Gaming continues its philosophical musing on fatherhood with The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. This free taster is a prequel to the recently revealed Life is Strange 2, which will very likely focus on the star here - Chris; the titular Captain Spirit. It’s charming and troubling in equal measures, a fascinating insight into a young mind: something that has become the trademark of developer, Dontnod. Whereas Life is Strange deals with Max and the pressure of choice all teens feel, and Before The Storm tackle’s Chloe’s emotional turmoil surrounding the death of her father and the birth of a new love in her life, Captain Spirit focuses on the broken relationship between father and son, through the lens of a seven year old boy.
This game is available for the very reasonable price of absolutely free, and it’s well worth a download even if you’re merely mildly curious. It’s only two hours long, too, so there’s no massive time investment required here. What you get is a single, snowy environment to explore as Chris, learning all about his relationship with his father Charles, the tragic disappearance of his mother, and his obsession with super heroes. Anyone who played even an episode of Life is Strange will be instantly at home with how the game actually works. Walk around, look at stuff, trigger events, speak to people, and solve the occasional puzzle. It’s low-impact gaming; more like enhanced storytelling than anything.
The story itself is classic Dontnod, and is both tightly scripted and succinctly told. Without giving too much away, Chris and Charles were both massively impacted by the loss of their mother / wife, and have dealt with it in different ways. As a family unit, they’re at breaking point, and while both have the best of intentions, it’s all going very wrong. You experience it all through Chris’ eyes, as he plays super heroes with himself, pours over memories of his mother, and attempts to get some attention from his father. At times it’s utterly heartbreaking to see how this young boy is treated, but there’s a subtlety to the storytelling that rarely means you lose sympathy for Charles, no matter how deadbeat he may seem. It sounds trite to say this, but if you’re a parent - especially a single parent - you’ll notice that there are layers and behaviours in this game that ring eerily true, even if they often live at the very darkest end of the spectrum. It’s incredibly well observed, at times, although perhaps too stereotyped in places.
Seeing everything from Chris’ perspective lends a wonderful playfulness, however, and manages to keep things as light as possible. Sure, it’s tragic that Chris has to clear out and recycle all the empty beer cans that his father has scattered throughout the house, but he turns it into a game - first as a test of his Captain Spirit might, and then as a shooting gallery, to test his ‘fireball’ (read: snowball) shooting ability. Many interactions in the game have a ‘Captain Spirit’ enhanced version, where you hold down the Left Trigger and interact to do something awesome. And by ‘awesome’ I mean you do it in character, as Captain Spirit. It’s a cute touch.
There are other features practically lifted wholesale from previous Dontnod titles. You can pop on a vinyl record and just sit on your father’s bed, listening to the old songs that Chris’ mother played. It’s a wonderful moment, and one you can repeat or just sit and enjoy for as long as you like - but it’s essentially the same as staring up at the star light in Rachel’s room in Before The Storm, or playing on the railway in the original Life is Strange. This isn’t a criticism: they’re absolutely beautiful touches, and a sweet reminder that it’s ok to just sit back and enjoy being inside a game world for a while. It helps that the songs in this game - as in previous titles from the developer - are perfectly chosen, and delightfully mellow.
If there’s any real criticism of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, it’s that the game is too short, and some of the puzzles a little too reliant on knowledge of how Life is Strange titles actually work. Even the limited environments you’re given aren’t fully utilised - the treehouse and garage are pretty sparsely populated with objects - so you spend most of your time inside Chris’ small house. Sure, this is only a taster of a game; a gateway drug to Life is Strange 2, but it’s frustrating to be given relatively little to explore. Similarly, several of the puzzles rely on trial and error number-crunching, which is a staple of the franchise, but if this is your first Dontnod game then it can be a little obtuse. Solving all the puzzles, such as they are, will undoubtedly extend the game’s length, ensuring you’ve read every scrap of paper and looked at each object, but you may well grow tired of the same few rooms before everything is complete.
This is, essentially, nit-picking of the highest order. Captain Spirit is - to repeat - completely free to download, and a wonderful couple of hours of gaming. It tells a great story, introduces some complex characters, and gives a handful of standout moments in its short playtime. There’s more charm and genuine human drama packed into these 120 minutes than most games manage in 20 hours. The final scene of this game neatly sets up the start of Life is Strange 2 and, based on this early slice, it’s going to be another gripping, accomplished story game. Can’t wait.