Life is Strange: True Colors Review – The Power of Empathy

There’s nothing else quite like a new Life is Strange game. The series has become an unlikely enduring hit, with its relatable characters, rich settings, and great YA stories providing resonant themes to pretty much everyone. Life is Strange: True Colors pretty much delivers on all the aspects fans expect from a new Life is Strange game – it’s got great characters, a wonderfully realized Americana setting, a cool power to put a spin on regular narrative adventure style gameplay, and a central mystery to keep you engaged through it all.

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It’s also a big departure for the series in more than one ways – this is the first new entry not developed by the folks at Dontnod (who created the original and the sequel). Rather, Deck Nine has taken over for this one. Given those folks were behind the excellent Before the Storm, True Colors was always going to be in good hands – but some caution was warranted, of course. It’s also the very first game not to be released episodically, instead releasing as a whole upfront. Given the episodic nature of the other games in the series actually informed the directions the developers took the plots of those games in, that element is certainly lost here.

You can imagine why people may have had cause for concern with True Colors, but it genuinely comes through, and provides an engaging and reenergized adventure that’s resonant and affecting in all the right ways.

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“Alex’s messier and darker past and disposition also make her starkly and uniquely different from Max, helping her not feel like a retread, and more than any other protagonist in the series, Alex feels like she can develop into uniquely distinct personalities depending on what responses and actions you choose for her over the course of the game.”

True Colors returns to the original Life is Strange’s style of having one setting for the plot, in this case, small mining town Haven Springs, Colorado. Haven Springs is a gorgeously rendered and realized town, and you can almost feel yourself being there tactilely through the senses – you can almost hear the small town chatter as you walk through the streets, you can smell the smell of fallen golden leaves with the onset of Fall, you can feel yourself actually inhabiting it as a real, honest to goodness place. The original Life is Strange game benefitted incredibly from its setting of Arcadia Bay – the iconic town became a character unto itself, and richly informed and benefitted the stories and characters set within it. While it remains to be seen whether or not Haven Springs becomes as iconic and enduring as Arcadia Bay did in the long run, in the here and now, it’s a fantastic setting, and a huge benefit to its game (also simultaneously addressing one of the issues with Life is Strange 2 in giving players a constant setting to get attached to).

Equally well realized are the characters themselves – while I will continue to insist that no protagonist the series has had has ever lived up to just how wonderful a character Max was in the original game, Alex is pretty damn compelling herself. Her messier and darker past and disposition also make her starkly and uniquely different from Max, helping her not feel like a retread, and more than any other protagonist in the series, Alex feels like she can develop into uniquely distinct personalities depending on what responses and actions you choose for her over the course of the game, which definitely contributes to giving the player a sense of ownership over her, and over the direction the story takes.

Alex also has the most interesting power a Life is Strange protagonist has had since the original. While the game’s “the power of empathy” marketing might have induced cringes among many, True Colors actually pulls it off pretty well. Essentially, Alex is an empath, highly tuned into the emotions of those surrounding her, to the extent that she internalizes them and responds to them as if they are her own. This can naturally get problematic when she is around anyone feeling a surge of particularly strong sentiment, especially negative sentiment – the exact fears and thoughts and insecurities and anxieties and angers of those people can threaten to overwhelm her and her consciousness, and often causes her to have breakdown episodes, or act in less than spurious ways.

In terms of gameplay applications, True Colors is pretty smart in how it handles this power. People who are feeling strong emotions have auras surrounding them, and Alex can at any point choose to focus on them and home in on what they’re feeling and thinking. This gives Alex snippets of their stream of consciousness, so she actually knows what others are thinking. And this can, in turn, help inform the player in what dialog options they want to choose when they engage with them.

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“True Colors returns to the original Life is Strange’s style of having one setting for the plot, in this case, small mining town Haven Springs, Colorado. Haven Springs is a gorgeously rendered and realized town, and you can almost feel yourself being there tactilely through the senses – you can almost hear the small town chatter as you walk through the streets, you can smell the smell of fallen golden leaves with the onset of Fall, you can feel yourself actually inhabiting it as a real, honest to goodness place.”

In this regard, the power in True Colors comes close to replicating the brilliance of the time travel of the original game. One of the reasons Life is Strange’s time bending powers were so beloved was because they had such a meta implication on the game’s structure and how it was played. While Life is Strange was a Telltale style narrative adventure game, it allowed players to see what the consequences to their actions and dialog choices would be, and then choose otherwise – essentially, a player could make an informed choice before they committed to anything. In the game’s most memorable moments, that power was also taken away from the player, lending even more weight to their actions then.

True Colors’ power isn’t as good, but it does achieve something similar. Having an idea of what others are thinking or feeling helps the player decide how they want to deal with them – and also raises some interesting implications about emotional manipulation within the context of the story, and of Alex’s powers.

There are other aspects to Alex’s powers too. Going back to the other characters, they feel even more richly fleshed out than the norm for this series because now you are literally privy to their thoughts, and you can put yourself in their heads. This, again, contributes to one of the richest casts and settings the series has ever had, and helps draw the player in and instantly engage them – aided, of course, by remarkably strong and authentic writing, where people feel like actual people, and talk like actual people, rather than video game characters. The one exception to this I will say is their thoughts, which are presented less as thoughts and more as dialog for the benefit of anyone listening in – but of course, writing thought authentically wouldn’t really be conducive to the gameplay mechanics of how the game leverages empathy, so you can see why that concession was made.

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“Other characters, they feel even more richly fleshed out than the norm for this series because now you are literally privy to their thoughts, and you can put yourself in their heads. This, again, contributes to one of the richest casts and settings the series has ever had, and helps draw the player in and instantly engage them.”

It’s for the best that the characters and setting are so enriched and compelling, because True Colors does repeat a mistake Life is Strange 2 made – which is, it lacks a central and compelling mystery from the get go. This is actually an important point – one of the reasons the original Life is Strange is so arresting from the get go is that from the very first moment, a broader mystery outside of the main narrative is presented to the player, in the form of Max’s visions, and the news she keeps hearing of serial disappearances around town. That central mystery, and the great setting and characters, was a one-two combo that instantly drew the player in. True Colors definitely benefits from really strong characters and a great setting – but it lacks a central mystery for much of its opening, with a narrative “hook” so to say only appearing towards the end of the first chapter. Again, this isn’t much of an issue – as mentioned, the characters and setting are great enough that they have pulled you in with just how remarkably cozy and authentic they all feel – but it’s definitely a step down from having all of that, and an instant mystery to keep player curiosity piqued.

Even with that, however, True Colors is definitely a great game worth going through. It’s the most polished game in the series yet, it looks absolutely gorgeous, the VA and music are on point (as is always the case), the gameplay formula has been polished to a sheen (and players actually get more to do than ever now, with some fun mini games to engage in peppered in), and the sheer number of accessibility options on offer to ensure everyone can come along for the ride are admirable. Sure, the lack of a central mystery, or the prescience of these games’ illusion of choice, can definitely be held against the game in the end – but honestly, I think Haven Springs is worth a visit, warts and all, and that those who do visit will find a lovely, affecting, and engaging story that is absolutely among the strongest showings this series has ever had.

This game was reviewed on Xbox One.


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