superpowered “empath”…? Her superpower is empathy? Wooowwwww… I’ll call the Game Awards because of just how sensitive and nuanced that particular bit of story-telling is… I’ll also say that the game somewhat plays a little fast and loose with the rules of her own power. At first, it’s just “she feels the strong emotions of others and they overwhelm her” but this quickly drifts into what is basically mind-reading as her powers develop.
As has been the case with every other LiS, a big portion of True Colours is Alex learning how to control and use her powers. Seeing them as less of a “curse” and more of as a blessing. Of course, that’s just standard fare for LiS. I think it’s supposed to be some kind of allegory for growing up, self-acceptance and all that blah blah blah, but what do we care about that? Superpowers! Woo! Honestly, the amount of times you see someone get a superpower and they go all “woe is me I’m no longer boring and normal and instead have this ability to make cars float with my mind, I should hate myself for that…” It’s exhausting!
Interestingly, one of the very few things that I was perhaps a little bit unsure about was the fact that it doesn’t really feel like Alex can’t control her powers. Sure, very early on we see her lose control as you are told she does regularly, but from this point on it actually seems like she gets to grip with her abilities extremely quickly. To be clear, this isn’t exactly a negative, but keep it in mind as it’s something I will touch on again later.
Despite my constant cynicism and the somewhat unspecified nature of the rules surrounding Alex’s powers, I have to admit that actually as time went on I got kind of into it. It’s not quite as straight-forward as just reading someone’s mind, so the concept of being able to figure out people’s emotional state and then using that to comfort them or manipulate them or soothe them, it’s actually a pretty neat idea and one which I think was delivered pretty fucking well. There are several moments in the game surrounding another character’s extremely intense emotions which were surprisingly touching and poignant and left a bit of an impression on me as you are tasked, as Alex, to somehow look after the individual in question.
Just as an aside, perhaps we shouldn’t really think too much about the fact that Alex’s power essentially seems to be to figure out when someone is feeling emotional and vulnerable and manipulate them into a different mental state… Maybe for the best to not get too deep with that train of thought…
It’s also now time I’ll reveal the second dose of egg on my face in the form of the core gameplay setting of True Colours. I think I said during Life is Strange 1 that I found all the teenage drama and whining to be just simply tiresome, but then during Life is Strange 2 which was more about constant movement and drama and “BIG” stakes I found myself wishing for a smaller-scale story with more teenage drama.
Well, True Colours has finally solidified my thinking here. It turns out that teenage drama is a big “yes” in games like this. It seems like my frustration with the original game was probably more to do with how much of a wallflower protagonist Max was and how much of a rebel without a cause Chloe was. Meanwhile the grander scope of Life is Strange 2 actually is simply an outright bad idea for a game of this type.
Games like this absolutely 100% benefit from a consistent cast of characters with whom the player can form relationships and if there is drama on a small and believable slice-of-life scale, then that actually makes the whole story feel that much more immersive and interesting. It is simply much more relatable to think about Alex having to make her new life in this tiny middle-of-nowhere town than it ever was thinking about Sean’s dramatic attempts to escape to Mexico. The small scale story allows the characters to grow and allows the player to become invested in their lives, and that’s far better at drawing me in.
In comparison to the original LiS, it almost certainly helps, that Alex is an exceptional main character. She’s quietly spoken, and reserved, as is common for the protagonists of the series. But unlike the others thus far she feels strong and driven. Outside of the effects of her powers, she is cool and collected, she faces things rationally and sensibly and isn’t prone to curling up on herself at the very first sign of trouble. Of course, I get that part of the draw of the previous games has been that teenagers are supposed to be uncertain and shy and are constantly struggling with their place in the world, but I have to say it’s just kinda refreshing to play as a character here who feels like she somewhat has her shit together and wouldn’t fall over in the smallest gust of wind.
This isn’t to say that Alex is some infallible superheroine out of Marvel either, she has her own depth and flaws, but I simply found her a much more engaging character than I had initially expected.
I think a big part of my engagement with True Colours is that it just feels really well written. The characters feel nuanced and interesting, in particular the romance options of big-boi Ryan or the musical Steph are really fun characters to interact with and there were several moments with both of them, small and large, that were just extremely memorable. Incidentally, Steph is best girl and I will fight anyone who says otherwise… But even outside of these two, every other major character you interact with is just really well-written and interesting.
It’s not just characters either, but the central driving narrative of the game is also just really engaging. Despite what I’ve already said about it being “small” in scope, there is definitively major stakes at play. But again, these feel like real stakes, things you could relate to in a setting like this and the way that Alex decides to deal with her struggles also just quite simply make sense.
I think a decent indication of how well written one of these games is in the decision-making. If too many of the decisions show very obvious bias towards one choice then that suggests that there is often a choice which is the “correct” one and one which is quite simply bad and that most people obviously agree with that assessment. In True Colours, I agonised over at least a couple of choices and had a few in-depth discussions about why to pick one over the other, and that to me is the sign of a game that is giving you meaningful and important decisions.
