The hugely popular interactive story series gets another bonus episode – this time a full-length tale in True Colors, which puts Life Is Strange back on course.
When Life Is Strange made its debut back in 2015, it came as quite a surprise to those who’d been keeping an eye on French developer Dontnod since their graphically glossy debut game Remember Me. Few expected their follow-up to be an episodic adventure game about an American teenager and her ability to rewind time as she navigated her way through life’s ups and downs in the fictional Arcadia Bay.
It quickly gathered an enthusiastic following for its story-driven gameplay, three-dimensional characters and issues that resonated with players – while making use of incredibly low-resolution graphics in an almost stylised way. It wasn’t the first story-adventure game to go down that route – Telltale’s many episodic adventures had low-res art down to a tee already – but it was remarkable how well the technique worked to give the game a surreal, storybook quality.
While Dontnod contemplated their next move after the success of Life Is Strange, something unusual happened – US developer Deck Nine put their collective hands up to develop a sequel of sorts, based on the same characters. The result – Before the Storm – was even better than the original game, taking a more nuanced approach to the characters, avoiding the original’s penchant for cheesy dialogue and delivering a big emotional punch in the process.
So, it’s brilliant to see Deck Nine back in the driver’s seat for True Colors, after the well-made but weirdly unengaging Life Is Strange 2 (and non-series standalone Tell Me Why) from Dontnod tried to repeat the winning formula, but ended up feeling more like walking simulators with annoyingly tedious puzzles attached. Life Is Strange 2’s “older and younger brother on the run” story in particular was slow and dull, the main characters both unappealing to the point of annoyance.
Before the Storm writer Zak Garris has been promoted to game director for this latest entry in the series, with the much longer story penned by a team of four writers who are clearly well attuned to the Deck Nine way of doing things. For this outing, you play as Alex Chen who, having grown up in a foster home, arrives in the town of Haven Springs for a reunion with her brother Gabe. Alex, it turns out, has a very special skill – she can see and read other peoples’ emotions. Coloured auras swirl around people to reflect their moods and feelings, and empath Alex can get inside their head to understand what they’re going through – but, in the process, she has to experience those feelings herself.
Alex quickly feels at home in Haven Springs, making friends including DJ Steph (from Before the Storm) and picking up work at the local bar. But it’s not long before tragedy strikes, and Alex has to employ her empathic powers to understand what happened and why. We’re deliberately being vague about the story because, as with all the games in this series, a big part of the experience is going on the character’s journey with them.
If you’ve not played a Life Is Strange game before, be prepared for a slow-paced, story-led emotional experience where key choices you make as the game unfolds can have meaningful consequences down the track. The sheer popularity of the series shows that there’s a huge audience out there for games that don’t issue a “personal challenge” or fall back on combat and quicktime events to beef up their story.
Graphically, True Colors looks very much like its predecessors – though the extra grunt on the newest consoles means that character faces are more detailed than before. The textures in these games are reportedly hand-drawn, and the overall experience sits in a strange place between reality and stylised animation. At times it’s almost like playing a moving graphic novel.
Voice acting is excellent throughout, with Erika Mori’s Alex a standout – not least because it’s her first-ever voice acting role. The signature stuff of the series – callouts to popular culture – is all very much in place, from the constant references to alternative rock bands to the unbearably hipster vinyl-only record store in the town (and, of course, DJ Steph only ever uses vinyl!) It actually works, though, capturing a sense of a small town’s culture being driven by young people instead of the guy that owns the local bar.
“At times it’s almost like playing a moving graphic novel.”
Music is an important element again – for Before the Storm Deck Nine recruited Irish band Daughter to write songs for the game, later released as an album. This time, Australian duo Angus and Julia Stone provide the songs, some of which play during “zen moments” in-game so you can relax with Alex and enjoy the music. Deck Nine seems to have an affinity with the sort of music that serves these games well.
While previous entries in the series have been released as separate chapters over time, True Colors is all there ready to play from day one – though the chapter format is still there, complete with stats after each one. It’s a much better way of delivering the game, and with Deck Nine now rumoured to have become the lead studio behind the series, it looks like the days of waiting months to finish the story might be over for good.
If you’re already a fan of the original Life Is Strange and its sort-of-prequel, you’re in for a treat with True Colors. With great writing, terrific acting, plenty of well-tuned emotional punch and an engaging new “special ability” letting the other characters speak their innermost thoughts as you make your way through the story’s mysteries, it’s a welcome return to form for the series.
Life Is Strange: True Colors is available now on PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PS4, with Switch due at a later date.