Deck Nine Games has rewritten the fundamentals of Life is Strange and in turn created a series highlight.
Life is strange, you know. You grow up. You learn from your mistakes, acquire new skills and then, in a flash, you become an adult. This maxim applies to everyone's personal journey, in that complex and tedious passage from adolescence to adulthood, which involves each of us. But it also applies to Life is Strange: True Colors, the new chapter in the popular episodic video game series created by Dontnod, but on which Deck Nine Games has also been working for a few years - yes, the same that gave life to that little gem known as Life is Strange: Before the Storm, a spin-off of that original precursor chapter of a now cult franchise.
Yes, because True Colors is not limited to being just a new iteration, with new characters, a new story and new powers; no, this third episode (fourth, if you also count Before the Storm) represents an important step towards maturity for the saga. And not only for the obvious technical and graphical improvements - but you already know this, if you've seen any trailers - but also for the way in which Deck Nine has decided to approach the narrative, as well as some intriguing mechanics of gameplay that we discovered in the hours with it. But does True Colors live up to the first, unreachable episode, the one that started it all? Let's try to find out.
The emotions. What gives colour to life, be it positive or negative. This is the great underlying theme that resonates in True Colors, but which also represents the supernatural powers that Alex Chen - the new fluid protagonist in this new game - is able to control. And not just in a literal sense (Alex is able to see people's auras, feel the emotions others feel and, in some way, manipulate them); like any young adult who approaches the great difficulties of real life, that young heroine must learn to deal with them. Learn to manage them, or at least try. We are far from the teenage worries of Chloe, Max and Rachel in the very first game; while maintaining some teen drama features, True Colors tries to bring into play themes that have their roots in more adult concepts, starting with the extraordinary ability to forgive and, above all, to forgive yourself.
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But let's start from the beginning. As we said, here the player plays as Alex Chen, a young rebel who has recently come out of the complex system of adoption institutions and she is ready to start a new life elsewhere. Where no one knows who she is, what she did in her past and why emotions represent an important, almost overwhelming, piece of her life. And to do so, Alex chooses Haven Springs, a small fictional town in Colorado, where her older brother Gabe lives, who has built a new life right there, after being in reform school for a while. That magical place, lost in the mountains and suspended in its almost dreamlike atmosphere, seems to be the right (re)starting point for Alex: she has a new apartment, new friends, a new job, a beloved brother and found after years of being away. What can ever go wrong?
To break the idyll is the death of Gabe in an accident. A devastating event, which shakes the small sleepy town of Haven and its inhabitants, but which, above all, devastates Alex. Putting aside the pain of still having lost a recently found brother, the girl, in the company of a couple of new friends (Steph and Ryan), decides to go to the bottom of the story, suspecting that it was not a tragic accident. And it is thanks to her extraordinary ability to read emotions that Alex tries to give an answer, ready to do anything to restore justice to Gabe. And finally face her real self, face to face.
But go straight to the point: once again Deck Nine have managed to hit the mark. True, the crime-thriller (sub) plot basically serves as a narrative pretext to focus on something else, but at the same time offers a fluid and engaging plot, despite its simplicity. You never get bored in True Colors, this also thanks to a very charismatic cast of characters characterised by a respectable vocal performance, starting with that of Alex Chen (here played by the actress Erika Mori), who gives great personality to a seemingly anonymous character, but capable of making you lose your mind chapter after chapter. Because, after all, it's almost impossible not to fall in love with Alex, as well as with the charismatic Steph and the lovely Ryan (and also with a couple of supporting characters, which I leave for you to discover). And if it's true that so far True Colors does not seem to stray in any way from the previous chapters in terms of emotional involvement, Deck Nine's new work tries to aspire to something different, not only because it wanted to show that it has listened to the fans. (and their criticisms) in a constructive way, but also to rejuvenate an otherwise stale product.
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But I don't hide it: I don't like all the innovations introduced in this game, and, to get rid of the thought immediately, I will start from these. The first major difference that True Colors weaves with its predecessors is its narrative structure; although the game maintains a subdivision into chapters, it completely loses the uniqueness that has always distinguished the Life is Strange brand: its seriality. No more cliff-hangers at the end of the episode, no more suspense that wears down the soul in the nerve-wracking wait for the next episode - usually released after months. None of that. Just like the TV series it's inspired by, which in turn have undergone a major change in terms of narrative and format gimmicks, True Colors will be released in a single solution, in a single season. Just like the serial products that we watch today on Netflix and for which we can binge-watch (or binge-play, in this case) until we drop.
