As part of the 2023 #LoveYourBacklog blogging event kindly hosted by the wonderful Later Levels, I had to choose a title from my own backlog to complete for #MaybeInMarch. I chose 2021’s Life is Strange: True Colors developed by Deck Nine Games; it’s a game I’d inexplicably left on my shelf for nearly two years, despite adoring the series it continues (particularly the original Life is Strange and DLC Before the Storm). Ashley Harrison and I even did a Let’s Chat about the announcement, which seems a scarily long time ago now!
To tackle the elephant in the room – yes, I may have overrun the whole “March” element of this! You can blame the superb Horizon Forbidden West for being such a glorious time-sink of a game, as I wanted to get that finished before I progressed onto True Colors. As Kim from Later Levels and Ellen from Ace Asunder amusingly joke, perhaps “AlwaysInApril” might be a better tagline for posts like mine, aha… !
Regardless, I’ve now finished playing through the main story of True Colors as well as the Steph-centric Wavelengths DLC, both on PS4. I have plenty of thoughts on my experience with each, which I’ve put into a relatively short review below. Thanks again to Later Levels for starting this collaborative event, as it’s great for making me tackle my ever-increasing backlog! Be sure to use the #MaybeInMarch hashtag to find plenty other bloggers taking part, too. Now, onto my review!
-WARNING: SPOILERS FOR LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS AHEAD-
New Girl In Town
True Colors largely follows the Life is Strange format and tone, albeit with a (mostly) brand new set of characters and a whole host of new plotlines and powers to delve into. The story focuses around the 21-year-old Alex Chen, who’s been in the foster system for much of her life. At the start of the game, she’s received an invite from her older brother Gabe to move to Haven Springs, a small mining town in Colorado. The player takes control after Alex steps off the bus to enter this new chapter of her life, armed with only her travel bag and a cautious optimism. It’s a fascinating set-up that invites mystery and plenty of character discoveries from the offset.
Much like other Life is Strange games, True Colors is split into five Chapters – the key difference being that this time, they’re all collated together into one game, instead of being released separately over time. This makes sense for the cohesive story True Colors aims to tell, and I hope the Life is Strange series continues this practice in the future, as it makes it easier to get invested without any time gaps to forget key story elements in between. For example, I played this mostly over two days this Easter, and had a brilliant time doing so!
The first episode focuses around Alex reuniting with Gabe, and being introduced to all the different locations and characters around Haven Springs. True Colors mostly takes place within Haven Springs’ central street, with the various shops and residences on either side. Perhaps most prominent is the Black Lantern pub, which is both a communal meeting point and also Alex’s home after Gabe gives her his old upstairs room; Alex even starts working in the bar, too. True Colors is very successful at creating the small-town vibe, with characters like Gabe’s partner Charlotte and her son Ethan, or local retired mining worker Jed and his son Ryan. They all have interwoven interpersonal relationships – for example, Ryan is a close friend of Gabe. Haven Springs is so close-knit that on Alex’s mobile phone (now a staple of the Life is Strange series), there’s a group chat called “MyBlock”, essentially a bespoke Reddit page just for Haven Springs!
As Life is Strange: True Colors is fuelled by the choices the player makes, the close proximity of the characters creates some really intriguing situations; every decision you make will effect not just the person you’re directly confronted with, but also all the characters close to them. In Chapter 1, the young Ethan tells Alex that he’s going to the off-limits mountains, and it’s left to the player to decide whether to tell Charlotte and Gabe about it. Whether you keep Ethan’s secret or not is key to the rest of the episode as well as your developing relationships with Ethan’s parental figures, especially after Ethan goes missing.
In such a dialogue-focused game, it’s key to quickly make the player care about the characters. True Colors does a fantastic job at immediately presenting not just deep, emotional moments but also fun sequences, such as when Gabe and Alex do some air guitar and rock out to vinyl records early in Chapter 1. None of it hits the highs of how the original Life is Strange grabbed the player’s attention with that initial walk down the Blackwell Academy school corridor, but True Colors is a clear step up from the overly slow pace of Life is Strange 2‘s initial episodes, which struggled to build believable narrative momentum and stakes.
