One thing I did before writing this review was revisit my thoughts on Deck Nine’s previous spin-off, Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Initially I bristled at seeing the word “vibrant” in that piece because it’s exactly how I wanted to describe their new effort, Life is Strange: True Colors. But thinking about it, repeating that description makes sense because this developer has proved themselves able of creating consistently attractive settings for the Life is Strange universe (assuming we’re allowed to call it that).
Life is Strange: True Colors is a real beauty, with its fictional Colorado town of Haven featuring a gorgeous mix of hi-res hues supporting a central narrative theme of emotional colour. The story begins in a similar manner to Tell Me Why, with orphan Alex Chen reuniting with her brother after years of being separated by America’s foster care system. Alex is an empath possessing the supernatural power to read people’s emotions, and following a tragic accident upon her arrival in Haven, she starts using her gift to expose the mining corporation she believes is responsible.
When she’s not going all Jean Grey on witnesses and suspects, Alex is typically seen mumbling her way through conversations and introspective asides with the sort of ironic tone players have come to expect from a progressive series so besotted with geeky people thrust into stressful situations. In gameplay terms, this involves Alex exploring various locations and reading people for clues. Supposedly Alex can become emotionally engulfed if she gets too close to someone, but this potentially spicy drawback rarely means anything. Again, Tell Me Why had main characters with very similar abilities to this, but aside from not feeling terribly original, the controls for Alex’s power are weirdly unresponsive, making it feel like more of a gimmick than a defining character trait.
Tell Me Why is a good comparison here because Life is Strange: True Colors also struggles to present any interesting dilemmas in its opening chapter. Some promising conflict does eventually develop, but the story definitely lacks the killer instinct previous Life is Strange stories showed in their respective beginnings.
The developers still know how to make the major decisions seem important though. Even with the stakes feeling lower this time around, the moments when players must make a crucial decision are still presented effectively enough to give pause. Additionally, Alex’s world is constantly developing around her, whether it’s via saucy text messages on her mobile phone, or the wealth of side stories and relationships awaiting her input. It’s the sort of gaming future Yu Suzuki was predicting two decades ago in Shenmue, only much thirstier!
Special mention must be made for the superb sound mixing, which comes into full register during the Wavelengths prequel featuring Alex’s friend Steph as she manages Haven’s local record store. This DLC episode (which ships with the deluxe edition of Life is Strange: True Colors) explores character-driven stories in a confined space to reasonable effect, even if it is a somewhat drowsy experience overall.
That description sums up Life is Strange: True Colors regrettably well. There are certainly glimpses of a compelling game here. For example, the chapter where Alex explores the mind of a scrappy comic book artist as part of an elaborate LARP session (complete with RPG battle mechanics) is inspired stuff. But such upbeat material clashes awkwardly with Alex’s quest for justice, to the point where the wider story loses momentum and purpose.
This criticism is painfully illustrated in the final chapter where the game is brought to a standstill during a long and meandering dream sequence leading to a final decision that’s difficult to care about. And on a personal note for the writers: paying homage to tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons may seem fun, but remember listening to other people relate their own role-playing adventures is a total drag, even if it is in video game form!
Seriously though, at 10 hours of main story time, Life is Strange: True Colors is the perfect length, so it’s worth a try if you’re a fan of the series. For everyone else, read my emotions to learn how intensely and positively meh I feel about the whole thing.
Life is Strange: True Colors on Steam »