In other words, the player is left with free rein, free to decide which and how many chapters to play (each with a variable duration between 2 and 3 hours, depending on your pace). In short, as we have always played video games, after all. Personally, I didn't love this solution, as it distorted exactly what allowed the Life is Strange franchise to be different from other video game productions. Why eliminate the backbone of the series, what made it so original in its own way? And then there is the exploration, the chance to go ahead and discover the small town of Haven Springs. When the game was first announced, Deck Nine said they would give players more freedom to walk around the city to uncover secrets and new dialogues to delve into the lore of the characters and Haven Springs. Too bad that the result, on balance, is not so satisfying: if it's true that it becomes a nice diversion, a little treasure hunt, as well as a way to train to use Alex's powers, this dynamic does not offer much more. Sure, it offers a certain replayability to every single episode - just like the mechanics of choices, which remain a constant here (indeed, with greater impact, but we'll come back to that later) - but not the right sense of openness or fulfilment we expected.
And actually our "criticisms" stop there, because Life is Strange: True Colors is an incredible game. Visually, the town of Haven Springs is rich in detail with a careful and well thought out use of light. You never get the feeling, exploring it, of having a flat world around you, but something alive and pulsating in which to move is pure joy. This is also thanks to some interesting new features, starting with small, completely optional secondary missions (in the form of dialogue), which allow you to change Alex's interactions and relationships with some NPCs. A trick that allows you to weave a more personal relationship with that world and its characters, and which I highly recommend you explore. And speaking of new and original ideas: keep an eye on the third chapter, probably the most fun and innovative I've played, thanks to its meta-textuality. But I will say no more so as not to spoil anything.
Yet, in addition to many other little goodies, such as arcade cabinets where you can enjoy some hit-and-run games like Arkanoid or Mine Haunt! (an 8-bit mini game specially created by Deck Nine), what remains the real heart of Life is Strange: True Colors is its plot. Compared to previous experiences, True Colors gives a different weight to the choices we will make within the game, it gives them further depth; the system of binary choices fails to open up to a decidedly more structured and multi-layered mechanism that opens up to many more endings, but which makes the story more fluid, more coherent and far more personal than in the past. And it's here that we perceive the real growth that the Life is Strange series has now underway: it has become a mature product, aware of the limitations of its past, from which it has learned and has done everything to become a better experience. Even the choices we are called to make as Alex give the feeling of being important, of counting for something. Just like Alex who has the ability to control emotions, we experience that feeling of omnipotence of truly controlling the mood of the game and building a gaming experience that is as close to our ropes as possible.
Last, but not least: the music. Always the emotional core in the Life is Strange series, in True Colors music assumes an almost essential added value. And not only because Alex herself has an important relationship with it - indeed, we can also enjoy a couple of delicious reinterpretations of Creep by Radiohead and Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes, thanks to her performance by mxmtoon) - but because the music dictates the rhythm and flow of the story, without ever being invasive. In addition to some pop / rock hits known to the general public, the soundtrack signed by Angus & Julia Stone is probably one of the most intense and best curated of the entire series, which has nothing to envy to that of Syd Matters or Daughter. The Zen moments, those little moments of suspension in which the character can decide on the choices to make or give himself a little breath, still remain an integral part of the story, and the music of those sequences remains an essential, catalysing element.
We loved our hours with Life is Strange: True Colors. Although Deck Nine wanted to try to rewrite some of the fundamentals of the franchise, somewhat overturning the initial intentions, it probably produced the second best Life is Strange in the history of the series, and for several reasons. In addition to offering a more mature story, an aspect that is also evident from a more conscious use of the system of choices, the characters are written with a disarming perfection, which is why it seems impossible not to become attached to and not get deeply involved in the story. The perfect use of music, combined with some ingenious meta-textual solutions in terms of gameplay, make Life is Strange: True Colors rightfully one of the best chapters of the series. So why are you still here reading?
9 / 10
A more adult and engaging story, well-written characters, excellent performances by the actors; Extraordinary soundtrack; Some brilliant ideas in terms of gameplay.
Too bad it has lost its serial narrative structure; exploration is underdeveloped; some small bugs.