Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
After a few of back to back reviewing shorter games, I'm finally bringing y'all a big one! This game's been on my list for such a long time and multiple people have recommended it to me. Since I waited so long to finally get it, I was able to pick up the physical edition for the Switch which came with stickers, postcards, and a digital file for the art book and soundtrack. I usually don't get physical editions, but this one felt pretty worth it since it wasn't "limited run" version with a ridiculous price tag. Spiritfarer is a management sim where you ferry spirits to the afterlife. Spiritfarer packs exploration, farming, crafting, and heartfelt stories all into a beautiful package that stands apart, despite occasional bugs and questionable gaps in storytelling.
You play as Stella, who's just been assigned to be the "new" Spiritfarer and is being guided by Charon, the previous holder of that role. Charon tells Stella that she will be the one to provide a temporary home to spirits and, when they're ready, take them through the Everdoor. She, along with her cat daffodil, manages a large "hotel" boat that travels across the world, picking up spirit passengers. Your first passenger, a deer named Gwen, gives you a better tutorial of how you'll build, farm, and cook on your boat for all of your passengers. Gwen is clearly someone who knew Stella well during her life, but for a while it's not clear who exactly she is to Stella. As more passengers join, including Stella's uncle Atul, it's clear that Stella has a certain connection with most of these passengers. You'll make stops on various islands to chop wood, mine ore, and collect food. Everyone on your boat has their certain needs and food preferences, so you'll often be cooking, building, and upgrading their homes. Once you've fulfilled a spirit's wishes, they'll soon inform you that it's their time to cross the Everdoor.
I'd heard a lot of good things about Spiritfarer's soundtrack, and it definitely did not disappoint. Each spirit who joins your boat has their own theme, and hearing it brings certain memories and feelings for each of the characters. Many tracks are reprises of the game's main theme but different enough to capture different moments in the story. Despite Spiritfarer being primarily a story about death, the world and characters are incredibly colorful and beautiful throughout. The main characters, each a different animal or creature, are given so much personality from the way they're portrayed. Constantly traveling from island to island was made a lot more enjoyable thanks to the beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and serene music. Each area has such a distinct look, ranging from peaceful Japanese mountains, to a bustling city, to the stark red river that is the entrance to the Everdoor.
Spiritfarer's been out for over a year now and in that time I had heard a bit about bugs found in the game. Most likely it has now been thoroughly patched and fixed by now, but I did encounter just a few myself. Sometimes my cat would get stuck in place, or there would be a dialogue bubble floating in the air even when no character was there. Also, later in the game, moving across my boat sometimes resulted in framerate drops due to the high amount of buildings and activity. Just once, my game crashed on the Switch and I lost about 30-45 minutes of progress. This actually wasn't that bad - however, what actually bothered me is that the game only gives you the option to "save and quit" and not save alone. The game doesn't autosave enough to warrant that, and after the game crashed on me I wanted to save more often, but had to "quit" in order to do it. Overall, though, none of this really impeded my experience playing the game. There's actually a decent bit of platforming involved through the skills you gain from shrines, and I enjoyed the challenge of having to scale to high places to discover treasure on islands. Spiritfarer gives you so much to do that you're constantly jumping and running around, so it's nice that you move more swiftly than you would in most farming sims. I definitely got sucked in the way I do with a lot of similar genre games, but at the same time I also wanted to make sure to advance the story. Sometimes this was tough because if you got held on up one quest you wouldn't be able to advance elsewhere. I was sort of "bottlenecked" like this and had to often look up where you can find a specific item, being confused and having to backtrack through the wiki to see what steps lead to getting that item. This felt similar to my experience playing Hollow Knight, and maybe it's just a symptom of non-linear games. This was one of the few games where I was motivated to finish as many quests as possible and complete almost everything, like cooking every dish. However, Spiritfarer actually comes to a point near the end where atmosphere starts feel different - without your passengers, your boat feels empty and quiet. There's no longer any reason to farm, since you have no passengers to feed or home. Through gameplay, its telling you that it's time to do your final quest.
Spiritfarer really shines in its characters. I would've said it also shines its storytelling, but unfortunately, it always left me wanting a little more there. The spirits tell you a lot about their life and you definitely get a good understanding of who they were, but you don't get a good understanding of who they were to Stella. I was expecting to learn more about the characters' lives when I took them to the Everdoor, but that didn't really happen. I understand a lot of it is left until the end, though, when you finally learn about Stella herself. It all came together for me at that point, and I had a big "ohhh" moment regarding a lot of the characters that I'd previously met. Summer's story hit me especially hard once I learned more, as it her painful struggle had been so well represented through gameplay. Then there was Stanley, who I just fell in love with from the start. Getting to know each character's habits, personality, and favorite food made you actually miss them when they were gone. Their house would be empty and you'd still have their favorite food in your inventory. After playing the game I began to read through the art book, which actually contained way more details about the lives of the passengers. This was a nice little addition, but I do wish more of this backstory had been included in the game itself. The non-major characters in Spiritfarer, or the cloaked spirits you talk to on islands, all look mostly the same. I understand the need for this, but it was slightly annoying when doing sidequests trying to figure out who you're supposed to talk to when they all look the same. I also felt like 99% of them weren't given an individual personality and their dialogue was pretty uniform across all of them. However, some of the quests with them were really fun and silly.
Spiritfarer is truly special, and very different from games in its genre. Its focus on death in such a positive and accepting way pulls at your heart, but also makes you feel a certain resolve and peace. It did make me teary when it was time to say goodbye, but it wasn't the heart-wrenching journey I'd excepted it to be going in. I think I would've connected more with the characters if I'd seen their connections earlier on, but I think it was successful in its form of storytelling nonetheless. I recommend this game for anyone who likes cozy management or farming sims as well as emotional, resonant real-life stories told through games.
I'll leave you with a quote from Gustav, a sometimes pretentious but also wise and caring passenger in Spiritfarer. For me, it's a reminder of how videogames can make us feel.
"And so it seems the only hope humanity has for transcendence is through art. Meaningfulness pulled from our chaotic minds, not for utility, but for its own sake."
Spiritfarer is available on PC, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One
Played on: Switch
Playtime: 42 hrs