Life is Strange is the last game I expected to benefit from an expanded universe. 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 I’d ever played before. It also ended on a very specific and powerful note, which made it a great standalone story.
Last year, publisher Square Enix decided to tap the well again with a prequel called Before the Storm that explored the backstory of Max’s sidekick Chloe. It also introduced a new developer since series creator Dontnod was swapped for Deck Nine Games. It had all of the hallmarks of a throwaway game meant to cash in on the success of the original. But it wasn’t. Before the Storm was a touching and warm take on Life is Strange that served as an excellent piece of fan service.
Now, we have The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, which is a standalone episode meant to tease the mysterious Life is Strange 2. It 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.
Captain Spirit stars a young boy named Chris who lives in a small house with his dad. For reasons I won’t spoil, the two live alone; 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.
The game plays out as something of an interactive drama. If you played any of Life is Strange before, or similar series like those from Telltale Games, you’ll feel right at home. Much of the experience is simply walking around and looking at objects and listening to Chris talk about them. There’s also lots of dialogue and player-driven choices. For example, when Chris’ dad has a few too many, you can choose whether to tell him he’s had too much or simply change the subject.
Each Life is Strange series so far has had its own unique gameplay twist. In the original, it was Max’s time-bending powers, which let her solve puzzles by rewinding time. In Before the Storm, Chloe was able to use her considerable attitude to argue her way out of certain situations. Chris, meanwhile, deals with things the way many kids do: with his imagination. The titular Captain Spirit is a superhero Chris created, and when he puts on a Captain Spirit costume, Chris becomes braver and has superpowers that exist only in his mind.
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.
These moments are charming, and they really drive home what a sweet kid Chris is. He’s in a bad situation, but he does his best and tries to have some fun along the way. But there’s a sense of impending dread that builds over the course of the episode, which lasts around an hour. Early on, Chris’ dad promises that the two will go out and buy a real pine Christmas tree as soon as he finishes watching the basketball game. He then proceeds to grab a bottle of whiskey to wash down his beer.
The climax of Captain Spirit isn’t especially surprising — I could feel it coming early on — but I still dreaded it the entire time I played. I found myself stalling for time. I’d check every item in Chris’ treehouse to see if they were significant, and if there was a chore to do around the house, I did it. At one point, I spent 10 minutes laying on a bed listening to Chris’ mom’s old records. This triggered some wistful reminiscing from his dad, and gave me some really great insight into the family and their situation. This also meant that when the big moment did finally hit, it hit especially hard.
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-favorite right up there with Chloe and Max. In that way, Captain Spirit is a perfect tease: I spent such little time with Chris that I can’t wait for more in season 2.
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.