Life is Strange is all about capturing a specific time, place, and feeling, and bottling it into a decision. The magic of it all is how real it all feels — the people you meet, who trust you, who betray you, who love you. The ramifications of your decisions, no matter how small or innocuous, are felt throughout your community. True Colors has mastered the art form introduced in the original Life is Strange and, against all the odds, surpassed it.
DONTNOD Entertainment’s 2015 Telltale-killer Life is Strange is, to this day, one of my favorite games of all time. Max and Chloe’s coming-of-age story set in the Pacific Northwest was thematically cohesive in all the best ways, showcasing all the love, loss, tragedy, joy and pain of your freshman year of college magnificently. It reminded me of a time when everything was both simple and wildly over-complicated and dramatic, and getting to live in that time for 15 hours again was wonderful.
DONTNOD’s follow-up, Life is Strange 2, just didn’t hit me quite the same way, and I found myself unable to really connect to Daniel and Sean. I did quite enjoy Deck Nine’s shorter prequel game about Chloe and Rachel (maybe I’m just a Chloe simp), Before the Storm, and was pleased to see that they’d come back to the series to create True Colors after Square Enix and DONTNOD parted ways. DONTNOD’s follow-ups to Life is Strange, including Life is Strange 2, Vampyr, Tell Me Why and Twin Mirror, have all been fine, at best. True Colors outdoes everything that DONTNOD has produced on every level and at every turn. Almost every time an exciting narrative twist or new gameplay element or powerful moment showed up in True Colors, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was something that the studio behind the original just couldn’t pull off.
Our story begins with our 21-year-old protagonist, Alex Chen, arriving in Haven Springs to begin a new life and move in with her older brother, Gabe. From the moment, she touches down in the picturesque Colorado mountain town, it is clear that Alex is not a typical game protagonist. Reading through her journals and text messages when she steps off the bus reveals that Alex is… well, probably not a person you’d want to be friends with. True Colors makes no effort to portray Alex as quirky or endearing; instead she is presented as a typical human with big ups and big downs, and the Alex earns the player’s affection throughout the story through her words and actions.
Like the other games in the series, the driving force of True Colors is Alex’s superpower. She is an empath, meaning that she can see colored auras around other people that indicate which strong emotion they’re feeling and can dig deeper to find out why they feel this way. Compared to the other powers we’ve seen in this universe (rewinding time, sonic screams, telekinesis) Alex’s power is… well, underwhelming to say the least. She describes it as a curse, and at first it’s hard to disagree with her. She sees the truth of what everyone around her feels, unfiltered, and hears their most hateful, depressing, and disgusting thoughts against her own will.
Throughout the course of True Colors, Alex learns to harness this power for the greater good, but in a certifiably non-heroic way. When someone feels deep fear, for instance, she can peer into their heart and see what causes the fear, why they’re afraid, and exactly what they need to hear to fight that feeling. It is emotional manipulation on the highest level, but Alex’s interventions into these social situations seem to make everyone’s lives better. Some characters find her a calming presence for that reason; others are wildly uncomfortable around her. She always knows exactly what to say in any situation, but it’s up the player to decide whether she should say it.
The absolutely phenomenal cast of characters is what elevates this game above its predecessor. Ryan and Steph serve as Alex’s main sidekicks, and you can romance either one of them (but not both, sadly), but the supporting cast around them just feels real. I’ve met people like Eleanor, like Riley, like Duckie or Jed before. They finely walk the line between believable small town folk and people you’ve met over the years in a way that none of the previous games have managed. Every character is developed out with backstory, layered relationships with Alex and other residents, and complex emotions that understand that humans are not really good or bad.
Deck Nine Studios is based out of the Colorado mountains, and setting the game close to home was the right decision. Dialogue, vernacular, slang and cadence don’t feel like a bunch of French guys in their 30s writing for teenage girls (the original Life is Strange); it all feels natural, conversational, and comprehensive. Motion capture adds so much to True Colors, and all around it feels like a much higher budget affair than previous entries. The voice acting of the main cast is fantastic, and the supporting cast mostly excels, too.
The soundtrack is excellent, and if you’re into the alt indie stuff the previous games relied on you’re in for a treat. Alex has a marvelous singing voice (courtesy of singer mxmtoon) and her musical performances are certainly highlights of the game. Music plays a big part in True Colors, from Steph and Adam’s record store to Gabe’s guitar he leaves as a gift to Alex. Thematically, it works wonders for the story and atmosphere.
There are many, many small decisions that have micro-ramifications throughout dialogue, but as is usual about three times per each of the five chapters Alex encounters a literal game-changing decision. The effects are not going to be immediately obvious; in fact, the whole story is so seamless no matter which of the dozens of branches you follow that you’d never know it was choice based unless you watch another playthrough. My single grievance with True Colors is that even on next-gen consoles, it’s locked to 30 FPS (it does offer Ray Tracing though). I recommend the PC version for this reason.
Alex is a brilliantly written and developed character, aided by probably the best game performance of the year by Erika Mori. She’s a protagonist that has to earn your trust, rather than asking for it implicitly at the start. When her horrifying past reveals itself to the player in the final act, I think anyone with a heart will find themselves in her shoes for just a moment. She feels like a human. Simultaneously brave, kind, enraged, thoughtful, selfish, vengeful and hopeful. Layered, complex, unpredictable until she isn’t. True Colors is an apt title for this game; it’s not just about Alex seeing others true feelings, but understanding her own multicolored trauma.
Verdict: 9.5/10 — A Masterclass In Interactive Storytelling
Life is Strange: True Colors is not a coming-of-age story like its forbearers. Alex has already grown and become the person she’s going to be by the time the story begins. True Colors is a story about grief. The painstaking, hour by hour confrontation with reality when a loved one is lost. When everything in your life is taken away from you with one single light snuffed out. It’s pure existential terror, and this game handles the heavy topic in such a way as to make it feel real without beating down the player. While grief is the main driver of the story, it’s truly about starting over. New beginnings, and all that. Not finding a place to call home, but forging it with your own two hands.