By using this site, you agree to our Privacy Policy and our Terms of Use. Close
Life is Strange: True Colors (XS)

Life is Strange: True Colors (XS) - Review

by Lee Mehr , posted on 05 October 2021 / 1,338 Views

Reviewer's Note: Due to how important some story details are, there are SPOILERS ahead, especially for the first episode.  I personally liked going in totally ignorant of all major plot points, so feel free to take heed of my warning.  On with the review!

Despite ditching the number, the latest Life is Strange (LiS) is the first mainline entry not handled by Dontnod Entertainment; instead, Deck Nine Games advances from more modest upbringings to new heights.  The team's increased creative aspirations come melded with Square Enix's greater financial backing as well.  Speaking as someone who really disliked the Before The Storm prequel, I thought this big-budget level of trust was misguided.  But the increased stakes also made me wonder if adversity could show Deck Nine's True Colors.  How does it pan out?

Alex Chen has spent the last eight years in the Helping Hands Group Home.  Now, at age 21, she's left the foster care system and reunites with her brother, Gabe.  This reunion brings her to Haven Springs, Colorado.  Think a little slice of Portlandia set upon a mountainous Midwest.  The quaint trip to this quaint town meets disaster once Gabe is killed in an accident.  With her supernatural power of Empathy, Alex begins to dig into the suspicious circumstances surrounding this event.


If you read that last part, you're likely wondering what "Empathy," as a power, looks like in this universe.  Hell, the facetious side of me pondered that before playing too: "so... being a typical person who intuits another's emotional state is a superpower now?  After time manipulation and telekinesis, why is Deck Nine Games' imagination so constrained?"  My snarky side subsided the more I saw it in action.  She's less emotional translator and more walking reflection, if that makes sense.  Empathy goes beyond seeing a colored outline of someone and gleaning their thoughts; Alex essentially gets infected by that intense emotional state as well.  Theoretically, no one can dissemble their “true colors” from her.

This ability cuts both ways for me.  If you've tried any of the previous titles, the gameplay remains mostly unchanged: walking around specific environs, navigating dialogue opportunities with NPCs, and a light smattering of puzzles.  One thing that drives many games in the TellTale vein is trusting another character.  Alex's Empathy cheat-codes past that to intimately knowing someone in detail; further, you'll grow more suspicious of the integral side characters who don’t trigger these powers as often.  Sure, the original allowed you to rewind time and fix mistakes, but that still enabled you to explore Max's suspicions.

Beyond the cheapened gameplay functions, I'm also not comfortable with the potential implications for Alex's powers.  To avoid spoiling (as much as I can), think of Alex's special ability extending to artificially “course-correcting” someone's attitude.  Would you do that with such a power?  The consequences of those choices are brought up towards the final act, of course.  The problem is it's presented in both a good and bad light, depending on who was affected.  So, the implicit lesson is… be prudent about the target you’re emotionally manipulating?  That's kinda fucked up.


Conversely, some strong characters and scenarios elevate its potential too.  By the end of episode one, I was already connecting with minor characters like the verbose Duckie and seeing the potential of the core trio: Alex, Ryan, & Steph.  Even if both of Alex's teammates check off a list of tropes and some cringe-inducing lines, there's a genuine comradery between them.  Similarly, Alex's blossoming friendship with one of Haven Springs' youngest members is thoroughly explored in my favorite level: the LARP.  His disdain for people cossetting him after Gabe's death shifts to an engrossing distraction with a solid payoff.  Considering how Deck Nine's previous writing rarely elevated above tawdry for me, I'm glad this clean slate shows some improvements in the team’s craft.

All this talk about its emotional core could suggest I'm disregarding the amateur investigations spearheaded by Alex.  In my defense, so does the story.  You can tacitly feel the writers prying ways for the trio to discover all of the guilty parties involved.  The shadiness of the major corporate entity (Typhon Mining) involved in the accident is an obvious suspicion; and yet, it's odd how little I thought about it.  There's potential evidence to be handed to authorities, but don't do that before the town's roisterous party!  The classic "show, don't tell" rule encapsulates why this... regnant corporate power, whose tendrils supposedly course through the whole town, has no real bite.

