Life Is Strange: Before the Storm has always felt like a well-kept secret; forever playing second fiddle to the two mainline entries that released either side of it, but quietly better than them both. We have Deck Nine Games to thank for that, which now finds itself at the helm of the franchise's next big game as original creator DONTNOD Entertainment moves on to other projects. The result is Life Is Strange: True Colors, a game that both ditches the episodic roll-out of the past and feels more in line with the adventures of classic characters Max and Chloe.

It takes the series back to those small-town vibes, as friends try to kick back and enjoy themselves before a life-changing event forces a community to re-evaluate what it's known to be true all these years. Alex Chen is the latest young adult turned special power user on the scene, invited to live with her brother Gabe after eight years apart. She's only just begun settling in when he dies under suspicious circumstances.

These events trigger Alex's investigation into the company Typhon, which essentially has the entire town wrapped around its little finger. Delving any deeper would be considered spoiler territory, but what is there feels rushed. While the game does ship as a single product — eliminating the need to wait months on end for cliffhangers to be resolved — it's over inside 10 to 11 hours. That time isn't used wisely, and rather ironically, the title's at its best when it's not focusing on the main story.

The narrative presents its stakes in the first chapter, has Alex and co begin their investigation, but then sort of dilly-dallies for hours on end before hurriedly wrapping everything up with a large exposition dump at the end. It isn't particularly satisfying, and nor are the revelations designed to surprise you. Obvious plot twists are aplenty, creating an unfulfilling plot that cannot hold a candle to its predecessors.

What saves the story is its characters. Never have we wanted to be best friends with a digital creation more than protagonist Alex; the instantly likeable twentysomething carries the narrative on her back, injecting her personality, quips, and mannerisms at every turn. Flanked by returning character Steph and Gabe's brother Ryan, the trio is a joy to interact with. Bolstered by the wider cast — Jed, Ethan, and Eleanor in particular — Life Is Strange: True Colors could lay claim to having the best range of characters in the series to date.

Those closest to Alex always have something fun or touching to say, allowing the protagonist to further leave her shell and demonstrate the quirky personality hidden within. Ryan and Steph double up as the two love interests in the game, but there's so much more to the town of Haven than the characters with the most airtime. Eleanor, in particular, is an older lady with a heartbreaking story that's likely to hit close to home.

Life Is Strange: True Colors lacks that final ingredient, then. Its characters are stellar and it has the heart and spirit of the first game, but the story itself is on the opposite end of the spectrum. There's a very big mismatch here: the game's characters are world-class; the game's narrative is non-league.

Now this wouldn't be a Life Is Strange game without a new superpower, and Alex comes packing with the ability to visualise and act upon people's strongest emotions. Say someone is feeling particularly depressed about the death of Gabe: the protagonist can activate her power and interact with objects in the environment that hint at why they're feeling this way. Alex is then able to help them calm down or see sense by providing counterpoints once she understands the problem. However, the power can go one step further as Alex actually takes that burden away from them and bears the weight herself.

It's by far the most interesting implementation of the ability, providing you with the chance to heal a character's emotions, but then risk worsening Alex's headspace by having her deal with those thoughts instead. The risk-reward system can then impact Alex's reactions during some of the story's most important scenes, or provide her with extra information to help form a better response to accusations. It's just a shame one of the series' most compelling powers has been partnered with what is a fairly uninteresting plot.

However, those who love the way Life Is Strange games play won't be disappointed once you actually gain control of Alex's movements and actions. The third main instalment plays just like any other entry in the franchise, allowing you to freely explore environments and interact with objects, which Alex will always comment on. The emotion-based power can only be used on specific people and items, but it's always worth exploring those bonus opportunities. Either to unlock Trophies or explore side stories — the latter progress as you work your way through the game so it's always worth returning to NPCs.

The highlight is chapter three, where the game forgets the main story for a few hours and turns Haven into a full-on LARPing session. We won't spoil how gameplay is affected — it's worth experiencing for yourself — but rest assured it almost makes the two concluding chapters worth it. While Life Is Strange: True Colors wholeheartedly sticks to what the series is known for, its attempts to strike out and do something new are most welcomed.

What we'd rather not see make a return in future instalments, however, is the diabolical framerate. On PlayStation 5, every single outdoor scene suffers from huge framerate drops that can severely impact your overall enjoyment. It's a constant nuisance since roughly half the game takes place in the fresh air, meaning you're going to have to put up with frequent stutters and pauses. The game performs much better once you're indoors, but even then a small framerate drop is part and parcel of the experience. This one needs a post-launch patch or two to bring it up to par.

Then there are small visual glitches that aren't particularly game-breaking but are enough to make you wince a little. Texture pop-in is fairly frequent and we caught Alex in a T-pose before correctly resetting during one cutscene. Again, we expect updates after release to address these bugs.

One technical overhaul that has gone in the game's favour is its use of performance capture; 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 around emotions that require detailed expressions to be properly conveyed. Just watch some footage of previous titles and you'll immediately notice how much of a facelift this is.

Conclusion

Life Is Strange: True Colors had every chance of becoming the series' best game to date, but it's been let down by arguably its most important element: the story. Wonderful character work can only go so far carrying a narrative that just isn't particularly exciting. And while Alex's power crafts one interesting scenario after another, it too isn't enough to offset those dull plot points. With an awful framerate to boot, Life Is Strange: True Colors falls short despite everything it has going for it.