Last week I reviewed Dontnod’s latest game: the horror-infused, action-adventure frustratothon that was Vampyr. And while I had a serious problem with the way the game handled its combat, I had to admit that the storyline itself was vibrant and engaging: it was just tedious to make it to those moments. The bad news is that I played more of Vampyr and there was no end of those woes in sight. The good news is that Dontnod has recently offered us an experience far more in line with what we’ve come to expect from them over the past few years. And while it’s true that The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is essentially a two hour demo for the upcoming Life Is Strange 2, it was so full of heart and emotion that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it a day later.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a free game that was released by Dontnod on June 25th of this year. In it you play 9-year-old Chris, a sweet kid with an alcoholic dad, a dead mom, and an overflowing imagination. In true Life Is Strange fashion, the gameplay largely involves talking to people and searching for hints, puzzle solutions, and scraps of storyline that will only pull you deeper into the plot.
As Chris you imagine yourself as Captain Spirit: a courageous super hero who can bend the world to his will. Your goals involve piecing together your costume, defeating snowmen in your backyard, and doing anything else that you can to cope with the hand that the cruel outside world has dealt you and your father.
The moments when you join Chris in his imagination are visually striking, and very charming in a Big Fish sort of a way, as your protagonist is so earnest and good that you want to do everything that you can to make his life as fantastic and adventurous as possible. But the truly powerful moments come from your interactions with Chris’s dad.
In a lot of stories about abusive, one or both parents often come off as faceless monsters that exist only to demean and destroy the childhood of their children. The often more accurate and as a consequence, more difficult story to tell, is that of the father or mother who tries very hard to be good to their children, but still ends up hurting them. The authority figure who loves and destroys in equal measure, creating a nervous, frightening climate for a child to live in.
The relationship that Chris has with his father is one of love in spite of neglect and abuse. And it’s a love that you can understand and appreciate. As you uncover the story behind your lost mother and your father’s dark descent, you don’t just get glimpses at how happy they all used to be, you get truly loving moments. These moments are what make their current lives that much more tragic, and there were multiple moments during this two-hour game that I found myself fogged over with tears.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, Captain Spirit follows generally the same slow, methodical style that Life Is Strange has followed. The puzzles, if they can even be called that, were surprisingly difficult. They weren’t impossible, but there was a level of lateral thinking required that isn’t often the wheelhouse of the adventure game. Let me just put it this way: when you’re looking for the password for your dad’s phone or the combination on a lock, the answer isn’t going to be conveniently scrawled on a post-it note somewhere, as it tends to be in other games. It’s possible to finish the game without finishing a lot of these puzzles, but they lead to more insights into Chris’s life and story that are definitely worth your time.
Overall, The Awesome Adventures Of Captain Spirit might be one of the best free introductions to a game I’ve ever played. It sets up that quiet, sad beauty that Dontnod has generally nailed in the past, and most definitely got me excited for Life Is Strange 2, due out in September.