Even when the writing falters, the presentation is typically on point.  The list of voice actors may not have the relative star power of other entries, but it's still a respectable one nonetheless.  Erica Mori's mellifluous voice for Alex puts her in the running as one of my favorite lead performances this year, and Jim Hunt perfectly fits the oddball personality of "Duckie".  These prominent examples in mind, I did tend to notice that the further away from Alex's hemisphere one got the shakier the acting quality became.  Some background extras and minor side characters occasionally tumble into stale line-reading.  This doesn't cancel out the positives, but it slightly dampens my enthusiasm.


In keeping with the series overall, True Colors' disparate storytelling results frustrate me no end.  I'm managing two conflicting attitudes across both cerebral hemispheres: the technical/logical annoyances versus the sporadic emotional highs that stick with me.  The uneven, back-loaded pacing relies on a finale's over-exposition because of how much fluff is sandwiched into the beginning and middle; and yet, this series has often reveled in said fluff to capture some emotionally earnest moments.  And I get how that can work for specific fans, but a proper sort of "story architecture" is missing.  It's like building up a lavish house but never pouring a good foundation.

With respect to gameplay, some credit is due for expanding player options in a relatively restricted town.  Considering their constrained budgets, most LiS locales were linear with a smattering of collectibles.  That's still – mostly – maintained here, but several pleasant side-stories demand you investigate all the square footage you're given.  It's one thing to miss discreet collectibles with dialogue snippets, it's another when those post-episode flow charts reveal a potentially missed conversation with a good character.  Tie this in with the LARP's rudimentary turn-based RPG mechanics, some knockoff arcade games (like Arkanoid), and several basic puzzles, you get the majority of its adventure mechanics.  Not vastly expanded, but improved nonetheless.


The increased budget & price point is most prominently signaled in True Colors' production values over its mechanics.  Any long-time fan can instantly spot the improvements.  Refracted light filtered through Alex's bifocals, the naturalistic ways her eyes dart around, improved lip syncing in dialogue segments, subtle details across every location, and more take the series to the next stage.  The sound design and healthy amount of licensed songs have been a locked-in positive since the beginning, so the main note here is the impressive quantity of the latter.  Hell, Angus & Julia Stone basically made a new EP specifically for this game. 

These upgrades are nice, but is it "AAA-level" nice?  As notable as the improvements are, does newer tech alone justify a bumped $60 price point (retail), or should Square Enix receive more scrutiny for testing players' patience?  This series has always emphasized art design over raw tech, but it's tough to wholly disregard any suspicious tactics here.  I'm less divided when considering the value from time spent, however.  When considering my collectible-gathering, I'd ballpark the campaign's length at 9-10 hours.

Life is Strange has a knack for constructing emotionally earnest moments by any means necessary.  Considering how Deck Nine's previous work hardly hit even that expectation, True Colors represents noteworthy improvement by comparison.  But as True Colors trundles towards its finale, changing from a mechanically-light adventure game to a confined interactive movie, the 'means' of reaching here come with numerous sacrifices: poor pacing, mismanaged stakes, annoying narrative conveniences, and so on.  It's a game that elicits a plethora of vivid emotions, both good & bad, but my overriding true color by the end was beige.


Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.


VGChartz Verdict


5.5
Acceptable

This review is based on a digital copy of Life is Strange: True Colors for the XS

Read more about our Review Methodology here

More Articles

5 Comments
coolbeans (on 05 October 2021)

Similar to what was done with TLOU Pt. II review, if you're interested in going more in-depth in the comment section be sure to give a proper warning. First comment should say SPOILERS and then you can carry on by replying to your OG comment.

  • +6
Jaicee (on 06 October 2021)

SPOILERS!

