As kids, we relied on our imaginations to take us on unbelievable adventures. We battled aliens on far-off planets or thwarted supervillains as costumed crime-fighters. Sometimes our made-up adventures acted as an escape from the real-life problems we were too young, or too afraid, to face head-on.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit tells an affecting tale of a lonely boy going through the same circumstance. What separates this standalone story, a prequel to the upcoming Life is Strange 2, from the two previous series is its tone. It trades teenage drama for a more lighthearted story about the adolescent struggle of remaining innocent when reality rears its ugly head. Captain Spirit’s heart and poignancy resonate on several levels. It also sets an intriguing table for the future of the series.
Chris Erikson lives with his father in the wake of his mother’s passing a couple of years prior. The wound left by her death remains fresh; primarily in his father, Charles. Despite clear efforts to be a good dad, Charles too often turns to alcohol to numb his depression. His drunken, erratic behavior manifests in a rage that, unfortunately, often find its target in Chris. In spite of this, Chris loves his father but hesitates to ask others for help for fear of losing him and of provoking his wrath. This puts him in a terrible position of simply dealing with it in hopes that things work themselves out.
To escape both his dad’s issues, as well as his own loneliness, Chris turns to his imagination; primarily, his Captain Spirit superhero persona. Donning the cape and drawn-on mask gives Chris the confidence to tackle anything. He won’t even enter the basement without wearing it. His charming games reminded me of how powerfully the imagination can mask or improve our outlook on the real world. Chris tries to use his powers to eliminate Charles’ booze. He envisions the heater in a creepy closet as a monster to be conquered. These games feel like a blend of simple fun and a subtle cry for help, and I felt awful when his unhappy realities shattered his illusions.
What makes Chris work is that he feels like a genuine kid as opposed to a forced idea of one. It’s tough to properly articulate why, but there’s an earnestness to Chris’ writing that makes me think “that’s a real kid”. Much of that has to do with the character’s strong, believable performance. He’s appropriately naive, excitable but timid, with a slight amount edge (he says “damn”) that feels appropriate given his age and environment.
I also like Charles’ writing. He’s not a one-dimensional “angry dad” but rather a good person struggling to reconcile with an understandably difficult situation. We see many examples where his former self shines through, which makes it all the more tragic when he decides to pick up a bottle.
Players can spend the entire episode running down Chris’ to-do list of activities. These involve assembling his superhero outfit, uncovering hidden treasure, or defeating a villainous snowman. None of this is required to finish the episode, a fact the game fails to communicate. In fact, I unknowingly went straight to the conclusion without finishing a single task and had to replay it. I’m glad that I did, because I couldn’t stop smiling as I spent the day being reminded of my own childhood. Watching Chris entertain himself is a relatable and endearing sight eroded by an underlying sadness. He’s clearly struggling himself, which makes his optimism inspiring.
Chris’ wild visions acts as an exciting canvas for Dontnod to paint on, allowing more creative freedom in both presentation and gameplay. For example, sitting inside of his dad’s truck suddenly transports Chris to a desolate alien planet. His main power, so to speak, lies in his ability to interact with objects using his imagination. Special prompts allow Chris to turn on a TV with his mind (when he’s actually holding the remote) or “super-clean” a glass to disastrous results. Though these actions give the illusion of Chris possessing supernatural abilities, they’re ultimately just flashy ways of performing basic actions.
Other expanded gameplay mechanics offer more substantial enjoyment. Answering Charles’ call for breakfast relies on real timing; the longer he has to keep calling Chris, the more irritable Charles becomes when he finally does make it down. A majority of gameplay segments center on inventory-based problem-solving. Surprisingly, some require real effort in figuring out which item to use in a given scenario. To navigate a tricky labyrinth, I had to first locate a decoder sheet, then use it in conjunction with a map to determine to correct path. The more engaging nature of these puzzles offer a deeper level of play than in previous Life is Strange titles. If this provides a glimpse of Life is Strange 2’s style of play, it’s getting off on the right foot.
Captain Spirit rewards exploration by packing its small playable area full of secrets. The vast majority of the character’s histories lie in hidden documents, photos, and, of course, music. Like many adventure games, Captain Spirit begs to be explored. I highly recommend poking around because beelining it to the end robs players of a wealth of background information. Accessing some of this stuff requires work; for example, figuring out how to access Charles’ locked bedroom dresser. I had a blast combing every inch of the area and learning more about Chris’ intriguing little universe.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit stands as a wonderful appetizer for Life is Strange 2’s main course. Its empathetic story presents a great lesson on how our minds can help make the most of any rough situation. The new interactions and thoughtful puzzle-solving add weight to an otherwise light experience. Since its a free download, there’s no excuse not to spend an afternoon vicariously reliving your childhood.