August 18, 2020
If you will allow me to be maudlin for a moment, 2020 has been an awful, awful year for many. For me personally, it has brought into a focus far more acutely just how short the time can be with the people that we love. Death is an inevitable end to life; it comes for us all eventually, no-one can escape it, no matter how hard we try. And when it does come, the best we can hope for is that we have lived a life filled with love and can go at peace with ourselves. Spiritfarer from Thunder Lotus takes this concept and weaves a stunningly beautiful game about death and the journey each individual takes to reach that final acceptance.
You play as Stella, accompanied by her cat Daffodil as the newly appointed Spiritfarer charged with bringing dying souls to the afterlife. Your task will be to find them in the world, bring them to your vessel, and keep them comfortable until they are ready to move on. Mythology plays a role. The first character you meet is Charon, and there are other characters from that mythos too, but as someone who is largely agnostic, I never felt like this was a game about specific beliefs, rather one about warmth and love. The meeting between Stella and Charon is stark. He is a huge, hooded, dark, and foreboding character with wizened claw-like hands. In contrast, Stella is a young, vibrant woman instantly setting the tone for what is to come. Spiritfarer may well be about death, but it’s filled with light and joy.
Charon passes to you the Everlight, a multifunctional tool that will allow you to perform all the tasks your various passengers will ask of you. He also bequeaths you a boat that will be your home and the vessel upon which you will house the lost spirits. Spiritfarer is largely a management sim with you gathering resources to build crafting stations on your boat to craft further resources and structures. However, it also manages to blend a number of different genres together including puzzles, platforming, even some metroidvania style upgrading of systems allowing you to access areas previously closed off to you. Your boat structure itself even takes the form of a sort of tetromino puzzle. There’s limited space and each building has a unique shape that you will need to fiddle around with to maximise the number of units you can have on it at any one time. This process of building and moving things around to achieve the most efficient use of space really creates a sense of ownership over your vessel with a setup that feels particularly unique.
Your passengers are represented by a wonderful cast of anthropomorphic animals. Each one is exquisitely drawn and perfectly represents the broad character type they represent. There is the glamorous and haughty Gwen, your childhood friend represented as an elegant deer and your favourite uncle Atul as a joyful fat frog. Your aunt Alice is a kindly old lady represented as a hedgehog, her frame rounded and plump, whereas lothario Giovanni is a handsome, charismatic and lazy Lion. These characters live with you on your boat, asking you to perform tasks for them. You will need to feed them and build a unique house for them, and then at times, they will ask you to take them to certain places from their past so that they can resolve issues that haunted them throughout their life.
Each character has their own likes and dislikes, Atul is a handyman and when his mood is low he fixes the boat for you, but in turn, all the banging will upset your other passengers. If you bring him to the ecstatic mood he plays a lovely flute melody around the ship that lifts the spirits of your other guests. Each passenger brings with it a particular skill, Alice the hedgehog will cook for you and bring you fruit from your orchard, Astrid is a metalworker and teaches you how to use the smithy to cast ingots. She will also gather excess ores for you when you visit various locations and Gustav periodically gifts you treasures that can be sold to the wandering merchant for glims, which in turn can be traded for seeds and resources.
Keeping your guests happy is a full-time job, but despite the myriad things you are required to do you never really feel like you are under pressure. Instead, the pace of Spiritfarer is entirely under your control. Resource gathering takes the form of a variety of mini-games. Most are simple and can after a time feel like a chore, cutting wood and smelting ores requires your constant attention, whereas others can be left until they are ready. Some of the tasks are extraordinarily beautiful, in particular the ones that require you to gather the more exotic items. The first time Gwen asked me to gather bright jelly I gasped at how gorgeous it was. Similarly, gathering lightning in a bottle for Atul or the pulsar fragments from the Bruce and Mickey event are so utterly captivating I often found myself moved by them. The music and the way Stella jumps and floats around the boat is so joyful I deliberately ensured I went to an area to do them regardless of whether I needed the resource gathered or not.
Inevitably your passengers will be fulfilled enough to move on. It is here where the real beauty of Spiritfarer comes through. Each character you escort to the Everdoor to pass through has achieved peace and it is incredibly moving. I will admit to shedding a few tears for every single one of them. There are some that stand out more than others, but all are a bittersweet event. Summer confronting the dragon that has haunted her for the past few years so that she passes with grace and dignity, and dear sweet Alice finding a brief moment of lucidity from her confusion particularly moved me, but they are all special in their own ways. There is a sense that each of these characters has been based in some way or another on real-life people that the developers have known, which brings a strong sense of warmth to every individual ending.
Spiritfarer is a unique management sim that manages to successfully implement its systems and mechanics in a way that feels tonally in perfect synchronicity with its themes. It is a poignant and bittersweet look at life and death. The overarching message is that each individual has their own journey in life that is special because it is unique to them. Whether that journey was successful and fulfilling becomes largely irrelevant because, at the end, if you have done the best that you can there is a relief and contentment in finally accepting that and letting go. A truly special experience.
Beautiful hand-drawn art style
Cast of unique characters
Platforming and movement is a constant joy
Boat structuring provides a sense of ownership
Musical score is gorgeous
Some mini-games can become a little tedious
Animations are a fraction too long
Spiritfarer is a unique and special game. A management sim that manages to blend its various systems with a poignant and bittersweet look at life and death.