How do you say goodbye to a friend? What about a parent? Thunder Lotus Games’ Spiritfarer seeks to answer these hard questions, making it not your usual resource management simulator. This tale about legacy and accepting death was one I couldn’t put down until credits rolled.
Developer & Publisher // Thunder Lotus Games
Platforms // Switch, PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox One
MSRP & Release Date //$29.99, Aug 18, 2020
Reviewed On // Xbox One
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone that hasn’t gone through the grief of losing a loved one. To wake up every day and go to bed every night, knowing they won’t be there. Even then, you feel lucky to have known them and be a part of their lives. You might have even changed them for the better without knowing it. It’s a bittersweet feeling, but Spiritfarer wants you to embrace this reality.
Stella, the young protagonist with a star-shaped hat, inherits the power of the Spiritfarer, a guide to lost souls who helps them pass into the afterlife. Some reflect on their past lives to you while others want to go on one last adventure. It’s up to Stella to help them make the most of their time before she ferries these troubled souls to their final resting place. As the new ferrymaster of the dead, Stella sails across the sea in search of those unwilling to pass on just yet.
At the core of Spiritfarer is a resource management game, harboring similar traits to Stardew Valley and the Animal Crossing series. Much like the aforementioned games, Spiritfarer has an addicting gameplay loop. But what makes it stand out from the rest is its well-written and emotional story and a diverse cast of characters. The driving force is to find out more about these eccentric spirits you encounter and what it will take for them to pass on. This involves recruiting them onto your ship and completing their individual quests. But maintaining the relationships with your new ship mates is not all you do.
The New Ferrymaster of the Dead
Stella’s ship is essentially a moving village. As the player, you’ll have the option to build homes, kitchens, gardens, factories, windmills, and more to add to the deck of your ship. Each new spirit you find will also ask for their own home. Of course, they’ll also want lavish furniture, delicious food and an endless supply of hugs as if Stella was running a Disney cruise trip. But how will you ever get the supplies you need to build these things and cook AMAZING meals?
This is the part of the game that makes hours feel like minutes. Stella and her crew will sail to many islets and areas to mine ore, cut down trees, fish, meet other characters, and tons of other activities to obtain your much-needed supplies. As a twist, certain materials are collected through area-specific minigames. One includes sailing to spots with thunderstorms to catch lightning in a bottle to be used for certain craftable items. The further you advance the story, the more materials, buildings, and upgrades for Stella’s ship you’ll unlock.
The game gives you full freedom to arrange these buildings on your boat at any given time in a Tetris-style grid. Houses and structures take up a certain amount of space that you’ll shift around to your liking. If you want all the houses at the top, you can do it. To spend less time jumping around my ship, I kept the loom, sawmill and ore factory all in the same area. There are more craft-focused buildings to place as you play, so it’s a good idea to place your buildings smartly. Even then, I loved the freedom to customize the deck of my ship how I wanted. My playthrough boiled down to me being the indecisive landlord constantly moving houses and buildings around.
Sailing With Spirits
Spiritfarer does include a fast-traveling mechanic, but it could be more convenient. Rather than just picking a previously visited spot, you have to sail to a fast-travel stop then warp to another stop near the location you want to go to. It’s an unnecessary and time-consuming mechanic that breaks the rhythm of the gameplay. But, it does have its advantage. Since the map is quite large, you’ll spend a fair amount time sailing from one place to another. Fast-traveling mitigates that time when you’re in a hurry to get materials.
The visual iconography of the map is quite impressive, which is good since you end up referring to it frequently. Scanning a piece of land will tell you its name and what activities are available, its resources, and any hidden treasures. A majority of locations felt more of the same and repetitive; a setting would either be Asian-inspired, a construction site, or a small village. This realization is a bit disappointing considering how enjoyable the rest of the game is. Unlike Animal Crossing, Spiritfarer isn’t the game you’ll likely play for forever. Nor would your experience be completely different on a second playthrough.
As for knowing what you have and have not collected in an area, it should be less confusing. The menu brought up when hovering over an island will grey-out names or be illuminated. I couldn’t tell which one indicated something new or something I had already completed, leading to some unnecessary backtracking. I wish there was a more obvious form of an in-game explanation. Illuminated resources were, I assume, meant they were ready to be harvested again. But even in my 20+ hour playthrough, I was still confused. The game doesn’t require much backtracking though, so it didn’t ruin my experience.
Thankfully, the main characters and NPCs have a lot more personality than the different areas where you’ll make port.
The Sea Is Full of Tales
I absolutely loved the bittersweet story. While told in a children’s book art style, Spiritfarer themes may be a little too complex for kids. As a warning to parents, characters do swear in this game. But that just reinforces its more adult storytelling. Individual character arcs are never fully told, but more pieced together through smart dialogue and gameplay moments.
One of the first spirits you’ll meet is Gwen. She plays the bigger sister role for Stella, teaching her the ways of this odd world. She’s conservative and a bit standoffish at first. Eventually, she confides in Stella how the broken relationship between her and her parents has affected her. This regret keeps her from moving on into the afterlife unless Stella can help.
Each lost soul Stella meets has their own unique personality and arc. Characters are pushed into facing their past and accepting their previous lives. And with that reconciliation comes something the player is going to have to accept: saying goodbye to them forever. Not every main character will have this effect, but I ended up feeling a strong bond with most of them. When one character left my ship and into the afterlife, it triggered an emotional response I didn’t expect. This caused me to reflect on my response to the subtlety and suddenness of death as well as the heartfelt moments I shared with my spirit shipmates.
Spiritfarer wants to convey that, yes, life is beautiful, but death is not the end. The loss of a loved one, whether it’s a parent, a pet, or a friend, has a major impact on those close to them. But while they may not be here anymore, they’re never truly gone. Spiritfarer creatively embodies this message in its fun gameplay and moving story that’s more than worth your time. Small gameplay hitches are present, but they never got in the way of the successfully-told narrative. I was sad, but left feeling fulfilled when the game reached its satisfying conclusion.