  • +5
Jaicee Jaicee (on 07 October 2021)

KEY TO THE OP:

REGNANT means "ruling".
MELLIFLOUS means "sweet or musical; pleasant to hear".
TRUNDLE means "to move slowly or heavily".
LEE MEHR means "Get out your dictionary, pedestrian!"

THOUGHTS ON THE REVIEW AND THE GAME:

This review was very helpful. In addition to expanding my vocabulary and providing me an excuse to talk to myself, it also reframed Alex's empathic ability in a way I'd struggled to find the right words for: emotional manipulation. At first, I'd thought that this ability might serve as a kind of interesting metaphor for mental illness, especially when Alex finds herself unable to resist fighting Mac because of how deeply she can't help connecting to his rage. But I was surprised at how quickly this negative side effect to being an empath was narratively done away with; how early on Alex gains full control of it and it thereafter seems to serve essentially just as a kind of comic book-like mind-reading superpower that continues to exist essentially as just a cheesy gimmick. I couldn't help often thinking like "this feels kind of wrong, intruding into people's thoughts like this" and like there should be some kind of consequence that's not always positive because the ramifications of controlling people in that kind of way definitely wouldn't all be positive. To that end, I'm glad the developers thought to include Charlotte's distinctive character arc, but couldn't help feeling like that wasn't enough balance by itself.

In general, I think my take was similar to yours. "Life is Strange has a knack for constructing emotionally earnest moments by any means necessary" is perhaps the best one-sentence summation of this entire franchise ever written, IMO. I was fully on board with the game up until the wake. As the wake began to unfold, I was feeling like "this is really compelling shit! This ain't a real person and I'm feeling like it was; like I lost somebody close to me here!" I mean I know how that feels. But when Ryan and Mac begin arguing over whether Gabe's death was accidental and over who the guilty party is, that was the point where the developers began to lose me. That took a genuinely somber event and turned it into something more like a soap opera; like forced drama. I felt sad before that because I believed the events that were transpiring. From that point on though, the main quest surrounding Typhon Mining became a lot less believable and, to that end, less genuinely weighty, I felt. I was kind of amused by how the developers actually admitted how "difficult, if not impossible to believe" their own story had become right there in the script during the vote scene toward the end of the game. From that forced drama at the wake onward, the most interesting developments in the game to me were ones that were only peripherally related to the main quest at most: the LARP, the spring festival, and Alex's dream sequences experienced in the mine shaft. In fact, those were the highlights of the game overall to me.

I don't think Alex's dreams get mentioned enough in the commentaries on this game. The stuff at the hospital, Alex's dad leaving her and Gabe, and visiting the orphanage were just...wow. The game made a HUGE comeback in emotional resonance with me therein! I even liked how its progression was punctuated by the real-world context of Alex falling deeper down the mine shaft midway through, serving as a kind of metaphor for her steady mental-emotional plunge over the course of her life and how it nearly killed her. The fact that Gabe served as the manifestation of Alex's subconscious only made it more haunting and effective. In those moments, the game absolutely had me again! For a while I felt like "Wow, okay, maybe there is a real point to all this and a solid ending on the way!" And then...the silly kangaroo court. And it turns out Alex's dad couldn't be allowed to just disappear from her life, as that would be too plausible. No, instead he has to have conveniently wound up in this exact town, working as a miner under Jed who died specifically because of him. sighs What are the odds? I could say that of so much of this story: what are the odds?

Now look, I could also comment all day about how cynical the worldview of earlier LiS installments has been and about how much of a rosy over-correction True Colors feels like to me overall, but it might just end up with me looking petty for having thoughts like "This is supposed to small-town America? Where's the church? Where are the gaping potholes in the roads? Why is no one poor? Why does Alex get a job instantly and free room and board?" Maybe I should try harder to accept this game for what it actually wants to do and focus on whether it succeeds relative to its own goals. And you know what, I think this wants to be a feel-good game and honestly kind of does succeed at being one overall, at least to me (to which end I think it deserves a higher score than 55 percent, come on). Still though, I guess I'd just hoped for it to be something a little bit more.

