Once more, with feeling
Life is Strange: True Colors marks the Nintendo debut of this 7-year-old series, and this standalone story just so happens to be the best entry in the franchise to date.
True Colors is set entirely in the quintessential mining town of Haven Springs, Colorado, and is a narrative-driven adventure game that puts you in the shoes of Alex Chen, a young woman with a level of empathy that goes far beyond what could be considered natural. This ability has her feeling scared, as she considers her power a “curse”.
After leaving foster care, Alex is on her way to the charming and rustic town to reunite with her brother, Gabe, who recently made a bit of a life for himself in Haven Springs. Sadly, this new beginning for Alex is abruptly interrupted by a tragic “accident,’’ and it’s up to you to unravel the mystery behind how this accident came to pass.
The player controls Alex from a third-person perspective as she explores various areas in Haven Springs. Mostly a one-street town, the main road is imbued with bright colors from the many flowers that line either side of the road, and is well populated with a number of stores and residents to visit. There’s a record store which has a pretty feisty cat marking its territory, a flower shop with an owner going through a very personal challenge, a bar which becomes home-base for Alex, and a pharmacy to peruse, amongst various other outlets. As for the town’s many NPCs, you’re able to speak with them via a dialogue tree-based chat system. This is one of the main ways in which the story can progress. Dialogue choices found here are never clear-cut good/bad choices, which frees you to answer the way you think Alex would or how you would like to, instead of just second-guessing what you think the game wants you to pick.
This Role-Playing aspect of an “RPG” is often underplayed, but this one area where the Life is Strange series excels. There are many optional side-stories and quests in True Colors that you would only ever learn about by taking the time to talk with the denizens of Haven Springs. Oftentimes, there will be throwaway bits of conversation which, if followed up on, can lead you to new stories. These optional parts of the game aren’t tracked in the very useful Things To Do list and do not directly relate to the main story, but True Colors does ultimately reward you if you roleplay as Alex in this fashion - and in a very satisfying way.
Fortunately, you will want to have all these additional conversations with the characters, as the writing and performances are almost universally top-tier. These are people who made me laugh out loud, become genuinely interested in their private affairs, and even shed a tear or two. Alex also has a few options for romance in town, and these are as equally well-written and paced as the rest of the game.
The psychic empath abilities at the heart of Alex’s journey expand the gameplay and story options beyond the chat system and enable her to read and manipulate the emotions of people around her. These emotions are represented with colorful auras surrounding the subject, giving you the option to approach them and either talk with them, or select the aura to hear how they’re feeling. This can sometimes just fill in character details, but other times will give enough insight into how the person is feeling to unlock additional conversational paths for you, thus furthering the story. These powers come at a cost to Alex though, as she can unwillingly become “infected” by these feelings, causing her to behave in a fashion that goes against who she would want to be.
Some of the locals will have stronger auras than others, indicating that they are experiencing trauma or hardship. When Alex interacts with them, a “nova” appears, transforming the landscape around her to bring Alex into their perception of reality, often twisted by their internal struggle. During these moments you are able to investigate within this perceived reality to try and bring about a resolution for the troubled character.
More world-building can be found on Alex’s phone, which you have access to through the “-” button. Here you can view a social media feed made up of messages and posts by the population of Haven Springs, along with Alex’s own DMs. Buried within these incidental messages are expanded interpersonal relationship details and, again, genuinely funny chatter.
When not engaged in the light detective work from the main story or chatting to other residents of the town, there are a couple of arcade machines available to play. This includes Arkanoid (THE Arkanoid), as well as a game created for True Colors called Mine Haunt. These are enjoyable distractions, yet they also add more to the idea that you are Alex, living in this town. (Everyone needs some downtime after all!) As with previous Life is Strange games, there are also relaxing Zen moments to discover. These are times where you may find a picturesque location, such as the end of a short pier, and you can choose to sit and contemplate. These moments start with some internal monologue from Alex about her current situation, accompanied by beautiful, and wholly appropriate indie music playing in the background. Once Alex stops self-narrating, the music or lyrics will kick in and the game pans across the scenery, characters and anything else of note in the immediate vicinity. These moments of Zen exude peace and calm, and you can stay in these for as long as you want. And you will want to stay, as the music that plays fades away when you leave.
As with the character performances, the soundtrack is fantastic. Life is Strange as a franchise has always had indie-rock sensibilities, and both the licensed tracks as well as originals here fit the atmosphere of Haven Springs perfectly. The game’s album was rightfully recognized by the 2021 ARIA Music Awards, winning Best Original Soundtrack.
Hopefully I have been able to convey the subtlety True Colors brings to its storytelling and the experience overall, but when Creep by Radiohead is broken out, you may actually feel a sense of pain as you’re smashed in the face with the message that Alex may well consider herself somewhat of an outcast. The actual performance of it is great, but this amusingly clunky misstep momentarily took me out of the experience.
The care taken over the non-Radiohead section of the soundtrack is replicated across the board. The options screen is packed with accessibility tweaks (much appreciated by this colorblind reviewer), facial expressions are the best you’ll see on a Switch game, lip-syncing is absolutely nailed, and the performance of the game’s engine and overall presentation has obviously been given top priority by the developers.
For a year, a team of 30 focused solely on the Switch port. This included programmers, artists and dedicated QA committed to improving the game’s graphics and performance, while maintaining total feature and content parity with all other platforms. Lighting in the game is a total custom job rather than a straight port, character models and environmental details were re-worked to have lower poly counts, and the suite of post-processing effects were updated and custom modified to provide the best visuals possible, along with a solid performance.
The team is rightfully proud of the technical accomplishment here. There are many great articles and YouTube videos referencing “impossible ports” for the Switch, and this game deserves to sit on future iterations of those lists. To find out more, the team themselves spell out in great technical detail what was done in an absolutely fascinating blog post you can find here.
The only visible difference between docked and undocked appears to be a lack of TAA being applied when going portable. This meant I actually preferred playing it in the portable or table-top modes, as the TAA is quite aggressive when docked, making the image smoother, but at the expense of sharpness. My personal preference is for a sharper, even if more jaggy, image.
Load times push at the limits of acceptability as well, with moving from indoor to outdoor areas taking up to 45 seconds, and the reverse taking up to 25 seconds. Loading times aren’t a deal-breaker for this reviewer, but they are noticeable, and seem to also impact certain textures too, with occasional lagging of environment details when spinning the camera.
Narrative adventure games live or die by their story, and True Colors delivers here with confident excellence and nearly flawless execution. Having been a fan of the series since the first trailer nearly 8 years ago, it is a true accomplishment that the franchise is able to remain fresh and interesting while maintaining an air of mystery, and all while staying true to what a Life is Strange game should be. Clocking in at around 12 hours, you’ll have enough time to get to know the town, the neighbors and their secrets, absorb some of the more relaxing moments, and really feel like you’ve walked a mile in Alex Chen’s shoes.