What makes Haven Springs, the setting of Life is Strange: True Colors, so special? One character, toward the end, offers some ideas: “It’s a flower shop run by multiple generations. A bar owner who greets every customer by name. It’s a Spring Festival tradition going back a hundred years.” Good guesses all, but I would venture that many American towns feature similarly homespun pleasures. The menacing presence of a uranium mining company, however, which conducts questionable operations by night and digs up personal information on the townsfolk, may not be so common. Plus, no other American town can boast as a resident Alex Chen, a young woman with curious powers. You don’t need to watch what you say around Alex, but you may want to watch what you feel; should an emotion grow strong enough, she sees it pulsing around you like the nimbus of a saint—red for anger, accompanied by the crackle of fire, blue for sorrow, etc. What’s more, she can drill into such stirrings and prise free the pertinent information: a useful skill, though there is probably more money in uranium.
Alex is an orphan, living in state care, and she is invited to Haven Springs by her older brother, Gabe, whom she hasn’t seen in eight years. He offers her, in ascending order of plot importance, a hug, a place to live, and, when he dies in a nasty accident, a conspiracy to unpack. The mining company, Typhon, was supposed to delay a scheduled blast, so that Alex, Gabe, local ranger Ryan, and Ethan, a precocious kid in need of rescue, could get clear. No such delay occurred, and Alex wants to find out why. This means getting to know the locals, the layout, and the beat of regular living. In other words, it means that the developer, Deck Nine, knows where this series is at its best: when life is ordinary.
The last entry, Life is Strange 2 (which was made by Dontnod Entertainment), had the structure of a road trip, as two brothers went on the lam. The trouble with that game is that a road trip is less of a structure and more of a string, a this-and-then-this narrative of lengthless feel, all about finding yourself by getting lost. Only, I would often lose myself trying to find where we were. The episodes came out months apart, and I would have to read the previous chapter’s synopsis, as though I had pulled into a lay-by and were thumbing through an A-Z. The new game not only homes in on a fixed location but allows us to play all five episodes at our own pace.
As was the case with the original Life is Strange—whose supernatural heroine, Max Caulfield, was able to rewind time—True Colors understands the need for normality in such stories: without the natural, the super tends to lose its way. As such, we get a supporting cast of the reassuringly terrestrial. There is Steph, who runs the record store and the radio station that broadcasts, amid stacks of vinyl, from its back room. Ryan, a blonde hunk who comes wrapped in plaid and a pleasant layer of naïveté. Jed, kindly owner of the Black Lantern bar, whose beard borders on the topiary. And, of course, there is Alex, who, when she isn’t tuning into other people’s moods, is anything but aerial; she has her feet on the ground, having been buffeted and scratched by a broken system, and she seems, if not wise, then weary beyond her years.
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True Colors is directed by Zak Garriss, who also gave us the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Garriss appears to understand the need for mechanics—that story alone, however steerable, doesn’t make a good game. I was relieved to find Alex’s gifts came in handy at several points—helping a man at the Spring Festival guess how many jelly beans were packed into a jar, by sensing the panic in the vendor, for example. Elsewhere, in an effort to cheer up Ethan, to whom Gabe was like a father, Alex and Steph design a live action role-playing game—or a L.A.R.P.—for him, which has Alex and Ethan running through Haven Springs trying to gather treasure. In a nice touch, we see the world through Ethan’s eyes, filled with imagery that springs from the haven of his imagination—all crumbling temples and enchanted swords, and, for our benefit, health bars overlaying the screen.
It’s a trick that Deck Nine has pulled a couple of times, the wrapping of play within play, and story within story. Before the Storm entailed not only a session of Dungeons & Dragons (organised by, yes, Steph) but a school performance of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Fortunately, the writing here, led by Felice Kuan, doesn’t disappear up its own fundament. There are a couple of bum notes. One late-in-the-day revelation, regarding Alex’s father, felt ill-advised and unnecessary. And the decision to introduce new powers, as required by the plot, is a pain. I could just about deal with Alex’s ability to inhale the emotions of others, like secondhand smoke, and thus relieve them of the smouldering burden. But her sudden knack, at the conclusion of the tale, for darkening rooms and wrenching tearful confessions out of guilty souls struck me as a step too far.
Still, these aren’t deal breakers. True Colors is the best game in the series since Before the Storm, and it will satisfy your narrative craving for a time. The drama is as earnest and irony-free as it gets, and, after the credits rolled, I was left with the same sense of impermanence that has attended all but the first of these games—the impression of a slightly insubstantial pageant, something of a L.A.R.P. Haven Springs seems almost too perfect in its pastoral bliss, the fabric of its vision faintly baseless. And, as expected, the isle is full of noises; the soundtrack includes original music, by Angus & Julia Stone, who favour the doleful croon-and-strum approach, and there is a mix of licensed tracks, among them the likes of Kings of Leon, Dido, and Metronomy. In short, it sounds like a Life is Strange game. If there is anything that transcends this feeling, it is Alex, precisely because her true colours were on show from the start, and you wonder where she will go next. Her revels are not ended.
Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia
Release Date: September 10, 2021
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