  • +5
coolbeans Jaicee (on 08 October 2021)

Haha. True story: I introduced "roisterous" to Machina in the editing process. What's weird is it means virtually the same thing as "boisterous." I can't help but like those weird quirks with the English language.

I think that's a good way to capture how Empathy oftentimes felt superficial. I'm 50/50 about how her reflective nature was dropped after Ep 1. I understand introducing how chaotic her mirrored anger can be and letting players interpret how hellish her time was in state custody. But I also wish she felt more immersed when doing deeper investigations. How would Mac's fear look like in the lens of the LARP's finale, for instance. Charlotte's backlash was justified against me and I thought the writers managed it well.

"...is perhaps the best one-sentence summation of this entire franchise ever written, IMO. "

Now you're playing with my emotions! Seriously, this really made my night. I appreciate those words (and the comment altogether). I also like that outlook about the mine shaft part. The one part that stuck out to me was the dead rat found at the bottom and thinking to myself "you know... I don't recall seeing Mac after Ep 2." The reason I don't hold the dream sequence as highly is I don't like how it came about. I'm not always hyper-focused on things that stretch my disbelief, but something about her landing squarely on those support beams like that and its hasty placement was rubbing me the wrong way. I wouldn't even mind the dad's inclusion to the accident if there was proper buildup beforehand. Maybe she'd get abrupt flashes of her dreams between Ep 2-4 and THEN she sees those visions uninterrupted in Ep 5. It's those annoyances that make me wonder how much tweaking Deck Nine could've done in the editing room, were it a miniseries or film.

"And you know what, I think this wants to be a feel-good game and honestly kind of does succeed at being one overall, at least to me (to which end I think it deserves a higher score than 55 percent, come on). Still though, I guess I'd just hoped for it to be something a little bit more."

I'll admit it was a dicey one to score. It may be one of those I look back on and figure I was being too harsh. But there's something about those annoyances & SE bumping it up to a AAA TellTale-esque narrative adventure that had me weighing my criticisms. Having put the $$$ down myself, I was teetering between a soft recommendation for adventure fans or not.

Now that I've gotten this off my chest I can dive into your TC forum thread sometime over the weekend too.

  • +1
Jaicee coolbeans (on 09 October 2021)

TOPIX:

LANGUAGE: snickers Okie dokie then.

THE GAME: I mean, if it were all up to me, probably 50-60% of this game would just be scrapped and replaced with new material. Like I said before, the fight between Ryan and Mac at the wake was the point where the game started to lose me, so that just wouldn't happen. Gabe's death would be left a tragic accident and life would proceed from there. There would be no corporate murder mystery intrigue around Typhon and the game would ultimately just be a sappy love story you'd prolly like even less. ;-) Ryan wouldn't be in this game at all (for reasons discussed on my TC thread), so it would be a partnership with Steph. Alex wouldn't achieve mastery of her empathy power until the end of the game when she learns not to abuse it. Steph would play an integral role in that process. Alex would be mentally-emotionally unable to resist trying to help people with their problems and sometimes that would lead to positive outcomes and other times (as in the case of Charlotte already in the game) to negative outcomes. Alex's dream sequence would be integrated into this framework, as would the LARP, the spring festival, so those things would all stay. Also, most of the dialogue choices -- more or less all but the most meaningful ones; the kinds that require confirmation, I mean -- would be gone in favor of allowing for less choppy, more flowing, natural-feeling conversations (explained more on my thread). So yeah, this would be a very different game. But it's not up to me and there's lots to love about it as it is, I think. For me. And a lot has been improved on compared to previous entries. I can't help but feel like that deserves to be rewarded.

(And I found it much easier to believe that Alex might land on the beam than it is for me to buy that her dad wound up in that exact town AND worked for Jed AND died at his hands as well. Too many layers of convenience there compared to just one.

YOU RESPONDING TO MY TC THREAD: Yes please! :-)

  • +1