True Colors Review by fanbyte

Life Is Strange: True Colors Is About Looking Forward to the Future — With Its Own Shining Brilliantly

by Natalie Flores

You don’t know exactly when it happens. But one day, you look around and find that you have been transformed by one thing above all others. Life is Strange is that thing for me — there’s no series I’m more protective of. It’s why I was terrified when Life is Strange: True Colors was announced and revealed to be developed by Deck Nine Games rather than original developer Dontnod Entertainment. While Deck Nine made the shorter prequel Before the Storm, Dontnod had created this universe with the original Life is Strange and expanded upon it with The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit and Life is Strange 2. It was a change I didn’t expect.

And I don’t like change. I especially don’t like it as of late, as a recent graduate obsessed with thoughts about whether I should stay or go; make this life-altering decision or that one; do what feels safe or take a risk to achieve what I want. And I dislike changes to the things I hold closest to my heart just as much. Life is Strange: True Colors was never going to be an individual game for me to play and evaluate. It was always going to be something bigger: about a series that feels like home to me coming to terms with its new home — and about whether I could follow it there. After playing through True Colors, I’m happy to feel that, much like its protagonist, the series has found somewhere it can start anew and flourish.

Life is Strange: True Colors centers on Alex Chen, a young woman who leaves the foster care system to reunite with the brother she hasn’t seen in nearly a decade. She moves to Haven Springs, a town inhabited by a tight-knit community that welcomes her with open arms. By the end of the first day of her new life, her brother dies in a suspicious accident. As someone who possesses a supernatural ability to read and manipulate strong emotions, Alex is likely the only person with a chance of exposing Haven’s darker secrets and getting justice for Gabe.

Like the entries before it, True Colors knows its characters are more important than the allure of the supernatural or the unknown. Its central mystery works because Gabe is so irresistibly lovable and because Alex — insecure, lonely, and wonderful Alex — is made whole through their relationship. Where Life is Strange 2’s greatest strength lies within the symbiotic relationship between the Diaz brothers, Life is Strange: True Colors’ is found in the separation between two siblings whom the universe seems determined to keep apart. While I would’ve loved to see Alex have more time with him, the tragedy lies in all the missed opportunities for them to make memories together.

Alex easily joins Max, Chloe, and Sean as one of my favorite fictional characters. While True Colors is specifically framed around empathy, given Alex’s powers, Life is Strange has always been a series about empathy at its core. From the beginning, it has spotlighted the kinds of people who have rarely been treated with the empathy society grants to others. Even so, I remember yearning for a Life is Strange game about a woman of color as I played past entries. I have her now — and she’s everything I wanted and so much more. As a bisexual woman of color who is a first-generation American, one whose disadvantaged circumstances have shaped her struggles with mental health, Alex is familiar to me in ways few characters are.

It’s hard not to get emotional over how Alex is allowed to be a person, one I know so well. How she’s soft-spoken and struggles to look people in the eye or hide her social anxiety; how she’s witty, brave, and hugely creative despite it all; how she’s been shaped by trauma, anger, and loss in ways that make her unabashedly human. I walk around her tiny childhood apartment and find comfort in her mother’s sewing kit being in the cookie tin, as is the case with so many immigrant mothers; in how the most expensive thing her parents could afford was a common household item; in how she grew up managing the emotions of people much older than her. The only thing that almost feels harder is trying to convey how I feel about Alex in a short review.

If it was easy to write someone like Alex, I’d see characters like her everywhere — and I don’t. Here, Alex’s mental illnesses are given a name, explored as deeply in their ugliness as they are  empathized with. Her queerness is undeniable, normalized, and celebrated. Her struggles as an Asian-American born in the States — the simultaneous honor and burden of being first-generation, having to carve a path for yourself with no roadmap — are validated. The depth of Life is Strange’s character writing, and its dedication to telling the stories we don’t often see at the forefront, is why it remains so enduring.

In addition to Alex and Gabe, another standout is Steph Gingrich, whom fans originally met in Life is Strange: Before the Storm. She’s moved to Haven Springs, with her own DLC episode exploring her life between the two games coming out in the near future. And she’s incredible, horribly nerdy and as in love with music as she can be with Alex. Their relationship is the highlight of True Colors to the point where it feels like a slightly more encouraged romance — as if this is what the developers more strongly intended over other romantic paths. You can pursue the endearing Ryan Lucan like my cohort Kenneth Shepard (though don’t ask him how it ended), but it feels like the sapphic romance was given a little extra love. It makes me incredibly happy, especially since I find it impossible to separate Life is Strange from queerness. One thing I’ve always loved about Deck Nine’s vision of this universe is its palpable eagerness to explicitly center queer identities within its main narratives.

Ultimately, this is a game entirely written by Deck Nine Games — and that’s why it works for me so much better than Before the StormTrue Colors is not Deck Nine giving their own spin on already established characters and working within those confines, but rather reveling in the freedom of writing their own stellar cast and story. Whether it’s taking you on a painful journey into surrealism or making you play a hilarious live-action role-playing game, that story succeeds with flying colors from start to end. If I were to compare this to past main entries (taking note that different teams have worked on each): it is more consistent than Life is Strange, not hitting as many highs as Life is Strange 2, but never being anything other than excellent.

