There’s a lot going on in Life is Strange: True Colors. On one level, it’s a murder investigation with a supernatural twist thanks to a young woman’s ability to read the minds and memories of people during moments of intense emotion. On another, it’s a small-town slice of life, focused on the charming mundanity of the daily ebb and flow of a tight-knit group of locals. On another still, it’s a psychological drama, a heartfelt reflection on the difficulties of growing up “in the system” and what it means to find a place to call home. Supernatural thriller, quiet everyday moments, and personal introspection: Life is Strange has been at the centre of this intersection since its first season, but True Colors might be the best yet at intertwining those disparate influences.
At the game’s heart is Alex Chen, a young woman who, after a childhood mostly spend moving between foster homes and orphanages, finally has a shot at a fresh start. Her older brother Gabe’s had his own struggles (including a stint in juvie), but he’s managed to find happiness in the idyllic mining town of Haven, Colorado—so when he reaches out to Alex to invite her to come stay with him for a bit, she jumps at the opportunity.
But Alex is carrying a secret—her “curse”, as she describes it: when other people around her feel intense emotions, she feels them too, and can even hear their thoughts and see their memories. It’s basically empathy taken to a supernatural, literal extreme, and combined with the instability of her childhood, it’s been a source of no end of strife for her. As she struggled to control her own emotions, let alone those of other people that ensnared her, she soon earned the label of a “problem child”.
Haven was meant to be a way for her to leave that all behind, and live a “normal” life. Even a community as tight-knit as this one has its conflicts and its struggles, though, and when Gabe is suddenly killed in a suspicious mining accident, and hope of normalcy—of keeping her “curse” buried—goes out the window. But in her fight to uncover the truth and get justice for her brother with the help of her new friends, Alex learns that there’s power in this “curse”, too. Maybe empathy, even as intensely as she feels it, isn’t such a bad thing after all.
That idea at the heart of Life is Strange: True Colors. Emotions, even at their ugliest and most terrifying, are crucial pieces of what makes us human, and learning to understand and navigate them—our own as much as those of other people—is an important life skill. Empathy goes a long way, and beyond just basic human decency, it can be a crucial tool for understanding what’s happening, resolving conflict, and finding truth. Alex’s power is a literal manifestation of that, but you don’t need to be able to read people’s minds to know that being able to understand where people are coming from is its own kind of superpower.
It’s not all about supernatural abilities, though. Alex is just an empathetic person in general, in all her interactions with the people around her, big and small. In true Life is Strange fashion, True Colors gives plenty of screentime to quiet moments with people just living their lives: one early scene revolves around browsing a record store; another sees Alex helping out at the local bar, taking orders and cleaning up empty dishes. The bulk of one episode revolves around the whole town getting together for a live-action roleplay to try cheer up one of the local kids who’s taking Gabe’s death particularly hard.
Through all these little moments, all these interactions, Alex’s empathy comes through—not in the form of her power, but just in the way she interacts with the people around her and tries to understand where they’re coming from. It’s important to note that empathy doesn’t necessarily mean agreement or even sympathy, and depending on the choices you make in conversations, Alex can get confrontational, angry, even aggressive. But it’s always from a place of understanding, or at least trying to understand, where people are coming from. That, really, is Alex’s power—the supernatural element is just the most extreme manifestation of something that permeates her every interaction.
Life is Strange: True Colors is also a story about finding a place to belong, to call home, maybe even set down roots. Haven is the picturesque vision of modern, welcoming little village—one that avoids the stereotypes of small towns as being breeding grounds for narrow-mindedness and bigotry. It’s a quaint little place where the community truly feels like family, where folks might bicker and disagree from time to time, but all genuinely care about and look after each other.
It’s a place where someone like Alex, with her history of constant upheaval and temporary “homes” that are never last long—through no fault of her own—can find a place where she fits in, and find people to call family. There’s no shortage of excellent games about found family, but there’s something about the grounded, almost mundane nature of much of True Colors that makes it resonate in a different way. Alex has her share of misadventures alongside her closest new friends as they dig into the circumstances surrounding Gabe’s death, but so much of the game comes back to those quiet moments where she’s just getting to know people who welcome her with open arms.
It’s also a chance for Alex to explore her romantic feelings in a way that she seemingly hadn’t before. Burgeoning romantic feelings between two Alex and two Haven locals forms one of the game’s more prominent substories, with a degree of humanity and honesty that you don’t often see in videogame romance—it’s cute, awkward, funny, sweet. It’s also worth noting that Alex is explicitly bisexual in the game: rather than a “player-sexual” approach to different-gender love interests, True Colors is overt about the fact that she’s attracted to both, and the question of who you get close to (if you get close to either of them) is just a matter of personality and connection.
It might seem odd that I’ve gotten this far into the review while barely touching on the murder mystery that serves as True Colors‘ inciting event, but that speaks to the game’s strengths—and those of Life is Strange as a whole, really. This is a series that’s never short of supernatural twists and shocking developments, but they’re never really the focus, even when they take centre stage—rather, they’re a vessel for personal introspection and character study, and True Colors is no exception.
That said, the mystery surrounding Gabe’s death is an intriguing one, and the unfolding of it leads to some big surprises and tense moments that’ll have you on the edge of your seat. It’s exciting and funny (the schemes that Alex and her oddball friends come up with to steal documents…), but also dark and confronting: a story of corporate overreach and what happens people who put profit ahead of all else have the power and influence to get away with anything.
And it all builds up to a particularly impressive, impactful conclusion that effortlessly brings all these different threads together. The threads of empathy, psychological trauma, found family, deadly corporate negligence, and community are all pretty closely woven together throughout the rest of the game anyway, but the ending ties them together in an especially memorable way—sticking the landing is never easy (and it’s something Life is Strange has struggled with in the past), but True Colors gets it just right.
The end result is a remarkable, powerful game. Life is Strange: True Colors stays true to the series’ roots, using supernatural twists and an underlying mystery as the backdrop for a story that’s focused on the quiet beauty of everyday life and the connections that form between people. Within that, it carves its own path with a moving exploration of the power of empathy and the importance of finding a place to call home.
Life is Strange: True Colors
Developer: Deck Nine Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Release date: 10 September 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.