Aside from player decisions and dramatic coming-of-age stories, the other key aspect of the Life is Strange series is the main character having a supernatural power of some form. True Colors is no different, as Alex Chen can sense strong emotional states of people around her. Through differently-coloured auras, Alex can feel if a character is overly angry, anxious, happy, and so on. As you’d imagine, this applies a whole new nuance to how the player can tackle situations and the key decisions you’re presented with. Alex isn’t entirely in control of the power to begin with, and if someone is feeling strong anger, it can provoke her into responding in kind, as is implied about her time in the foster system – and vividly shown to us halfway through Chapter 1, when Alex violently defends Gabe. Late in Chapter 1, the player is offered the decision to tell Gabe about the power, and I chose to do so. It led to a heartfelt cutscene where Gabe essentially tells Alex he believes her, and that she’s in a safe space now.
When Ethan goes into the mountains as aforementioned, he becomes trapped on the side of a cliff, and his fear is stopping him from moving to safety. This is one of the first moments where Alex realises she can use her emotion-sensing powers to help people, utilising it to relate to Ethan and coax him back to safety. Heartbreakingly, this joyous payoff doesn’t last long. Typhon Mining sets off its charges despite being told people were in the mountains, and it results in Gabe being killed. In my opinion, this is the most emotionally shocking part of True Colors – I was certainly left emotionally devastated to see Alex lose her brother and the safe space she’d only just found.
The fallout of this event is the main narrative engine through the remaining four episodes. Gabe’s loss is felt strongly throughout the close-knit Haven Springs, and there is plenty of pressure both from and towards Typhon Mining following their part in the incident. Various local events, like a Live-Action Role-Play (LARP) event throughout Haven, or the local Spring Festival, become backdrops for dramatic revelations between characters, making sure the town never becomes overly repetitive as an environment for the player to explore. That LARP sequence is a particular highlight, as it visually revamps Haven and adds in an RPG element – before ingeniously, Steph’s emotion-reading powers turn Haven into a real fantasy world, complete with a new UI design and RPG battle effects.
Throughout all of this, Alex is gradually learning the extents of her emotion-reading powers, such as the ability to help characters by reading key memories, or even take emotions away from people. The latter of these has a specific moral question around it that the player is left to consider for themselves, and it plays into a particularly intense scene with the grieving Charlotte in a later episode. Your decisions around each of the major supporting characters decides whether they trust Alex or not, which becomes particularly important in the final Chapter of True Colors and brings the story full circle in a satisfying way.
Of the supporting cast, Steph (a returning character from Before the Storm) and Ryan become Alex’s closest confidents and potential romantic options. However it plays out, they become a likeable core three characters, who are all discovering new aspects of themselves whilst uncovering the secrets of Haven. Steph’s return was much anticipated after the initial reveal of True Colors, and it’s awesome to see her get such a prominent role here.
Obviously, I went for Steph as the romantic option – sorry Ryan, but c’mon, it’s Steph, perhaps the coolest dork in gaming! Alex can use her powers to read Steph’s internal monologue after some of their flirtatious conversations, and this leads to some incredibly adorable moments. Deck Nine got the awkward charm of the romance between Chloe and Rachel spot-on in Before the Storm, and in True Colors they once again show their prowess with those sorts of scenes. Honestly, it’s soul-soothing amongst all the drama of Gabe’s untimely death, and again reflects how well True Colors balances differently-toned scenes.
Put A Record On
Steph has moved to Haven and started hosting the local radio station, which is set up within Haven’s record store. The alternative, punk-y visual language of Life is Strange is loud and clear in this location, and it’s a great excuse for True Colors to unashamedly fill out its soundtrack with plenty more of the indie rock tunes the series is known for. There’s still a bunch of moments within the game where Alex can stop for an introspective moment backed by music, but they feel more natural than in Life is Strange 2, where I started to get tired by them. If I had to criticise, sometimes the tone of the music feels a little repetitive compared to the mixture in the original Life is Strange. An element helping True Colors is that Alex Chen is voiced by mxmtoon, who is a singer in her own right, and sings several songs such a new cover of “Creep” by Radiohead.