There are a few twists and turns in the game too and some small character moments and decisions which are built up carefully and then resolved over the course of it all and really it just feels like a really tightly-designed story. There’s conflict, there’s resolution, there’s drama and all of it actually feels reasonable and not like something that could be resolved after two minutes of conversation… DID YOU HEAR THAT SEAN? You absolute fucking melodramatic piece of…
I think the only aspects of the story I really struggled with is something I’ve already touched on and that was Alex’s past. Throughout the game you deal with a conspiracy that is goes to the heart of the Haven Springs community, whilst also learning more about Alex’s history and her life with Gabe prior to their separation. However, this culminates in a whole sequence of Alex having a small break-down which actually almost feels unearned… Yes, you are aware this is likely regularly in the back of Alex’s mind, but it never feels like something she is constantly grappling with behind the scenes, so I feel like they actually almost made Alex quite simply too strong. Where having a break-down felt almost out-of-character for her. She’s Alex-mofucking-Chen bitch! She ain’t got time for your pansy-ass issues!
It’s also somewhat worth saying that the game doesn’t even remotely have the same issues with the shoe-horning of politics the previous game suffered. There are small touches of this, but it’s all done through the in-menu social media thing, which is extremely unobtrusive and actually feels much more real than the overblown elements from LiS2.
In terms of aesthetic the game has a lot going for it. It continues the trend of the series of using “realistic”-looking models and facial expressions but done in a sort of cartoon style. Something that I really noticed this time though is the attention to detail with facial expressions. There were several moments during dialogue where one of the characters would make these kind of small subtle changes to their expression that just absolutely had my brain going “hey, that’s a real person right there” which leads me to believe an absolutely obscene amount of work must have gone into them.
One moment in particular in the final chapter of the game really blew my mind with the intensity of emotion displayed simply from the character’s expression. If that had been acting it would have won awards!
The setting of Haven Springs is also quite simply lovely. It could not BE more idyllic if it tried. To the point that actually for the first two chapters I was convinced that this was a going to be a Hot Fuzz-type bit. I mean, if you ever visit a town and it’s literally absolutely picture perfect and it has the absolutely perfect community of people who are all wonderful and lovely and best friends and all look out for each other (like the American Dream says you should) then immediately my British instincts kick in and assume something is wrong behind the scenes. The town council must all be vampires. Everyone being nice has an agenda. The flowers everywhere actually release mind-controlling pollen. But nope… It’s just a nice town with nice people, living away from a big city…
Oh… That… That can’t be right, surely?
Regardless, when you eventually settle into the game, that same idyllic and peaceful setting makes Haven Springs just a delight to play in. It feels wholesome and inviting and friendly, and honestly, that’s just kinda nice…
Of course, I have to add here that the fact that the devs still include those small segments where you can sit down and have an internal monologue while the game pans around the scenery is still a little bit self-indulgent and cringe-worthy. Listening to a “I am 14 and this is deep” monologue while the game devs scream “look at how pretty this scenery I made is” is just a bit silly and makes my eyes roll up into the back of my head.
While the aesthetic is great I will add that the music is standard indie, twangy guitar which is just not precisely my jam. It suits the game to a T, but it’s nothing I can really write home about.
In terms of nit-picks, I do have a few. The first you’ll have to take with a pretty significant pinch of salt because of my hearing loss. While I enjoyed the voice acting performances, at times, particularly in the first couple of chapters, it felt like the characters were not really “interacting” as such. Instead, it would be like one character would say a line of dialogue and then the other would say a line of dialogue. Just two people talking to the air instead of speaking back and forth. There was something about it that just seemed ever-so-slightly off, like the voice actors weren’t really having a back and forth with it. Maybe this was all in my head though, but I’d be interested to hear if others also experienced this…
Another nit is that the game costs £50. FIFTY FUCKING POUNDS? I’m sorry, I’m well aware that this is the price for triple-A these days, but frankly True Colours does not feel like it is “triple-A”. It still has those indie vibes that I got from the previous instalments. Honestly, this is actually one of the biggest detractors of the game for me right now given that I would probably recommend it whole-heartedly, but am not sure I would pay that full cost for it.
And incidentally, the fact that the game sells cosmetic DLC outfits for Alex at £3 a pop is taking absolutely INORDINATE amounts of piss.
Honestly, I have to admit to being totally taken off-guard by True Colours. I genuinely had a few moments of feeling “wow I’m totally into this” as the game progressed and that meant that a number of the emotional moments of the game just really hit me pretty hard. Plus, it then ended on a really nice and satisfying note which just put a bow on the whole experience. Genuinely, this is a game which reminded me why I like the story-driven decision-making genre so much in the first place!
· Genuinely great writing and characterisation which has easily pushed this to the top spot of the series in my estimation
· Drama and stakes do not feel ridiculous or over-the-top and also feel inherently believable
· Despite the possibility of the premise being a bit airy-fairy, the emotional superpower actually works surprisingly well
· Doesn’t fall into the trap of being overly political like the previous game
· Wonderful and simply wholesome aesthetic and plot sequences
· Steph best grill
· Feels massively overpriced for what it is and that’s really hard to get over
· Voice acting sometimes doesn’t feel like “dialogue” as much as two people talking at the air
· I swear, I know I should expect it in these games, but twangly indie guitar just does not do it for Seb
· Even now the setting just feels too damned wholesome for its own good