Life is Strange: True Colors is deeply familiar. You’re Alex Chen, the new girl in a town called Haven Springs, trying to leave some baggage behind while listening to a blandly tuneful indie soundtrack. She’s quiet but charismatic, likable but has trouble relating to others. Who among us hasn’t wanted to hop on a bus and skip town to somewhere where we could focus on anything and everything but ourselves? In this town you’ll make new friends, meet new enemies, find love, face new hardships, and grow into a new person. Your long-lost brother Gabe invites you to Haven Springs in hopes of kickstarting this new phase of your life, having looked for answers and found peace there himself a few years back. Before you can really grow well acquainted again, though, he’s taken from you in what appears to be an accident. All the way down to the tragic set up, True Colors is painting a picture with the same palette the series has always been known for.
Where Life is Strange tends to differentiate itself is in its use of the supernatural, even if the concept of it in this universe is tame now. Every game in the series has a character who exhibits a different supernatural ability that typifies how they relate to the world. In the first, Max could reverse time, using it often to save herself from awkward conversations or to take back actions she regrets. Her ability is rooted in self-preservation and Max stretches the lengths of reality by the end of that game to preserve herself and what she holds dearest. In Life is Strange 2, the player character’s younger brother, Daniel, develops telekinetic powers, which gives him the strength to carve out his own seat at the table. He wants to be strong not just for himself, but for the family he couldn’t protect. He grows brazen with power, but understanding how and when to deploy his strength is part of his journey. And finally we have Alex, who’s refreshingly a young adult and an empath. She can see auras around people and items that tell her how someone is feeling or felt, allowing her to recall the details and memories of the involved parties. Additionally, and quite dangerously for Alex, she can take the most overwhelming of these feelings and absorb them into herself, altering her emotional balance. Because of this, she’s grown weary of becoming close to people by the time the game begins, and we follow her as she begins to open back up, all the while helping the people of Haven Springs deal with their own baggage.
This empathic power is quintessential to Alex’s journey and the investigation into the death of her brother. Actually playing the game consists of the same loop you always do in Life is Strange: you walk around talking to people and use your powers and these conversations to make choices that impact the overall story. Much like the first game, where you would learn info, rewind and then use your newfound knowledge to drive conversations even further, your power and how it lets you talk circles around people will be the core of what you do here. Instead of rewinding time, you will instead read people’s feelings, and what that reveals will open up new dialogue choices. While it may go by another name in this game, the mechanic is mostly the same, if not simpler than ever, and leaves something to be desired. Some segments of previous installments had light puzzle-solving that pushed your abilities a bit further, but True Colors all but drops that save for perhaps a singular sequence, meaning there’s ultimately little friction keeping you from just experiencing the story.
Narratively is where Alex’s empathic abilities step closer to center stage. As you read the auras of those around you, you regularly help these people piece themselves together. In these moments, not only is True Colors some of the best writing in the series, but also features some of its best direction. Alex isn’t just able to feel what people feel, but sees visualizations of it too. The world around you sheds and comes to life in order to reveal the layers beneath countless characters’ facades. The way that their feelings of fear, joy, and, most strikingly, grief are illustrated in the world are grounded and strong. In a particular moment about halfway through the game, these visuals work in tandem with a competent score to absolutely sell the poignancy of a heart wrenching scene. The writing can be devastating, and the game benefits not only from drastically improved and more natural dialogue, but from better performances, too. Everyone’s voices feel tailored to their characters, and their words seem shaped by themselves rather than a tacky writing room. On the technical side, while the game is as aesthetically soft as ever, motion capture performances and improved facial models make the townspeople feel leagues better than previous installments, where I felt like I was playing with cheap plastic dolls.
While the story is ultimately a bore, moments like the one referenced above lets the game shine. The best thing I can say is that, by and large, True Colors does just enough. Life is Strange, as a series, tends to plant its foot on the gas pedal and build to some ludicrous crescendos, something this game is very mindful of. The “setpieces,” both harrow and tender, seem made by hands well aware of when to go big or small, crafting stakes and tensions that are more local and homegrown rather than loud or unbelievable. That Eleanor, the older lady who runs the flower shop, had an intimate problem I could assist with endeared me more to her than racing against a small apocalypse descending upon the town. Haven Springs itself is not as idyllic as it seems on paper when you first arrive, even if it is one of those picturesque mountain towns you might see on a Colorado brochure. Its people have secrets, both dark and relatively benign, that require unraveling, and it falls on you to do so. The town seems like it’s hurting, not just from Gabe’s passing but from the kinds of things that ordinarily shakes up folks’ lives: relationships gone awry, looming big decisions, corporations, sickness, death. It’s mundane in a way that’s familiar, and thankfully so.
The game’s most critical failings also stem from this comfort though. In regard to Typhon, a mining corporation that’s a looming presence in the events of the game, there’s a distinct lack of engagement with capital p politics that begs some questioning. Outside of vague anti-corporate language thrown around by a sparse few characters and some off-screen arguments on a Facebook-like feed, the combatting ideologies of the townsfolk and the company’s role in the story are largely abstracted or downplayed. And look, Haven Springs, a “heaven” handcrafted from notions of fanciful and exclusionary white practices that never gets into that stuff, lies somewhere between fantasy and reality, and seems rooted in an overfamiliarity with writing cis-white experiences more than anything. It is both steeped in small town conservatism and neoliberalism, and the fact that there is not more of an open conflict between those two, as the game faintly gestures at it being there, really is a let down after Life is Strange 2’s candor.
Life is Strange: True Colors is absolutely an evolution of the series, though I’m left wondering how impactful those evolutions are and how much further it can go. The most drastic changes—a hub area and the game no longer being sold episodically—make very little difference. And in so many all-encompassing ways, True Colors is exactly what you would expect from a new Life is Strange, albeit refined to a soft, welcoming point. The familiarity, and the way it is more authentically realized, is perhaps the point of this series and game, respectively, but it also sets a low ceiling for where it can all possibly go. It’s all cozy but rote, which is a shame because the series has been bolder in the past. Walking away from it, I’m impressed at how much I cared for the cast, for example, and am also keenly aware of the fact that while I liked them, I will largely forget who they are because I’ve done this before and will likely do it again somewhere else in a few years. Life is Strange may sell itself on comfort, and True Colors may be the one most emblematic of this, but I wonder if the series itself has become too comfortable for its own good.
Life is Strange: True Colors was developed by Deck Nine and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It’s also available for the PlayStation 4, the Switch, the Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, Stadia, and PC.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.