Another dull "we really want you to think this is a mystery but it really isn't" mystery game from Dontnod.
Warning: This review will have massive spoilers but they'll be in a section at the end.
Life is Strange 1 is one of my all time most played games ever, and I pretty much hate all the characters. So why have I played it more than any game in the past twenty plus years? Because developer Dontnod built one of the most living, breathing worlds I've ever played, and gave you an amazing gameplay mechanic to go crazy with it: time travel. You could twist and manipulate so many things that it made every playthrough a treat because you'd always find something new to experiment on.
To me, that's what Life is Strange has always been about. Not Chloe "The Burden" Price, not Max "Holden" Caulfield, not any of the ridiculous fanfic they've inspired. It's always been about the gameplay, which the franchise has never replicated. They've tried other mechanics, but they've never even been close to duplicating the depth of the first game. Thus, the series has become more about the stories and the characters... which hasn't been an enjoyable direction for me. At least not intentionally. All of this brings us to the newest entry in the series: True Colors. It's not a direct sequel, but a side story taking place in the same universe because that's the best way to increase sales. I had high hopes for this one because it promised the gameplay mechanic of being able to read people's emotions via empathy and use the results as you see fit. I loved in the first game how you could find someone's dirty secrets, rewind time, and completely use this new knowledge against them so this mechanic sounded very appealing.
Unfortunately it barely factors into the game, as most of the time you have to do it are mandatory gameplay segments that you're forced to participate in. You have to use it to help characters I didn't care about, and I never had the option to NOT help them. In fact one section you are teased with being able to leave the room but the game won't let you open the door. The rest of the time you can use your ability on random citizens to hear their thoughts, which do elicit the occasional chuckle but otherwise is a massive wasted opportunity and leaves you feeling very underwhelmed. That's the bulk of the entire game, the ability does evolve several times but it's all for scripted sequences that add nothing besides moving the story along. The rest of the game will have you walking and talking, solving the most basic of puzzles in the world, and watching cutscenes in a story that never really gets going.
With gameplay out of the way, what are we left with? The characters, who thankfully don't suffer from the usual Life is Strange insufferability (except for the annoying kid) but do suffer from being really uninteresting. The game stars Alexandra "Alex" Chen, our empath in question, who is moving to the Dontnod Small Town(TM) of Haven Springs to live with her older brother Gabe. Alex has spent most of her life in the foster care system, ostracised due to her unique abilities that have kept her at great length from forming relationships. Despite her haircut, she is BY FAR one of the most likeable Life is Strange characters and actually someone you want to see succeed. Her introduction to the town is all sunshine and roses as usual, but things quickly turn tragic when an accident will change her life forever and lead her on a quest for answers.
The journey will be very pretty, as these games are getting better and better looking with each entry. The town in particular is amazing, I probably spent more time looking at it than interacting with its citizens. Special mention goes to Alex's facial animations, this is the best stuff the developer has ever done. I should note this is at the cost of everyone else, supporting characters Charlotte and Mac look like they walked out of a different game and Alex's friend Ryan NEVER looks in focus no matter the scene. Most of the budget must have gone into the graphics rather than the soundtrack, as this is the most disappointing playlist of the entire series. Life is Strange games are legendary for their soundtracks, all of which I still listen to this day. True Colors is full of easily forgettable tracks, and for some reason they supplement this with covers of vastly popular songs that dwarf everything else being played. Very bizarre decisions all around.
You're looking at least 12 hours to finish the story, but this can easily be doubled if you take the time to smell the roses or play the multiple arcade machine cabinets dotting the landscape. The achievements are the standard Dontnod list of "Complete X Chapter" and "Find X Collectible" with a couple of random "Help This NPC" ones thrown in. All the collectibles are extremely easy to find, there are only a handful you might have to look up a video or guide to find. They add very little to the story, as most of them have nothing to do with anything so just feel like more padding in an already overly padded story. This is everything I have to say about the game in a non-spoiler fashion, I found it very boilerplate and HORRIBLY overpriced for what we got.
2/5 stars: Weak characters in a weaker story with disappointing gameplay.
And now onto the spoiler version of this review (everything will be spoiled, read on at your own risk):
In 2020, Dontnod released a game called Twin Mirror which could have easily taken place in the Life is Strange universe. It was a third person adventure game featuring a protagonist with supernatural abilities coming back to a Dontnod Small Town(TM) and quickly getting embroiled in a possible mystery. Early on he meets an annoying kid who loves to draw, the only Black female in the entire town, a cop that may or may not be crooked, and the town elder who is SO nice and kind and totally not the bad guy. He attends a wake that erupts into violence, goes through several trippy psychological sequences spurred on by his abilities, culminating in an ending where he has to go through his past memories in order to come to terms with who he really is. Along the way he also hunts for collectibles that kick off small memory sequences we are able to view. The game concludes with the main character having to make the grand decision of stay in the town or leaving it. Does any of this sound familiar? The entire duration of the game I couldn't help but wonder if True Colors was just a repurposed early draft of Twin Mirror, the similarities are that distracting.
And just like Twin Mirror, the story is poorly done and tension free. Early on you and your friends are at the edge of a cliff while a nearby blast from a mining operation is about to go off. Through a convoluted sequence of events your brother Gabe dies, partly because of the blast, and this is supposed to kick off a mystery as to why the blast happened when it wasn't supposed to. Compelling, right? They try to play it up as Mac, a security guard, might have let the blast happen to kill Gabe but this plot goes nowhere and Mac just falls out of the game after that. Of course the mining company is this huge evil corporation with cartoonishly evil employees, and we quickly learn they value their operation more than human life. Alex just feels like she's spinning her wheels trying to avenge her brother's death, and it just really feels like the developer wanted this to be more epic than it was. They even add a subplot that the company has a huge secret hidden underground, but this also turns out to be a smokescreen.
It gets even worse with Chapter 3, as the story grinds to a COMPLETE halt for one of the most cringey gameplay sequences I've ever played. Our old try-hard friend Steph from Life is Strange: Before The Storm throws a townwide LARP (Live Action Role Play) Party to cheer up the annoying kid, and you are forced to participate. This chapter feels neverending as you explore the town looking for treasures, while actually engaging in old school JRPG turn based menu combat. It's supposed to be cute and endearing, but I just found it so embarrassing and wanted it to be over ten minutes ago. When this finally ends we're able to resume the story, which has the town elder who is SO nice and kind and totally not the bad guy ask Alex to come with him out to an old abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere so he can show her "something". Alex, who has apparently never read or watched a piece of fiction in her entire life happily agrees, and of course ends up getting shot and shoved down a mine shaft. She survives this because Main Character Status and the rest of the chapter meanders around until you get to the traditional Life is Strange Ending A or B choice, leaving us with one very hollow story that really wasn't about much.
I don't feel the story was ever the focus here, as you're supposed to get into the characters and their lives, but none of them are worth it. You can pursue a romance with either Ryan or Steph, but it's SO obvious the game wants you to go after Steph because that's what sells copies. You actually get punished at the end of the game for trying to date Ryan, which makes me in the minority for even getting to that point according to the post-game stats screen. It's just all so transparent and obvious, but I've accepted what these games are about years ago. I'm just here for the laughs, which this entry rarely gave me. And that's the biggest crime of all, especially when factoring in the asking price for the experience.
2/5 stars: Weak characters in a weaker story with disappointing gameplay.