The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a Brief But Touching Ode to Childhood and Trauma
While it has a short run time, Dontnod makes the most of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit as an intriguing setup for Life is Strange 2.
From the first few minutes of hopping into The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, there was an immediate sense of emotion that came rushing through me. As I saw the main character, Chris, wake up on a crisp winter morning to a day full of possibility and adventure, surrounded by action figures, dinosaur toys, and superhero posters, I couldn’t help but think back to those sorts of moments from my childhood, waking up on Saturday mornings and ready to take on the day.
There was an immediate sense of nostalgia that I couldn’t help but be enamored with. But as Captain Spirit went on, so too did it remind me that childhood isn’t necessarily all fun and games, and equal amounts of emotions came rushing through me again, but from more of a place of catharsis from childhood’s hardships.
Released last week as a free download on consoles and PC, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a spin-off of sorts in the Life is Strange series. More or less you can consider it a “demo” or “standalone experience,” as developer Dontnod Entertainment made clear with its announcement during E3 2018, that Captain Spirit will directly tie into the upcoming Life is Strange 2, which debuts its first episode in September. Despite its smaller-scaled story in comparison to what we’ve seen from the series before, Captain Spirit‘s brief running time still manages to pack a pretty significant punch.
The title itself sets up the story of Chris Eriksen, a 10-year-old boy who lives in the mountainous outskirts of Portland, Oregon with his father, Charles. The beginning of the episode shows us a day in the life of the family as Chris wakes up on a snowy Saturday morning to play and explore. Over the course of the title’s two hours, however, the player discovers far more of the backstory and dynamics surrounding Chris and his relationship to his father, along with the tragic circumstances that have fallen on them.
The story gradually reveals that Chris’ mother passed away several years before the events of Captain Spirit, leading his father into a downward spiral of alcoholism, financial struggles, and an uneasy relationship with his son (primarily due to his alcoholic fits). With the circumstances in his daily life proving to be stressful, Chris dons the cape and mask of his titular alter ego, “Captain Spirit,” to retreat into fantastical sequences of him overcoming supervillains and obstacles, thanks to his burgeoning real-life superpowers that he discovers in the process.
While the story itself is very different from what we encountered from Max and Chloe’s story in the first season of Life is Strange (or its prequel, Before the Storm), Captain Spirit still feels much in line with what we’ve seen from the series as far as its themes and storytelling. Underneath the fantastical superhero sequences and whimsical sections where Chris simply gets to be a kid and utilize his unending imagination, there are broader issues and themes at play that get to the heart of Captain Spirit‘s characters, between its exploration of a troubled father-son relationship, the tragedies of losing a loved one, and going even further by delving into alcoholism and depression.
I don’t necessarily want to go into a ton of detail about some of the specific circumstances or situations that come up in Captain Spirit, both to avoid spoilers and because some of the topics it covers may be difficult for some to read in-depth about (such as child abuse). But when at its most effective, there were sections of the game that genuinely caught me off-guard, emotionally. In a lot of ways, Captain Spirit really feels like Dontnod having learned from their strengths and weaknesses when it came to the storytelling and character development of Life is Strange‘s first season, and it paid off well here with some genuinely gut-wrenching and heartbreaking sequences that were difficult to make choices for, but kept me invested emotionally in the story.
Gameplay-wise, Captain Spirit plays much like the past Life is Strange titles as you guide Chris around the house to complete a list of various “Awesome Things to Do.” Interspersed with more mundane tasks like washing the dishes or doing laundry over the course of the episode, Chris must find and collect the components of his Captain Spirit costume, fight off enemies like “The Snowmancer,” and explore his backyard treehouse.
Whether it’s these more routine household tasks or the more fantastical areas of Chris’ imagination, Captain Spirit shines with its visuals that very effectively blend the realms of reality and fantasy that the title plays with. What could have come off as hokey or annoying in the form of Chris’ various flights of fantasy are instead brought to live convincingly and genuinely, as he imagines the house’s water heater turn into a menacing foe, or the very elaborate transformation sequence of him turning into Captain Spirit.
Though part of this title’s existence is undeniably to help build up buzz for the upcoming Life is Strange 2, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is more than a worthwhile chapter in the series that has me looking forward to seeing what comes next. As the end of the episode implies, Chris and his father will be making a return in Life is Strange 2 and have some part to play in the series’ second season, so playing through Captain Spirit not only serves as a great introduction to these characters, but also provides an intriguing hint of what’s to come in the second season.
The only glaring weakness that I can find in it is the fact that Captain Spirit is a pretty short experience that should take players only a few hours at most. While this isn’t necessarily a huge detriment, Captain Spirit sets up such an intriguing premise and cast of characters that it’s a bit of a bummer that it feels like it ends just before it really has a chance to get started, coupled with a bit of a cliffhanger ending that I don’t know pays off quite as well as it had hoped.
Despite its short running time, Captain Spirit nonetheless works remarkably well as a standalone story set in the Life is Strange universe and a preview of what’s to come for the series. Captain Spirit is equally heartbreaking and joyous, and while it’s a brief experience, it captures Life is Strange at its best qualities by telling a story with relatable characters encountering ordinary, real-world problems in extraordinary ways. I couldn’t help but see a lot of myself in Chris throughout Captain Spirit, and I can’t wait to see what other awesome adventures he has coming in the future.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is available now as a free download for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.