When I think of the original Life is Strange, I think of major emotional moments such as the Arcadia Bay ending set to “Spanish Sahara” by Foals, and the tear-jerking reaction I had to it. Whilst I imagine I’ll come to appreciate True Colors‘ soundtrack more as I listen further (at work, probably), no scenes left a raw emotional mark on me in quite the same way, especially during the final episode. This is perhaps my main criticism of True Colors, and in a way it’s unfair, because I’m comparing it to another game. But True Colors feels a little too closely tied to the same structure of the other Life is Strange games, with Episode 4 even ending with a very similar reveal and cliffhanger to Episode 4 in the original Life is Strange. I had a fabulous time with True Colors, and the characters all feel unique and well-developed, but the ending wasn’t a big emotional gut-punch for me personally, and left me wanting a bit more.
One area where True Colors does set itself apart is on the graphical side. Character models and their interactions have never looked more natural or expressive in the Life is Strange series! In addition, Haven Springs is a picturesque setting that works practically for pushing characters together, and looks beautiful whilst doing so. The town centre is full of classic American wood-panelled buildings and luscious greenery, with a background of gorgeous snow-capped Colorado mountains. Occasionally you’ll venture to the outskirts of Haven to explore the ruins of the mines, which provides the visual contrast the game needs, but generally the colour palette is invitingly warm and vibrant. When Alex uses her emotion-reading powers, that also gives environments a new saturated look to shake things up – and furthermore, there are collectible memories which activate a close-up sensory flashback for another change of visual pace.
To go back to the character of Steph again, you might wonder about what happened in the gap between Before the Storm and the point at which Alex meets her in the main story of True Colors. In which case, the Wavelengths DLC has you covered! This relatively short DLC takes place over multiple days within the Haven Springs record store, after Steph has just taken over the radio station (and before Alex’s arrival). You explore the store, revamp it, and learn to run the radio, whist also setting up a remote Dungeons & Dragons session with old friend Mikey from Arcadia Bay. You can even explore a dating app on Steph’s phone to choose matches, take part in conversations, and see the aftermath of dates. As I chose to sacrifice Chloe and save Arcadia Bay in Life is Strange, there were also references to Chloe’s death that acted as emotional throwbacks.
At first, Wavelengths is a lot of fun, and the first-person perspective of running the radio station is a refreshing change from the normal third-person perspective in Life is Strange. There’s even an extensive soundtrack for the player to choose from, deciding which tracks to play and queue up as if you really were DJing yourself. I found myself bopping along to the likes of “Feel It Still” by Portugal, The Man, and it helps change up the vibe as you walk around the record store day after day.
But that speaks to the larger problem with the Wavelengths DLC. The record store is an exciting environment when you’re sporadically visiting it during the main True Colors story, but when you’re confined within it for multiple hours of the DLC, it gets stale – especially as you have to constantly go through a loading screen whenever you enter or exit the radio station booth. As a key element of the DLC is getting back to the booth to answer calls, this gets old fast. Overall, I’m glad we got the extra detail about Steph’s story, but sadly the knowledge itself is much more exciting than the gameplay.
Life is Strange: True Colors doesn’t hit the highs of the original game or Before the Storm, but after the flawed Life is Strange 2, it’s an effective reset for the series. The Life is Strange narrative structure is well-established at this point, and True Colors uses it to bring an absorbing new set of characters to life, anchored by a gripping investigative plot and rewarding character relationships. Alex’s emotion-reading powers provide new intricacies to the dialogue and player decisions, and graphical progressions make True Colors the prettiest game in the series yet. The Wavelengths DLC was less enjoyable for me, because it lacked the relative freedom that Haven Springs supplied in the main story – but the new details around Steph’s character are still a welcome foil to Alex’s arc. Hopefully Deck Nine Games aren’t done with the Life is Strange series, as Before the Storm and True Colors show they have an effective handle on how to construct a heart-wrenching story, especially on the romance side. True Colors can end in a kaleidoscope of different ways, but one thing’s for sure: I hope we see these characters again in the future!
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