I wish I was Alex Chen.
It’s impossible not to instantly adore her, the protagonist of Life is Strange: True Colors. She’s barely out of her teenage years, and has already been through so much hardship in her short life. But she doesn’t let that get her down. She’s the most together, effortlessly cool young person you’ll ever meet. She’s funny. She’s charming. She’s talented. She’s what most of us aspire to be.
But she’s not your typical young adult. Alex Chen hides a secret – a “superpower” or a curse, depending on what day it is. She’s an empath; she can see an aura around people who are feeling strong emotions. And when she tunes into that aura, she can feel those emotions. Sometimes, she can even take those feelings away, if the situation calls for it. But mostly, Alex uses her ability to simply better understand the people around her, and help them in ways that most people can’t.
Though while Alex is the lead character of Life is Strange: True Colors, and while her ability is pertinent to the story, it’s not the focus. Unlike the first Life is Strange, whose story couldn’t possibly have existed without Max Caulfield’s time manipulation powers, Alex’s ability is more of a subplot; something that comes in handy but the game’s core narrative could successfully exist without it. You see, mere hours after moving to the picture-perfect town of Haven Springs to reunite with her brother, Gabe, after eight years, a tragedy befalls Alex. Gabe dies in what is ruled an accident – but Alex knows there’s more to it. Cue a narrative spanning Life is Strange: True Colors‘ five episodes that see Alex – and her new friends, the residents of Haven Springs – work to take town Typhon, the mining company that operates just outside of the town.
True Colors has some of the most impressive facial animations I’ve seen in a video game to date. Despite the art style not being the most photorealistic (albeit stunning), Deck Nine has absolutely nailed the display of subtle, often minute emotions on characters’ faces. From the roll of the eyes at a corny joke to the nervous glance-then-look-away of expectant lovers, each and every character in Haven Springs feels like a living, breathing being. Sure, Alex can read their emotions thanks to her power, but the player can too, thanks to the incredible work done by the game’s animation team. It feels effortless, the way a character’s lip curls into an ever-so-slight smirk, or the way their eyebrow twitches when someone’s said something questionable, but it’s almost perfection.
Equally as perfect is the design of Haven Springs. It’s picturesque beyond imagination; this mining town in Colorado couldn’t be any further away from my own ex-mining town in Yorkshire. It’s bright, pretty and oozes idyll – at least on the surface. But its picturebook buildings, backdropped with jaw-dropping views of snow-topped mountains, are hiding secrets – dark secrets. It’s a juxtaposition that works to great effect. On the one hand, Haven Springs looks to be the type of small town we’d all dream to live in. But on the other, it reminds us that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.
That fits neatly into Alex’s struggles. She’s come to Haven Springs for a new beginning, after being passed from pillar to post in a very broken care system. But now she’s an adult, she’s free, and for the first time in her life, her future’s looking bright. Sadly, it’s a brightness that only lasts a matter of hours before a tragedy sends it shattering down around her. But as we’ve already established, Alex Chen isn’t the type of woman that’s going to let the world wear her down. She’s brave and determined, and even without her powers, she’s strong enough to overcome even the most devastating of blows.
Life is Strange: True Colors takes us on a rollercoaster of human emotion, and throughout the game’s 12-or-so hour running time, you’ll have undoubtedly felt the full gamut of joy, sadness, anger, hope and despair – ironically, emotions that mirror those that Alex can sense in the game. This is a story that’s expertly told, with a human touch that elevates True Colors to much more than “just another teen sci-fi story”. It’s much more grounded than other games like it; Alex’s power is essentially an emphasised version of something many of us are capable of. And its narrative, a gripping weave about a corrupt corporation, is something that can – and does – happen in the real world. It makes every beat of the story hit that much harder.
While it deals with a particularly tough narrative – and also throws in some other hard-hitting subjects in there, such as a resident dealing with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis – Life is Strange: True Colors still finds time for plenty of lighter moments. Much of episode three is dedicated to a particularly engrossing LARP session, effectively turning the game into full-on RPG for a time. It’s brilliantly done, and is a rare video game moment that truly makes you grin from ear to ear.
The pacing of Life is Strange: True Colors is flawless too. Yes, there are times when you, in control of Alex, can wander around the town, taking your time to chat to people and simply enjoy existing in this stunning world. But when it comes to delivering the narrative, it’s much more on-point than previous games in the series. A new revelation, an important conversation, a turning point in the story; it’s only ever a few moments away. The fact we no longer have to wait weeks, or even months, for future episodes to drop certainly helps, but it makes it more likely you’ll struggle to put down the game down. I hungrily consumed the last three episodes in on sitting, unable to pull myself away – and I definitely won’t be the only one.
I could wax lyrical about so many elements of Life is Strange: True Colors, going into detail about every tiny thing that makes its storytelling so incredible, but I won’t. The narrative should be uncovered as you play it, and going in with as little knowledge as possible will make those twists and turns have that much more impact. This is without a doubt the best game in the series yet. The characterisation, the worldbuilding, the visuals, the facial animations – practically everything here is flawless. With True Colors, Deck Nine has solidified itself as the master of narrative adventure, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Life is Strange: True Colors Review – GameSpew’s Score