There’s a lot of adoration that surrounds Life is Strange. It was a charming coming of age story that, while tackling a number of taboos, managed to hit a lot of emotional highs as we navigated Max’s state of mind, self and her, at times, troubled existence. It took an age-old formula, one that Telltale has done particularly well for the better part of a decade, and really only endeavoured to tell a difficult story, meant in the nicest way possible, to separate itself from the herd.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, set in the same in-game universe as Life is Strange, pretty much picks up where its predecessor left off. It doesn’t exactly reinvent its genre or explore the unexplored in terms of its subject matter, but it does tell a very real story of grief and isolation that is bolstered by the fanciful day-dreams of a young boy.Dontnod’s follow-up to Life is Strange centres on Chris Eriksen, a freckled young lad, whose imagination is his only escape. He often uses his alter-ego, Captain Spirit, as an escape, dreaming up extravagant adventures and a host of nemeses for him to thwart with his storybook powers. This make-believe is clearly Chris’ diversion from a stark and sad reality, as becomes evident throughout points of Captain Spirit’s bite-sized runtime. Of course, the episode is free so it’s impossible to criticise it for length. I couldn’t if I wanted to, as the game never feels too short or long. Playing hopscotch between dream and reality left me wanting more from this world. Every action, no matter how mundane, served its purpose. I used a slice of my time to nuke Chris’ father, Charles, a pot of Mac ‘n’ Cheese, this typified Chris reaching out to a dad whose despondency is ballooning.
The way The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit adds dashes of excellent and subtle world-building to map limited to the Eriksen’s modest homestead is one reason why Dontnod’s games are always so affecting. It becomes so easy to root for the characters even despite their apparent shortcomings. Someone who would rush through Captain Spirit might miss out on reading Charles’ carefully stowed letters, and as a result might chalk him up as a poster boy for bad parenting. However, if you read those letters you discover his is a life full of mismanaged anger and grief that he sidelines thanks to a bottle. It’s these real and earnest characters that are Dontnod’s bread and butter and Captain Spirit’s cast, at least in this premiere, is absolutely wonderful.
Captain Spirit follows the formula put in place by those that came before it. You explore, exchange pleasantries and tackle the wonders that rest in the Eriksen’s yard. It’s hard to call the game fun in a traditional sense and the action is awfully fleeting. It’s only a brief prologue to Life is Strange 2 after all, which is said to feature the same characters, but the episode’s open-ended approach lets players tackle the game’s handful of tasks in any order they like. It’s darling how the developers have managed to turn the mundane into the fantastical, there’s a point where the hot water goes out and you venture into an ominous realm, crafted by Chris and his boundless imagination, and it stands out as one of the cooler segments for me.
Life is Strange was never what I’d consider a looker. Its ability to explore touchy subject matter was its real strength and Captain Spirit is much the same. Despite being set in a bleak midwinter, the game boasts a colourful and bright palette that, while complimentary of Captain Spirit’s hopefulness and superhero persona, almost juxtaposes what goes on within the walls of the crestfallen Eriksen’s family home. Like Life is Strange, this spin-off has a number of graphical hang-ups like rendering and lip-syncing which can leave it looking, at times, rather ugly. Also, having tears just literally appear on a character’s face really does soften the gut punch of Captain Spirit’s more tender moments.The game is like a playable Zach Braff film and I’m not sure if that’s complimentary or not. On one hand, it’s an indie gem with some cracking music choices. Hearing the great Sufjan Stevens sprinkled throughout was an utter joy. On the other hand, though, the performances hamstring the experience. One of my bigger gripes in Life is Strange is the game’s hamfisted and dated “teen slang” really felt as though the script was penned by someone struggling with an oh-too-large generational gap. While slang isn’t the issue with Captain Spirit, the performances never seem to rise to the challenge in the episode’s more powerful scenes.
At the end of the day, the game’s presentation is probably going to play second fiddle to its story, world and relatable characters. Chris Eriksen, much like Max Caulfield before him, isn’t just a superhero, he’s Dontnod’s secret weapon, forcing us to willingly overlook some of the game’s glaring issues and rather formulaic gameplay. Adoring and feeling for this kid is just too damn easy.
THE PLAYSTATION 4 VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED ON A PLAYSTATION 4 PRO FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. DIGITAL EARLY ACCESS REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit sees Dontnod return to what they do best with a charming, quirky and, at times, hard on the soul adventure. I wouldn't exactly go so far as to call it 'awesome', it's more of an okay adventure set within an engrossing world that continues to go from strength to strength. As someone who values a game's plot, I was able to forgive some of Captain Spirit's inadequacies while I expect others might not be as magnanimous. I can say that the episode itself and its uplifting cliffhanger have left me wanting more of the indomitable Chris and his Captain Spirit.
A story both uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure