REVIEW: ‘Life is Strange: True Colors’ Brings Catharsis and Empathy (XSX)

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Life is Strange True Colors

As a series, Life is Strange has a reputation for immersing players in a story that connects them deeply to the world they’re playing in. Whether that is through player choice, dialogue, or tough subjects, the series has proven to put an emotive experience at the forefront of player experience. Life is Strange; True Colors runs with that. The game uses empathy, not just as a way to immerse you in a new world, but push you to confront elements of mental health and relationship building that can have a lasting effect even when you put down the controller.

Life is Strange: True Colors is developed by Deck Nine and published by Square Enix. A single-player choice driven experience, the game’s protagonist is Alex Chen, an empath whose ability to feel other’s emotions both helps and hurts those around her as well as herself. Seen as a “curse,” Alex has tried to keep her supernatural ability to experience, absorb, and manipulate others’ emotions surpassed. Living up to its name, Life is Strange: True Colors uses color auras as both an atmospheric part of storytelling (red for anger, blue for sadness, purple for fear) and as a mechanic for exploration and fulfillment.

In the game, you are Alex, a woman reuniting with her brother after nearly a decade of separation due to the foster care system in Haven, Colorado. Haven is a small mining town that’s home to a cast of characters who are intricately woven together through her brother Gabe’s life. While Haven was supposed to just be a step towards finding their missing father, but Gabe transformed it into a home. This impacted those around him and helped create a new sense of family amongst his friends. As Alex, you step into this. You reconnect with your brother and explore new friendships, and through player choice you can be as open or as apprehensive as you want.

While there are pieces of Life is Strange: True Colors that focus on Alex making Haven a home like her brother did, whether that be through friendship or romance, there is a tapestry of mysteries to be solved. The game’s core mystery is Gabe’s “accident.” When Gabe dies in a so-called accident, Alex finds herself embracing her power to find the truth. The narrative around the push for truth works in two ways; the first allows us to see Alex push for justice from a mining company that has long proven to not care about the lives Haven’s citizens and the second allows us to explore grief.

This connection between emotion and story beats is where Life is Strange: True Colors shines. Sure, there are a lot of games where you solve mysteries and a big bad corporation hurting a mining town isn’t a first, but that really isn’t the focus. Every chapter after Gabe’s death puts Alex and you directly in front of grief. Whether its your own, or from others, you use your power to explore a spectrum of emotions that erupted after Gabe’s death. We see grief manifest as fear, guilt, regret, and even the pain that can come from wholesome and important memories. Sure, you’re trying to uncover the town’s deep dark secret, but Deck Nine never loses the human component in the story.

Additionally, Alex’s life and past are also a mystery. At the beginning of the game, we see Alex in therapy talking about an event coded as traumatic or at the very least unsettling. Then we’re in Haven, with no more information given. Through dialogue choices, particularly in the game’s first chapter, which serves a vital foundation for understanding Alex as a character, we begin to see more of who Alex is. While yes, you craft her responses depicting eagerness, apprehension, love, friendship, anger, and more, there is always a certain level of mystery to who Alex is.

As a way to deliver more exposition in a playable way, the game features a cell phone mechanic with two options. The first is a social media timeline that allows you to see how NPCs interact with each other in relation to the story (and outside of it). The second is a text screen. Here, you can read conversations, not just from Alex’s present but from her past as well. If you do choose to read past text messages though, you should proceed with some caution, as some of the content can be triggering.

Life is Strange: True Colors

Throughout the game, Alex uses her powers to examine the world around her. She uses them to investigate objects that hold strong emotional memories, like a hole in the wall, or a miner’s helmet. She also uses them to connect to people around her both in story-driving ways and in smaller ones. In fact, to keep Haven an immersive experience instead of just a block of checkpoints, there are conversations happening around the town. A couple arguing, hiding their feelings, an angry man on a phone, and even workers commiserating about their dejection at work, these small stories allow you to wrap yourself in Haven beyond just who you have to talk to.

Additionally, you can read Alex’s journal. Since she is a singer-songwriter, you’ll find lyrics added throughout your play-through. New journal entries are prompted by interacting with new objects that have auras. A spot for reflection, the journal isn’t necessarily vital to the story, but it is an element that gives you a deeper appreciation for the story, characters, and can make some of your tasks a little easier to complete.

