When Dontnod released the sleeper hit Life is Strange back in 2015, few would have expected the incredibly emotional experience we were to be subjected to. 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.
Roll on to 2018, and here we are eagerly anticipating the sequel series, with Dontnod providing a small palette taster with 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 coming series with Life is Strange 2.
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 step into the shoes of the lively Captain Spirit, 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; displaying 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 almost at will – 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 enjoyment.
He’s not only a well thought out character however, he’s voiced expertly and with nuance for the moments when his excitement is brought into contrast with some of the world around him. If Chris is to be the protagonist of Life is Strange 2, he’ll make a fantastic change of pace to typical video game avatars.
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. Some interactive objects are now infused with the possibility of being victims to Captain Spirit’s powers, like blowing up a snowman for example. This can lead to a couple of genuinely surprising and humorous moments, breaking up the standard observable or minimal use objects in the world.
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 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- or the choice-based one that the first Life Is Strange is. Chris stays mostly inside his own head, letting us piece together his backstory on our own.
It’s not all excitement and happiness in the world of Captain Spirit it wouldn’t be a Life is Strange universe without some emotional turmoil. Wandering the household, you’ll discover the reason behind the glaring void of Chris’ mother, but most prominently the conflicted persona of his father, Charles. 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.
All of Chris’ fantasy powers are revealed to be a coping mechanism. It’s clear that Chris is still in mourning — but the game is also a lovely reminder that we each grieve in our own ways.
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 is subjected to. Particularly for people who have experienced similar childhood moments, it’s a narrative undercurrent that will resonate with some 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 backstory struggles in order to help allow us to empathise with his issues.
The atmosphere never becomes too foreboding or down-trodden luckily, 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 jaw-dropping of regular AAA titles, with some textures lacking detail and audio cues at times slightly out of sync, but these are minor nitpicks that won’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 and Before the Storm had impeccable music scores with a selection of wonderfully chosen tracks. This latest taster 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 believable and infectious protagonist who provides a fantastic parallel to the typical, broody lead characters we’ve become accustomed to and 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.