Have you ever been so mad you could barely speak? How about so nervous you couldn’t seem to stop yourself from talking? These are the sort of legitimate, raw emotional reactions that are rarely explored across the entire medium. Luckily for all of us, the Life is Strange franchise exists, and with it comes easily the most emotionally resonant experience of 2021. The newest installment in the experimental series, Life is Strange: True Colors, hits Steam today, and at the risk of spoiling the review, is fantastic.
I have to sheepishly admit that this is my first foray into Square Enix’s adventure series. I went in as spoiler-free as possible, and suggest all of you do the same. Given the brand’s traditionally strong emotional undercurrent, it will hit home more emphatically if you know as little as possible before starting. For this reason, I’m going to try and steer clear of narrative spoilers as much as I can. So, here goes nothing!
When Alex first steps foot in the city limits of Haven, Colorado, it was obvious that the location would lead to a very divergent path in her life. This is such a huge transition, because it entails both reuniting with her long-separated sibling, and making a life for herself outside of the confines of the American Foster Care system. To put it rather bluntly, Alex has seen some serious shit in her limited number of revolutions around the sun, and this is her first chance at a fresh start. Or is it?
As was the case in previous installments in the series, you’re once again privy to the protagonist’s rather unique abilities. In this case, Alex is an empath of the highest order. And no, we aren’t talking about a person who is just overly sympathetic to the plight of others. She possesses the power to see everyone’s emotions. You know the saying, “wearing your emotions on your sleeve”? Well, this is the most literal interpretation of the phrase possible.
Whenever a character (either NPC and otherwise) begins to feel any sort of overwhelming emotional response, the aura surrounding the individual will begin to highlight itself in a variety of different colors. If Alex manages to get close enough to these extreme feelings, she can tap into and view exactly what they are seeing in their mind’s eye. She gets to see the world with fresh eyes and gain a greater understanding of each character’s fears, dreams, aspirations, joys, and even insecurities. While hardly as earthshattering as having super speed or extreme strength, it’s up to the player to employ this unique skillset to help answer many of the game’s overarching mysteries.
Seeing the bigger picture
While the core storyline inevitably helps drive the narrative forward, Life is Strange: True Colors is essentially a character study on all of the unique types of individuals you can meet in smalltown America. The bonds that Alex inevitably forges with Haven’s populous are what takes this compelling adventure and elevates the experience even further. It’s almost as if there’s an unspoken thesis that you’ll never fully understand how the small impressions that you can make on someone’s life can forever impact their future.
Once you’d managed to bond with the locals, it’s even more impactful when you get a glimpse into their inner psyche and what they are really like. Sometimes, what you see on the outside doesn’t exactly mesh with what’s going on in their melon. Topics such as mental illness, the heartbreaking toll a disease like Alzheimer’s can take on someone’s mind, or even the numerous ways in which people cope with tragedy, are handled with a level of maturity and grace rarely seen in a broad stroke medium like gaming.
I’d like to take a moment to circle back to how true to life some of these emotion peeks truly are. As someone who has dealt with mental health difficulties throughout my personal life, I couldn’t help but be directly impacted by the various glimpses behind the proverbial curtain. A perfect embodiment of this was when Alex was trying to comfort a child who lost the most important male presence in his life.
I’m legitimately welling up recalling the tightness in my chest, almost like an anvil was sitting on my sternum, as this poor child poured out his broken heart onscreen. Much like Alex was experiencing, I felt his hopelessness, self-blame, and inner conflict. It didn’t just feel real; it was real. There’s no better way to put it. If that isn’t a glowing endorsement of each character’s performance, then I don’t know what is.
Mysteries be damned
But enough about the touchy-feely crap, and let’s get back to the meat of the experience: problem-solving. Notice I didn’t say that Life is Strange: True Colors’ focus was solving the mystery? This is mainly because it shines its light more on each character and their personal struggles, as opposed to a single massive through-line, that is touched upon continuously. These smaller-scale, interconnected stories mesh together to reveal a larger mystery, but it almost feels more like a side effect than the sole priority.
Essentially every problem-solving scenario is directly tied to the impacted character’s emotional state. Alex takes it upon herself to try and solve everyone’s problems, before going on with her life. Through examining the inner workings of each individual, she can see and hear memories, understand motivations, peek in on thought patterns, and even take their emotions upon herself. Selfishly speaking, I couldn’t help wondering why Alex was so concerned with solving everyone else’s dysfunction when she had enough of that in her own life already. I mean, trying to be a nice person can only go so far, right?
The larger overarching mystery, revolving around a corporate conspiracy of the highest order, is the locomotion that helps bookend each chapter of the narrative. Yet with all of the side distractions, it feels like there are times when Alex loses all sense of direction and purpose. She’s just taking her goddamn time and letting the revelations come to her, as opposed to the more offensively minded traditional detective story. It made me want to pull her aside and drive home a little bit of urgency, because good lord does the pace drag in places.
My eyes have been opened by Life is Strange: True Colors. I’ve never played a game that so deeply elicited a physical manifestation of raw emotion, throughout gameplay. The team over at Deck Nine has set the example for how all studios should approach mental health, exhibiting both maturity and emotional depth in the process. Aside from some points where the story progression lags slightly, you’ll constantly find more to appreciate as the story moves along. If you’ve ever wanted the opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, there’s never been a better opportunity.