Beautiful and brilliant, if a little safe, Deck Nine's new Life is Strange story stands alongside the series' best.
Alex Chen arrives in the small Colorado town of Haven Springs to reconnect with her long-lost brother Gabe, after spending years separated from him in the social care system. She now harbours a secret - the power to read and experience other people's intense emotions - and a desperate hope this ability won't spill over unpredictably again. This is meant to be a fresh start, somewhere she can finally fit in and find a home. But tragedy soon strikes - Gabe is killed - and Alex must learn to accept herself and understand her power to discover what Haven Springs has really been hiding.
If all that sounds like classic Life is Strange, you'd be right, and if that's up your small-town Arcadia Bay-style main street, you'll similarly feel at home in Haven Springs. This is a Life is Strange game which has done its homework for what fans wanted and stuck somewhat rigidly to that list of requests. Queue up a charismatic but grounded young female protagonist, the ability to wield a special power yourself, and a return to a small community of characters you'll grow more familiar with as each chapter unfolds. There are clear advancements on show too, with some of the series' best dialogue and its most natural, nuanced on-screen performances to date thanks to stellar turns from the game's key players, plus developer Deck Nine's brilliant character animation.
True Colors also sees the return of fan-favourite Steph, from Deck Nine's top-notch Life is Strange prequel Before the Storm. Here, again, she steals scenes and hearts, now employed as Haven Springs' record store owner and resident radio DJ. Alex also quickly buddies up with Ryan, a soft-spoken local park ranger hunk and best friend of Gabe. Together, Ryan and Steph help investigate the circumstances of Gabe's death, and act as Alex's pair of possible love interests. Other characters in the town play supporting roles: Ryan's father, a revered local hero who gives Alex a room and a job; Gabe's grieving girlfriend who has a young child from a previous relationship; an older local businesswoman grappling with the onset of Alzheimer's; and her daughter whose asshole boyfriend is employed by the town's stereotypically-evil big corporation.
But while these other subplots bubble away, it's Gabe's death that looms large over the whole story, while Alex's attempts to find out what really happened are the main driving force behind its plot. I had been uncertain of Deck Nine's decision to reunite Alex and Gabe only to swiftly kill off the latter - likewise, the fact Gabe's early exit from proceedings has been clearly telegraphed in the game's marketing. Why spoil that surprise? Why not just have Alex simply arrive in search of answers? But there is pathos to be mined here, and the subsequent loss of Gabe's warm presence is only made more tragic having seen the siblings briefly back together. True Colors almost makes a trope of its constant emotional rollercoaster, as the game's frequent moments of euphoria (such as Alex finally letting go long enough to goof out and play air guitar) are inevitably followed (sometimes literally) by just as frequent gut punches. Over the course of its 10 hours, True Colors' story left me chuckling and choking up in equal measure.
Not everything works. The story sometimes feels like it's moving at too quick a pace, such as when it picks up again only a few days after Gabe's death, and how quickly life resumes for those affected. Diary entries and social media posts on Alex's phone help fill in some of the emotional blanks, while flashback collectibles found using Alex's vaguely-defined superpower are left to connect some important narrative threads. I was surprised how little of Haven Springs was explorable, and how few new environments were offered as the story progressed. True Colors is a distinctly linear game, albeit one where you can pick which character in a shop you talk to before another. This is fine, though it makes the game's suggestion of a more open-world and the ability to "freely roam the streets, stores, and hidden spaces" of the town seem overblown.
When big decisions do come, the vagueness of Alex's power also does not help. At later points in True Colors' story, Alex can choose to 'absorb' the painful emotions of supporting characters in order to give them peace, though the game fails to linger on the consequences. It's a missed opportunity to add weight to Alex's decisions and insight into her abilities. In the original Life is Strange, Max's dabbling with time travel was shown to have physical and metaphysical stakes. In its sequel, Daniel's telekinesis was frequently shown as a destructive and consuming force to be tempered and controlled. Here, I was left wondering whether it was morally right to scrub out someone's feelings to erase their pain - though I never felt rewarded (or damned) by a deeper exploration of what this meant for the person I was meddling with.
But when the game's writing and performances lift its small-town mystery so brilliantly, and what is shown on screen - the conversations and quiet moments of reflection which form the core of the narrative - are so brilliantly performed, I'm happy to let True Colors' overall feeling wash over my smaller concerns, as well as my need to have everything make sense. On that note, it's perhaps best not to think too hard about how Alex's ability to read emotions and inner monologues only pops up when there's a new clue to discover, and only then gives just enough insight to shuffle the plot forward.
Critically, True Colors' story is well-rounded, with a satisfying and definitive ending for both its central mystery and for Alex's personal journey (and as all good thrillers should offer, there is a resolution you can deduce for yourself if you are paying enough attention). It's not a failing to me that True Colors tells a lean story which prioritises quality over quantity, feelings over finer details, and a sense the series, like Alex, has come back to its roots after a period of absence and change.
Whereas Life is Strange 2 acted to disrupt the original's formula and engage in heavier themes, True Colors is a safer riff on Dontnod's debut, but one whose quality allows it to stand on its own without feeling too much like a cover band. Deck Nine is a supremely talented studio, True Colors makes clear, and more than worthy of continuing the Life is Strange franchise.
As its story began to wrap up, I was left feeling a pang of sadness that my time with True Colors' characters was coming to an end. After four years of waiting to see what Deck Nine did next, gorging this beautiful game in two five-hour sittings felt almost wasteful, and it's here I felt both the upsides and downsides to the series' switch from an episodic release schedule. Logistically, I'm sure releasing in one go is the easiest route, and Life is Strange 2's 14-month launch window was clearly far too long to sustain everyone's interest. Still, I felt sad that True Colors' brilliant characters and their ongoing problems wouldn't live unfinished in my head for longer, buoyed up by the joy of dissecting and theorising what might come next, a month or two down the line. In this, perhaps, I can sympathise with Alex - accepting of something precious, and treasuring it while it lasted.
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