True Colors’ writing is deeply supported by its visual fidelity as the first installment with full performance capture technology. I was giddy as I watched the myriad ways in which the power of that technology came through. Alex nervously pushing up her glasses and swinging her arms a little after giving Steph a gift. Steph’s eyes furiously flickering between Alex and the other person in the room while Alex brazenly flirts with her. Alex and Gabe rocking out to a new record like dorks — a memory that constantly played in my mind long after he was gone. It’s an incredible feat that Life is Strange has accomplished all its past emotional highs without this in the past, for I can’t imagine it any other way going forward.

Unlike past entries, this season entirely avoids wrestling with delays between episodes since you can play all of them in one go. If this is the format going forward, Life is Strange is absolutely better off for it. A couple episodes end with abrupt cliffhangers, and I can only imagine how frustrating waiting would have been in addition to simply being detrimental to the story’s pacing. Although better than its prequel, Life is Strange 2’s sales suffered from the wait time between episodes. As I told co-director Michel Koch at the time, it was more than understandable since the team essentially created five games taking place in five different sets of locations back to back. I’m relieved that won’t be an issue for the series in the future, both in regards to the stories themselves and the well-being of the teams working on them.

Even so, the pacing is generally where True Colors falls a bit short. True Colors has five episodes that amount to roughly 12 hours. Despite being spread across five episodes, the events of True Colors take place over the span of roughly a month. Extending the timeline a bit would’ve served the story even better, as the expanded scope would’ve accentuated Alex’s desperation to attain justice. Better pacing also would’ve grounded her place within Haven Springs and her relationships with others, especially any romantic ones. I’m not saying I’d need more than a month to know that I’d stay with Steph forever — truly, like a stereotypical woman who loves women, I only need a minute — but that doesn’t feel too realistic.

Additionally, the choices in True Colors are much fewer, easier, and lack impact in comparison to previous main entries. Major decisions are largely tied to Alex’s powers, which become less compelling as episodes progress. You are given a few chances to willfully absorb people’s negative emotions, but the story never incentivizes you to do that for several reasons. Overall, the mechanical implementation of Alex’s powers works fine — better than I expected, even, since empathy seems like a tough foundation for a supernatural ability — but doesn’t achieve its full potential.

During the first episode, I was horrified as I watched Alex absorb someone else’s anger and lash out to protect a person she cares about. I didn’t regret the decision, but I was unnerved by the quickly apparent potential of Alex’s powers to cause her — and especially those around her — a great deal of harm. This set the expectation that other choices would be similarly difficult, and I was disappointed when they weren’t. I enjoyed seeing Alex figure out how to help others with their emotions, though there were rarely consequences to inadequately comforting someone or not saying the best thing I could have in a conversation.

In the grand scheme of things, this all matters to me relatively little since the writing is so fantastic. This series has always used the strange to tell stories about the perpetual joy and pain of living and loving. True Colors knows it’s more about Alex finding a home and defining herself than her powers. The ending compensates for its easy choices by being one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made in a game. Generally, the final episode is a masterpiece and one of the best episodic installments I’ve played. It culminates in a choice that has left me anguished, and this probably won’t change anytime soon. Life is Strange 2 still astounds me with the breadth of its beautifully complex and heart-wrenching endings, though I know there’s a specific ending I prefer. That’s not the case here. While there are far fewer permutations, the final choice is likely the only choice in a game that has left me uncertain. Perhaps it’s because I’m going through so much of what Alex experiences that neither feels right. Neither feels wrong, either.

And that’s how a lot about True Colors feels as the next installment in the series. It doesn’t feel right or wrong that Deck Nine will be handling Life is Strange going forward while the original creators embark on new journeys. It’s different in ways that make me both sad and excited.

Life is Strange transformed me as much as any story can change a person. Playing it is why I was able to finally accept myself as a queer woman. In the years since, I’ve aimed to use what it taught me — refusing to deny myself the joy of being my full, authentic self — as my compass in everything I do. As I properly started my writing career, Life is Strange 2 showed me there’s a place for someone like me to write about games. It made me feel seen as a Latina who needed to see myself and my community’s stories represented in the medium I’d always loved but that had never loved me back. Two specific teams created two of the most important stories in the world to me — and they will no longer be leading the franchise in which those stories exist. I mourn that loss as someone deeply grateful for their work.

I’m similarly grateful for the work of the team behind True Colors, a game I already know will be special to me forever. As I started True Colors, my heart soared at the abundance of tiny details that reminded me of what it was like to fall in love with this series. I felt the love and respect Deck Nine has for Life is Strange’s legacy in just about every corner. But it’s so much more than a reassurance of the past; it’s an affirmation of the future. By moving forward with its own brilliant ideas that embody the heart, inclusivity, and depth this series is known for, the team at Deck Nine honors Life is Strange in the best ways possible. It’s difficult to imagine a better game to represent this franchise’s new future. True Colors has told me something I needed to hear at this exact moment; something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. It’s serendipitous like the entries that came before it. It’s home.

As someone who has loved Life is Strange since the day that first episode was released into the world, I’m incredibly relieved to feel the future is bright. Is it better than its past? Does it feel right or wrong? I don’t think I can answer that. I can say it’s different. Perhaps the one inevitability of Life is Strange — past, present, and future — is its determination in embracing change that can be equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. The truth is, there’s no telling what Life is Strange’s future might be. The only promise is the adventure. I consider myself lucky to be here and love it as dearly as I do.