(Pocket-lint) - The Life is Strange series proved extremely popular during a period where interactive, narrative adventures were at their peak. We couldn't get enough of them. But, Telltale Games has since fallen by the wayside, Quantic Dream has yet to follow-up 2018's Detroit: Become Human, and the game category seems to have settled into a holding pattern. Only the excellent, horror-filled Dark Pictures Anthology games have stood out.
Thanfully, Life is Strange: True Colors is here to bring the whole genre back to prominence. It is inventive, beautiful looking and superbly written. The acting throughout is excellent too - essential considering a lot of the time you're watching rather than playing - and you'd have to be made of rock for it not to tug at emotional heartstrings along the way. Something at its very core.
The pace can be slow going at times and there's a lot of wading through exposition that's unrelated to the plot, but it's all scene building and skippable. More often than not there's payoff too, at somewhere down the line, which all seems par for the course for Life is Strange in its multiple guises. However, this one is a little different...
The game's developer, Deck Nine, created the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm - taking the reins from DontNod - so has experience with the series. However, True Colors is its own beast entirely. It benefits from an original story, new characters, and even new powers. It doesn't need you to have played any of the others (although we recommend you do anyway) and stands on its own two feet.
This will be a largely spoiler-free review, so we won't dwell on many story specifics as exploration and discovery is almost entirely the fun. We will say, however, that lead antagonist Alex Chen feels both familiar and unique in equal measure.
Having spent a lot of her life in homes or foster care, we meet her as she's about to meet up with her older brother, Gabe, for the first time in many years. He has invited her to live with him in the quiet Colorado town of Haven - and through awkward first impressions, plus a few revelations, Alex feels like she could fit in.
Sadly though, this is a Life is Strange game and that means a disaster soon arrives to change the narrative completely. Much of the game then twists into a mystery adventure, of sorts. We'd say more, but that would genuinely be spoiling it.
Like Max Caulfield and Daniel DIaz, from Life Is Strange 1 and 2 respectively, Alex has a superpower/curse. In her case, she can see and interact with extreme emotions in others, represented by different coloured auras around them. She's an empath to the nth degree and not only can she feel why others are feeling angry, sad, afraid or joyful, she can, at times, absorb those feelings and experience or tackle the burden herself.
Sometimes, this just helps with the ambience - knowing what non-playable characters are feeling for thematic reasons. Often, it presents significant plot points and decisions.
Like its predecessors, and many games of this ilk, major decisions permeate True Colors, shaping the story going forward and even impacting the cast's opinions of Alex herself. There are a heck of a lot of cut scenes, but mostly you get to determine their content through options presented to you, or previously chosen without the notification of the consequence at the time.
Having replayed a couple of the chapters (after their completion) there are distinct changes in the turn of events depending on which path you choose. This is often the case for "Choose Your Own Adventure" style games, but seems to be even more varied and important here.
Another interesting feature for Twitch streamers is the ability to play the game with a viewing crowd, allowing them to make the major decisions as you play. Sadly, we couldn't see this in action as our review embargo forbade us from sharing anything with anyone, but watch out for it online.
Not all decisions are game-shattering, of course, some are just sweet or sad. Some have little impact at all, save for changing someone's aura and mood. There are plenty of side quests too, such as figuring out how to get a couple who clearly like each other to date, and Deck Nine has gone that extra mile to add additional distractions to boot.
Option-based adventuring can feel a little distant at times, as can looking at stuff you can't actually interact with. It's great for narrative building, but doesn't help with immersion. That's why we love the tiny asides, such as arcade machines you can actually play to get a high score - including one of our favourites of all time, Arkanoid: Revenge of Doh. You can play the coin-op just as if it was in front of you. It's something we've always loved in the Yakuza series of games and helps expand the game world by offering something extra, tangible and playable.
There's also a very big nod to Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) in general at one point. Again, we won't spoil it, but it makes the game more interesting and layered.
In many ways, that's thanks to Alex's abilities. When she takes on an emotion from someone she sees the cause and world through their eyes. That allows both the writing and creative team to take us away from a sleepy mining town to more fantastical settings, if only for a while, and True Colors greatly benefits from it.
It also benefits from a superb colour pallette - after all, the name wouldn't make much sense if it didn't. Running it on a Philips OLED TV via PS5 (our testing platform of choice) offered up a rich, saturated playing field that makes the best of high dynamic range (HDR).
Unfortunately, like the Twitch streaming feature, ray-tracing support wasn't activated for our review build (coming with a day one patch, we understand). We don't therefore know what it adds, nor any compromises in resolution and such like that it might require. To be fair though, the game looks stunning regardless, with character models fully mo-capped, including facial expressions and mouth movements.
The visuals are matched with a wonderful soundtrack too, with moments where you are happy to just sit back and listen to the music. There are few games that feature a vinyl store (ones where they haven't been overcome by zombies, anyway) so it's great to find that the audio is as well-considered.
Life is Strange: True Colors offers a wonderful package all-round. Our only caveat is it won't be for everyone, with most action, even interaction, at a premium. It can be very slow-paced at times, and many of the best nuggets in the narrative come from exploration outside an obvious story path. You could race through, ignoring much of it, but you'd miss out on a lot.
Repeat play is also unlikely, regardless of how many branches or alternative arcs you can find by making different decisions. The fact you can dip back into individual chapters helps though, as you can just find out what another choice would have done without having to play the game again.
Still, one play through is enough. Alex, while shy and reserved, is a great character to get to know, while the other residents of Haven are rounded and three-dimensional (graphically and in representation).
It's fitting that True Colors is essentially about emotions, as that's its biggest draw to this game. It cunningly plays on your own emotions, while telling a story about their manipulation - or not, as the case may be. In that, Deck Nine has made a game more than worthy of the series. It might even start a new boom phase for narrative adventures too.