That said, the intense emotion in the game isn’t unrelenting. While of course you can take much needed emotional breaks at chapter endings, you can also use Zen Moments as a way to decompress. These moments allow you to see Haven and its spaces close-up and with wonderful music, calming you. You can choose to end these at anytime, and while I found the pacing of the game a bit too slow and the near inability to speed through certain elements frustrating, Zen Moments were a moment of peace I looked forward to. It may sound silly, but they worked as an elements of reflection –for both in game and out– as the subject matter became heavier.

One of my favorite moments in the game isn’t something grand exploration of human connection using Alex’s empath ability. It was sitting in a chair in the record store in the game’s first chapter. Headset on. Record playing rolling. The way Deck Nine has built in spaces of peace and beauty that exemplify the smallest of daily actions, like listening to music, has to be applauded.

But the Zen Moments also points out the game’s biggest flaw, its animation. Life is Strange; True Colors feels like a slice of life. It’s a look into human moments and emotions, but sadly, not every emotion is animated with the same level of intricacy or beauty. The game hits a middle ground between realism and stylization that doesn’t always serve the emotions its aiming to portray. While tears streaming down a character’s face is breathtaking, a character in the throws of anger doesn’t feel nearly as compelling. Additionally, some character models work extremely well with close-ups and others mainly NPCs didn’t. This makes moving from scenes with Alex and Steph or Alex and Ryan to just every day interactions with less impactful characters kind of jarring.

That said, the animation of the environment is breathtaking. Every detail of Haven has been throughout. From flyers on the doors of shops to the shop signs themselves and the small items within them. Haven feels like, well, home. It’s lived-in and loved and the intricacy of the environment allows you, as Alex, to fall in love with the place as much as the people who live there.

Like other Life is Strange games, the closing of each chapter has a screen that lists the choices you made that will impact the world around you –and of course shows what others picked via percentage as well. And the element I found most helpful here is the routes not taken. Once a scene has been completed, you can choose to Replay the scene or Restart it in the Chapter/Scene Select screen if you so choose.

If you choose to replay a scene, you can collect achievements and explore different story elements without affecting your current save. Additionally, if you choose to Restart a scene, then you create a new save from that scene. While it’s easy to toss this out as save scrumming, it really isn’t. In fact, the core of Life is Strange: True Colors is exploration. This is true for interacting with every item you can in the world to find mini-games, NPC stories, Zen Moments, and more. And it’s true for replaying through scenes to see different branches of this excellently crafted story.

That said, the game’s replayability is pretty great. With six core ending and different variations branching within them in Chapter 5, it’s clear how much each choice you make impacts the game. In fact, Life is Strange: True Colors isn’t just about the one ending scene. The game’s ending is all of Chapter 5. It’s a culmination of your relationships, your reflections, and your growth throughout the game. The beauty of the gameplay is seeing which choices impact story in real time with an icon appearing in the upper left hand corner when you choose. And to build on that, the game’s final chapter intricately works in choices that are both directly visible – especially those you made in Chapter 4’s festival– and smaller ones that you notice when you begin a second playthrough.

Life is Strange: True Colors

Truthfully, the way that Deck Nine has woven together choices and emotions to impact a sprawling story of connection, grief, and acceptance is masterful. Life is Strange: True Colors is deep, sometimes painful, and artfully resonant. The game beautifully showcases fear both from physical situations and emotional ones. It explores grief and how it manifests differently for different people. It allows you explore connection, either platonically or romantically. And most importantly, Life is Strange: True Colors gives us Alex Chen.

Alex is healing, she’s vulnerable, scared, resilient, and ultimately she’s a survivor in a way that doesn’t hide the scars. Alex is one of the most beautiful representation of surviving in a way that feels real. We don’t just move through a story as Alex, we interact with the world and choose how she will create a new home in Haven. We work through her trauma and we can see her embrace a future she once thought wasn’t possible.

In Chapter 1, there is a line: “Survival isn’t a neat and tidy process but its better than the alternative.” This isn’t just a one-liner, but the thesis of the entire game.  And with that, Life is Strange: True Colors lands itself as one of the most cathartic and emotionally resonant video games I’ve played in a long time. 

Life is Strange True Colors will be available on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC, and Google Stadia on September 10, 2021, and Nintendo Switch later this year.

Life is Strange: True Colors
  • 8.5/10
    Rating - 8.5/10
8.5/10

TL;DR

In Chapter 1, there is a line: “Survival isn’t a neat and tidy process but its better than the alternative.” This isn’t just a one-liner, but the thesis of the entire game.  And with that, Life is Strange: True Colors lands itself as one of the most cathartic and resonate video game’s I’ve played in a long time.