Ever since French studio Dontnod Entertainment released Life is Strange in 2015, the decision-based, story driven adventure game about a teenager who has the power to rewind time, it went on to become one of the best interactive video games of the year. By combining the supernatural with the highs and lows of being a teenager, Dontnod created a compelling episodic narrative full of characters with nuance, unexpected twists, and a hella good soundtrack of indie artists to set the mood and tone of the entire game.
Developer Deck Nine continues the legacy Dontnod Entertainment started with the new game Life is Strange: True Colors.
You play as Alex Chen, a young woman in her 20s, who after years of being in the foster care system is reunited with her long lost older brother Gabe. Alex is invited to come to the fictional small town of Haven Springs, Colorado to live with her brother. By deciding to stay with Gabe, Alex is hoping the picturesque small town will be the fresh start she desperately craves while reconnecting with the brother she hadn’t seen in eight years—if her ability to experience people’s emotions doesn’t get her into trouble first. But the warm reunion between the siblings is tragically cut short when a search and rescue mission up in the mountains goes terribly wrong and leads to Gabe’s death.
While this might sound like a major spoiler of True Colors, the marketing for the game already alerts would-be players that the jumping off point of Alex’s story is uncovering the truth surrounding her brother’s death, which she believes wasn’t an accident.
This is where Alex’s power as an empath comes in handy. She is able to not only feel other people’s emotions, but she can read them whenever an aura of color surrounds the person. Red is anger, blue is sadness, purple is fear, and gold is pure joy. When the emotion is strong enough, Alex can enter a state called Nova where she’ll see a person’s internal world based on what they’re feeling. This can often lead to either hearing a person’s thoughts or interacting with objects of importance to the person Alex is reading to get a snippet of a memory attached to it. Using this ability enables Alex to get to the heart of what the person is actually feeling, instead of whatever someone is projecting on the surface. Alex can use her powers to help people get through their emotions, and as the story progresses, her powers eventually evolve where she can even take away a person’s anger or fear, if a player chooses to do it.
At first when True Colors was announced I was surprised that Deck Nine was going to be behind the third installment of Life is Strange and not Dontnod Entertainment. When it was revealed that the supernatural power the main character was going to have was empathy, I was unsure how the developers were going to make empathy an interesting and cool power to use. Was empathy even a power? It was definitely not time travel or telekinesis. Thankfully, empathy turned out to be an amazing power than it sounds.
Alex’s empathic power is not only fun to play around with but it creates difficult decision-making moments that aren’t always clear cut. When is it okay to let people go through the emotions they’re feeling? If you had the power to take someone’s anger away, would you do it? What kind of consequences would that mean for the person and for yourself if you absorbed it as your own? What if in the process of helping someone with their feelings, you stumbled upon distressing information that a loved one should know? Do you tell that person or do you keep it to yourself because it’s not your place to get involved? Deck Nine does an incredible job of getting the player to really think about the best course of action Alex should take.
With Deck Nine taking over the Life is Strange series, True Colors also stands out as a much stronger installment than the first two Life is Strange games developed by Dontnod Entertainment. For one thing, the writing is much better than the first two games. One of the flaws of Life is Strange and Life is Strange 2 is that the writing can be uneven with cringey dialogue. I’m not sure if it’s because the first two games focused on teen characters that it felt like Dontnod Entertainment was doing their best impression of what they think American teenagers sound like, but it wasn’t always good. Thanks to the strong voice acting of the cast of True Colors, the well-written exchanges between characters and Alex’s internal monologue feel and sound natural, never once breaking my immersion with the game. It’s what you’d expect young adults in their 20s to sound like. Playing the first two Life is Strange games, unfortunately, took me out of the experience of the story and characters because of some awkwardly worded dialogue.
Aside from the dialogue, each supporting character in True Colors is written to feel like fully actualized people. There isn’t one person in the town of Haven Springs you don’t want to get to know better. Everyone has their own lives, personal struggles, and distinctive personalities that by the time the game is over you feel like you know who these people are. It also helps to read every single text message and post on MyBlock, the game’s version of Facebook, Alex receives on her phone to further enhance the story and characterization of the townsfolk. None of the characters fall into a cliche or stereotype, each one written with a complexity that it’s not always easy to hate the ones who are later revealed as the “bad guys” of the story. There are layers and shades of gray that make you think about what you would do in their shoes. The so-called “villains” have made some bad mistakes that ultimately hurt people but you also understand how even the ones who start off with the best of intentions, who weren’t always a bad person, can lose their way and do selfish and unforgivable things to protect themselves. The writing really deepened my emotional connection to the story and characters in such a way that it even surpassed the first two games for me.
True Colors, like other Life is Strange games that came before, has romance options that Alex can choose from—Before the Storm’s Steph Gingrich, who manages the town’s local record store and radio station, and Ryan Lucan, a Colorado state park ranger and Gabe’s best friend. From my experience with the prior Life is Strange games, the romances weren’t all that memorable. I made the mistake of romancing Warren as Max in Life is Strange and have yet to go back and romance Chloe instead. In Life is Strange 2, I had Sean romance Cassidy but even that romance wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. True Colors managed to present two very worthy romance options for Alex and neither of them are duds.
I romanced Ryan in my first playthrough, well, because he’s absolutely the type of guy I would go for—handsome, smart, sensitive, caring, and an absolute dork for bird calls. But just because I didn’t romance Steph, I could also see her being a good fit for Alex, especially when it has been confirmed that Alex is canonically a bisexual woman. Steph is passionate about music, fearless, a total nerd for live action role play, and she has Alex’s back no matter what. It’s a tough choice in the romance department because either Ryan or Steph would make a good partner for Alex. I would say it’s a first where the romance options are so good that the hard part is picking one over the other in a Life is Strange game.
Deck Nine carefully crafted a new Life is Strange game that shines better than its predecessors, if that’s even possible. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed playing the first and second Life is Strange games, despite the flaws each one had. But I have to say True Colors has a leg up over the other two with the better writing, using motion capture to make the expressions of each character look and feel less stiff, and nixing the episodic format in favor of releasing a complete game.
The problem with the first two Life is Strange games was that an episode’s release window was often months apart from each other, and it was very easy to forget what happened in the last episode you played. Releasing a complete game on Day 1 ensures the story and the characters stay fresh in your mind. This is why I think True Colors became my favorite game of the series followed by Life is Strange and Life is Strange 2. I was always tuned into the story, and it was easier to absorb all the little details and choices I had to make as Alex when I was able to jump into the next chapter immediately after the one I finished.
After my time with True Colors, I’m confident that if we get more Life is Strange games in the future it is in the very good and capable hands of Deck Nine.
Reviewer Rating: 10/10