In life, a universal commonality among us all is death, and while the topic of death is often seen as taboo to discuss, there are those who aim to confront the realities without fear. I’d say Spiritfarer definitely falls into this category, as it discusses the unavoidable nature of death openly and without reservations.
Right off the bat, it’s hard to classify what Spiritfarer is as a game. A nautical platformer base management visual narrative perhaps? Doesn’t quite flow off the tongue, does it? To use the words of Thunder Lotus, the developers, let’s just call it a cozy management game about dying.
In simple terms, Spiritfarer is an absolutely gorgeous game, with a touching story, and a fun and unique combination of gameplay elements. You are put in control of Stella who is accompanied by her cat Daffodil, and are given the mantle of Spiritfarer. Immediately upon starting the game you are treated to a beautifully ominous scene: crimson red water, pale pink cherry blossoms, and a large hooded figure leading you along a river.
The hooded figure is quickly revealed to be Charon, the previous Spiritfarer whose time in the role has come to an end. The influence of Greek mythology is apparent, in which Charon serves as the ferryman who carries the souls of the departed across the river Styx, the divide between the living world and the world of the dead. In Spiritfarer that divide is represented by the Everdoor, a gateway that spirits pass through once they are ready to move on.
And just as Charon finishes explaining this all to you, he passes through the Everdoor himself, placing this mantle of responsibility on your shoulders. What follows is a journey that explores these themes of death from a lighthearted, and at times somber, tone. As the new Spiritfarer your first job is to find spirits to ferry. And it’s not long before you meet Gwen, a lifelong friend of Stella, who is happy to join her friend on this adventure. Gwen will help you get acquainted with your new ship, show you how to navigate, and walk you through the rest of the basics.
With her help, it won’t be long before you have a jungled mess of a ship, with buildings on stilettos, crops that need watering, and spirits bugging you to run another errand for them. This is where the management part of Spiritfarer comes in. The mess of a ship you inherit quickly becomes your own and it won’t be long before it feels like home, not only for the spirits you ferry, but you as well.
Each structure has its purpose to serve, whether it’s a living space for those who call the ship home, a garden where you grow fresh produce, or a kitchen that lets you turn that produce into delicious morsels for your crew. There are a bunch of different buildings to build and upgrade, all of which bring along a bit of personality and functionality to your ever-growing ship.
Speaking of personalities, Spiritfarer has a ton of them; Gwen the sophisticated deer, Atul the toad that loves everything, and Summer the vegan gardening snake. Each bring their own stories with them and, while there are spirits to find, these are some of the first ones you’ll come across.
After a short while, you’ll be sailing between islands looking for new resources to put back into your ship and spirits to guide – all while helping out the spirits you’ve already found. As you take care of their needs they’ll help out around the ship by taking care of crops, milling lumber, or spinning thread for you. Do enough for them and they will open up about their lives, talking about their pasts and loved ones they’ve left behind. Some of the crew members are friends and family of Stella’s while others are strangers. Regardless of their relationship prior to becoming shipmates, the bond that exists when it is time to say farewell is very real indeed.
And with it comes sadness.
I think this is where Spiritfarer truly shines in its narrative. Death is an inevitability of life and in Spiritfarer it is made very clear that this is a story of the transition between life and death. This means that each character you meet will eventually be ready to pass on, and you as the Spiritfarer are the one who needs to handle that.
Whether or not you as the player are ready is a separate matter entirely. Knowing that you are going to have to say goodbye to these characters that you grow attached to is hard, but it’s no different to how death is in reality. There is always an end, and regardless of how aware we are of it, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a tinge of grief as well.
It’s an expertly crafted narrative that is a pleasure to experience. And despite the heavy-handed nature of the subject matter, the game remains a warm and inviting experience. Not only are the characters likable and fun to interact with, but the world is absolutely gorgeous and a treat to explore. The serene color palettes, lovingly crafted animations, and tranquil soundtrack come together to form a masterpiece of a game.
Even though Stella and Daffodil remain mute throughout the game, their actions, expressions, and even idle animations portray who they are as characters, so naturally it’s impossible not to take notice. Beyond that, each character has their own mannerisms that reflect who they are, and even the sheep have varied facial expressions that show they are not comfortable when you pull out your shears.
As a side note, I think my favorite in-game animation of the year is going to be watching Daffodil dangle from one end of a two-man saw as Stella cuts down trees by herself.
The game mechanics are also great. There are platforming elements present, but nothing too hard or tedious. The building is also handled very smoothly and once structures are placed they are easy to rearrange. Farming is simple and you only need to water the plants occasionally to help them grow faster, but there isn’t really a penalty for forgetting to do it.
It’s the same with feeding your crew: each character needs pretty much one meal a day, and if you give characters food they want, take care of their requests, and interact with them, their mood will increase and they’ll do things for you. And while failing to do those things will make their mood drop, it doesn’t dish out severe punishments. It adds to the “cozy” aspect in the phrase – cozy management game about death.
Spiritfarer, in my book, is a strong contender for game of the year. I love the feel of the game, the graphics are gorgeous, and the narrative is incredibly engaging. The topic of death is sensitive, but it’s one many of us can connect with and Spiritfarer manages to strike the chords it needs to make that connection. All I can do is recommend that you pick up a copy of Spiritfarer on Xbox One yourself so you can see the story unfold in the way it was meant to be experienced.