Life Is Strange: Before the Storm has always felt like a well-kept secret; forever playing second fiddle to the two mainline entries that both sides of it released, but quietly better than either of them. We owe that to Deck Nine Games, which is now at the forefront of the next big game in the franchise as original creator DONTNOD Entertainment moves on to other projects. The result is Life Is Strange: True Colors, a game that both leaves the episodic roll-out of the past behind and is more in keeping with the adventures of the classic characters Max and Chloe.
It brings the series back to that small-town vibes as friends try to sit back and enjoy themselves before a life changing event forces a community to reevaluate what has been known to be true all these years. Alex Chen is the youngest young adult who has become a special power user of the scene and, after eight years of separation, was invited to live with her brother Gabe. She has only just started settling in when he dies under suspicious circumstances.
These events spark Alex’s investigation into the Typhon company, which has essentially the entire city wrapped around its little finger. Diving even deeper would be considered spoiler territory, but what is there feels rushed. While the game ships as a stand-alone product – you no longer have to wait months for cliffhangers to resolve – it’s over within 10 to 11 hours. That time is not being used wisely, and ironically, the title is best when it is not Focus on the main story.
The story portrays their missions in the first chapter, lets Alex and Co begin their investigations, but then fool around for hours before they hastily conclude everything with a large exhibition junk. It’s not particularly satisfying, and the revelations aren’t meant to surprise you either. Obvious twists and turns in the plot abound, creating an unfulfilled plot that cannot hold a candle to its predecessors.
What the story saves are its characters. We have never wanted to be better friends with a digital creation than protagonist Alex; The instantly sympathetic mid-twenties carries the story on her back and brings in her personality, her jokes and her mannerisms at every turn. Flanked by the recurring character Steph and Gabe’s brother Ryan, the trio is a pleasure to interact with. Strengthened by the broader cast – especially Jed, Ethan, and Eleanor – Life Is Strange: True Colors could claim to have the best selection of characters on the series yet.
Those closest to Alex always have something funny or touching to say, which allows the protagonist to further step out of her shell and demonstrate the quirky personality that hides inside. Ryan and Steph double as the two love interests in the game, but the town of Haven has so much more to offer than the characters with the most airtime. Eleanor in particular is an elderly lady with a heartbreaking story who is likely to hit close to her home.
Life Is Strange: True Colors lacks that last ingredient. Its characters are standout and it has the heart and spirit of the first game, but the story itself is on the other end of the spectrum. There’s a huge discrepancy here: the game’s characters are world class; the narrative of the game is not league.
Without a new superpower, this wouldn’t be a Life Is Strange game, and Alex comes with the ability to visualize and respond to people’s strongest emotions. Suppose someone is particularly depressed about the death of Gabe: the protagonist can activate their power and interact with objects in the environment that indicate why they are feeling this way. Alex can then help her calm down or make sense of it by providing counterpoints once she understands the problem. The Force can go a step further, however, as Alex actually takes this burden off them and bears the burden himself.
It’s by far the most interesting implementation of the skill that gives you a chance to heal a character’s emotions, but then you risk degrading Alex’s headspace by keeping her busy with those thoughts instead. The risk-reward system can then influence Alex’s reactions during some of the most important scenes in the story, or provide additional information to help her find a better response to allegations. It’s just a shame that one of the show’s most compelling forces was brought together with a fairly uninteresting plot.
However, those who love the gameplay of Life Is Strange won’t be disappointed once you gain control of Alex’s movements and actions. The third main part plays out like any other entry in the franchise and allows you to freely explore environments and interact with objects that Alex will always be commenting on. The emotion-based power can only be applied to certain people and objects, but these bonus opportunities are always worth exploring. Either to unlock trophies or to explore side stories – the latter is pushed forward as the game progresses, so it’s always worth going back to NPCs.
The highlight is chapter three, in which the game forgets the main story for a few hours and turns Haven into a full LARPing session. We’re not going to reveal how the gameplay is affected – it’s well worth experiencing for yourself – but rest assured that it makes the final two chapters almost worthwhile. While Life Is Strange: True Colors wholeheartedly goes by what the series is known for, their attempts at doing something new are warmly welcomed.
However, what we might not want to see in future installments is the diabolical frame rate. On PlayStation 5, every single outdoor scene suffers from enormous frame rate drops that can seriously affect your overall enjoyment. It’s a constant nuisance as roughly half of the game takes place in the fresh air, which means you have to put up with frequent stutters and pauses. The game performs much better when you are indoors, but even then, a small drop in frame rate is an integral part of the gaming experience. This needs a post-launch patch or two to get it up to date.
Then there are small visual flaws that aren’t particularly groundbreaking, but are enough to make you wince a little. Texture pop-ins are pretty common and we caught Alex in a T-pose before he reset correctly during a cutscene. Again, we expect post-release updates to address these bugs.
One technical overhaul that worked in favor of the game is the use of performance tracking. a first for the series, and it really shows. Characters look so much more realistic, which goes a long way when the game’s power is based on emotions that require detailed expressions to be properly conveyed. Just check out a few shots of previous titles and you will immediately see how much facelift this is.
Life Is Strange: True Colors had every chance of becoming the best game of the series yet, but it fell short on arguably its most important element: history. Wonderful character work can only go so far as to carry a narrative that is just not particularly exciting. And while Alex’s Power creates one interesting scenario at a time, it’s not enough to even out those boring plot points either. At a terrible frame rate, Life Is Strange: True Colors falls short despite everything it has to offer.