The Life is Strange franchise is a curious piece of work. It specifically engages with fascinating concepts, often ones confronting difficult themes that largely affects marginalised communities. From racism to child abuse, trauma to immigration, it is a franchise unafraid to deal with these themes as part of the games’ plot.
Life is Strange games are about young people – either in high school or early university student age – encountering a hostile world of dangerous adults but who have some sort of power on their side to help confront said world. It is, in fact, somewhat similar in theme to Persona 5, but really that’s where any similarity to that massive JRPG game ends. It’s a third-person, narrative adventure, focusing on character dramas, with dark twists and memorable NPCs.
True Colors was not developed by original creators, Dontnod. Instead, it was put in the hands of Deck Nine, who have carved out a related character-driven focus for their titles. They previously handled the prequel Before the Storm, centering it on Chloe – the love interest/friend from the original game. However, in Before the Storm, there was no supernatural aspect. This missing element did not detract from the enjoyability and weirdness of the title, at all – it showed me that Deck Nine do not need to leverage the supernatural in order to tell their Life is Strange story.
And to some extent I wish that was the case with True Colors.
In the latest entry, set in a fictional Colorado town, main character Alex has the ability to read and influence emotions. This is portrayed through the titular colours emanating from people when they feel high levels of a particular emotion: a red aura around the very angry, for example. Alex feels these emotions herself but, more importantly, the extreme levels give her an insight into people’s minds: she can literally hear their thoughts and desires and problems. This begins her superhero origin story since she can hear what’s causing someone anxiety or fear and solve it.
I wish they had leaned into Alex as maybe a kind of psychic addict rather than hero, however. I was hoping that Alex gets some kind of kick out of helping that can only be fulfilled when she abates someone’s extreme emotions – and this yearning gets more and more extreme, such that she has to battle it within herself. Everything I’ve described about Alex is merely normal human interaction but exaggerated for story reasons: Thus we all feel others’ anger and all get a kick out of helping. But I thought, for Alex, the “kick” would lead to her being a kind of addict, seeking out others. It would also have gone a long way to explain why she ends up literally manipulating people since she can take charge of their emotions or remove someone’s extreme emotions altogether. The game does not really interrogate this nor play with the powers enough to make it a point of contention. In fact, had there been no powers at all, I can see little as to how the game would be different. Right now, Alex’s powers to feel others emotions are sometimes a cheat to subvert the harder but more honest method of speaking to others or respectfully staying out of others’ business.
In the original Life is Strange, Max’s powers literally start the entire chain of events that save her girlfriend/friend’s life to possibly destroying an entire town. It’s built into the very DNA of the plot. I felt this was not so with True Colors.
However, aside from this, the game is excellent. Deck Nine’s beautiful portrayal of a small mountain town is a wonder to behold. Diverse characters, of different ethnicities and sexualities all interact, with their identities rarely being a point of contention itself. Instead what is in contention are people’s actions, not their identities – which is far better and less traumatising for BIPOC players.
Alex arrives in this sleepy town to meet her brother, to try restart her life. She meets a cast of colourful characters and begins ingratiating herself into this life. Of course, things take a tragic turn and everything begins collapsing. The friendly network of a supportive community becomes a barbed fence of animosity, as secrets, frailties and dark design are dragged out into the light. The big twist is quite well set up and played in a very nuanced, thoughtful way.
True Colors told my favourite Life is Strange story due primarily to Alex – performed perfectly by newcomer Erika Mori. The story itself is quite intriguing albeit somewhat predictable in terms of twist. Deck Nine also took a deep dive into psychological horror, showing off their skills in terms of portrayal of pain and confusion. As an avid horror fan, I was impressed by the artistic choices used to convey all manner of emotions characters experienced.
There are no puzzles to solve, as this is more a narrative adventure than your classic point and click adventure stories. Choices do come back to haunt you – for example: leaving someone’s anger to manifest or taking away their anger but without their consent and being able to work through it. But we’re not talking Bioware levels of choice ramifications.
This is a visually-stunning, well-written and often mortifying experience. Expect tears. The game also does not overstay its welcome, with just 9-10 hours of play. If you loved the previous entries, you’ll be blown away by where Deck Nine has gone. It’s just a pity the “power” itself was very secondary and, often times, felt like a bit of a cheat.
(Reviewed on PS5: Review code provided by publisher.)