The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit Review
A charming (and free) insight into Life is Strange 2
When Dontnod released the sleeper hit Life is Strange back in 2015, few expected it to become the emotionally thrilling rollercoaster ride that we all enjoyed so much. The original release was a short, episodic series that followed the life of Max Caufield as she dealt with typical teen drama as well as the sudden realization that she could control time. It was an interactive mashup of Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars, and it was unlike anything that has been released on the market.
Now, in 2018, we are eagerly awaiting Life is Strange 2. Luckily, Dontnod has provided us with something of an entree in the form of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Released for the grand total of absolutely nothing, it provides a creative, enthusiastic and charming couple of hours that are absolutely worth experiencing and paves the way beautifully for the sequel.
The game doesn’t shed much light on what we can expect in the second season, nor does it have any major connections to the first. But it offers exactly the kind of melancholic experience Life is Strange fans have become accustomed to — just in a smaller package. More importantly, it shows that the franchise can grow without losing what makes it so special.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit has us stepping into the shoes of the lively Captain Spirit himself: a young boy called Chris living with his father Charles in their snow-swept home as Christmas approaches. Chris is an eager protagonist, a far cry from the shy Max Caulfield or emotionally burdened Chloe Price; he displays the naivety of youth and the infectious enthusiasm of imagination. Chris’ mom is out of the picture, and his father is struggling to deal with that. He’s an alcoholic, depressed former basketball star who — at least initially — puts on a good front as a kind, caring parent. But it’s not long before the signs of neglect show.
Dontnod taps into childhood nostalgia frequently —through elements such as toy soldier fights, dastardly made up villains, the desire to impress his dad. While these may be typical tropes, it’s hard not to be drawn into Chris’ imagination and be swept up in the glee of his musings as you interact with his environment and learn about his early life. Chris believes that he’s a superhero, Captain Spirit, who has telekinetic powers that allow him to summon objects with just his mind and outstretched hand. He’s a character with energy and zeal, giving the short episode a real feel-good factor and making it a genuinely enjoyable experience.
He’s not only a well thought-out character conceptually; he’s also voiced expertly and with nuance for the moments when his excitement is brought into contrast with the reality of the world around him. If Chris is to be the protagonist of Life is Strange 2, he’ll be a refreshing change compared with many of the avatars we’re accustomed to in games.
Gone are the time-bending powers and the smack-talking interactions of the first season and Before the Storm. Instead, Dontnod has introduced a couple of mechanics built around Chris and his imagination. For example, Chris can interact with some objects in the world via his Captain Spirit powers (blowing up a snowman is just one example). This can lead to a couple of genuinely surprising and humorous moments, and it offers some unique variety in terms of how an in-game protagonist interacts with objects in the world.
Having said that, much of what you’re actually doing in Captain Spirit is mundane household chores. While Chris’ dad becomes progressively inebriated, his son takes out the recycling full of old beer cans, fixes the water heater so he can wash the dishes, and makes his dad something to eat. But these seemingly boring activities are imbued with childhood whimsy. Chris doesn’t microwave some macaroni and cheese, he iridates it using his superpowers. He doesn’t fix the water heater, he has a heart-pounding battle with an evil villain called the Water Eater.
It’ll be interesting to see how this mechanic is used in the coming season, and whether it can adequately replace the aforementioned skills of previous protagonists.
If you’ve not been a fan of the “walking simulator” genre, this title is unlikely to change your mind. Choices also make their appearance too, but it’s unclear from this short snippet of the story how they’re going to impact on the narrative. Dontnod chose to keep this aspect relatively low-key and minor in the episode, so it’ll be interesting to see how that develops. The game is not the heavy on dialogue, nor is it as choice-based as the original Life Is Strange. Chris stays mostly inside his own head, letting us piece together his backstory on our own.
Of course, it’s not all excitement and happiness in the world of Captain Spirit ; it wouldn’t be the Life is Strange universe without some emotional turmoil. Wandering the household, you’ll discover the reason behind the glaring void of Chris’ mother, but perhaps even more importantly, the conflicted persona of his father, Charles, starts to become clearer. Dontnod does an excellent job of delivering a nuanced and clearly fractured father figure, a man who is both dearly loving towards his son while simultaneously offering a darker, less empathetic side.
The specific role that Chris’ powers play in the context of his mother and father — and the broader narrative — is something we won’t spoil here, but it becomes a central and endearing pillar of the experience.
In its short runtime, there are moments of genuine tension, sadness and emotion as you piece together Chris’ world and discover the environment he both revels in and suffers from. Particularly for people who have experienced similar childhood moments, this narrative undercurrent will resonate very strongly. Charles is never made to be a villain or a stereotypical asshole for example — he can be humorous and understanding with Chris — as the story fleshes out his struggle in a way that enables players to empathise with what he is going through.
Fortunately, the atmosphere never becomes too foreboding or down-trodden, and the heavy moments are treated with care so as to not suffocate the star of the show, but you’ll quickly notice a more intricate story building behind the scenes. If Dontnod can maintain this level of care and fantastic world building with darker themes, it could prove a powerful emotional concoction.
The world of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is built with the same art style as the previous seasons, with a different backdrop to what we may have been used to with Arcadia Bay. Chris’ room is full of life, colour exudes from his outfit and the attention to detail to craft a convincing universe is exceptional.
Graphically, the game may not be as show-stopping or as jaw-dropping as big-budget AAA titles, with some textures lacking detail and audio cues at times being slightly out of sync, but these are minor nitpicks that shouldn’t detract from the overall experience or delivery. The Life is Strange series and Dontnod’s other works have never been graphical masterpieces, but they’ve always demonstrated a creative and personal touch with their art style which brings their worlds to life.
What is undoubtedly top of the quality department, however, is the soundtrack. Both the first season of Life is Strange and Before the Storm had impeccable music scores with a selection of wonderfully chosen tracks. This latest iteration follows in the same expert mould, blending an emotive and stunning soundtrack within the backdrop of the game. Dontnod has nailed the use of music once again.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit squeezes more emotion and genuine empathy into 2 hours of a game that few can manage in 30 or 40. It establishes a delightfully believable protagonist who provides a fantastic parallel to the typical, broody lead characters we’ve become accustomed to and it establishes a world full of intrigue and meaningful themes.
At the end of the episode, developer Dontnod promises that you’ll “see more of Chris in Life is Strange 2.” The new season is expected to tell a new story with a new cast of characters, and I’m glad that Chris is among them. If there’s one thing Dontnod is good at, it’s creating characters that you grow to care about. Chris is destined to become a fan-favourite right up there with Chloe and Max.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is available for free now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC; Life is Strange 2 will kick off on September 27th.