A heartwarming game about… death? It sounds unlikely, but that’s exactly what Spiritfarer is.
I hate using the word ‘cosy’ to describe games, such is the latest trend, but I can’t think of a better word to describe the feeling of sinking into a play session with Spiritfarer. It’s like reuniting with old friends – and for Stella, the protagonist of the game, that’s exactly what it is. She’s just become the spiritfarer – the person in charge of looking after the recently departed, ferrying them to their eternal afterlife. On paper, that sounds grim – but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As Stella, it’s your job to travel around in an ever-growing boat, picking up spirits to take them on their final journey. It’s not as simple as taking them from A to B, though. While they’re aboard your boat, you’ll have to care for them – feed them and give them somewhere to live – and complete a number of tasks for them. You’ll want to keep them in as high spirits as possible. After all, this is their last journey in life; you might as well make it a good one, right?
And so while keeping people fed, happy and housed is often the crux of Spiritfarer, it’s far from the only thing you’ll be doing. It advertises itself as a ‘management game’, but it’s something of an unfair representation. Yes, you will spend a lot of time gathering resources, creating materials and cooking meals, but you’ll also explore gorgeous environments, engage in some light platforming, complete a variety of missions and more. Rarely does a game feel so varied, and yet manage to remain completely cohesive throughout.
While Spiritfarer doesn’t so much have one consistent narrative throughout, there is very much an order to your progression. Each passenger you take on board your boat has their own story to tell, and to uncover it you’ll have to help them in a variety of ways. Sometimes, you won’t be able to give them what they ask until you’ve unlocked a new upgrade – for example, maybe you’ll need some zinc to craft an item that someone wants, but to get zinc you’ll need to first upgrade your boat to allow you to travel to a new area. It means you’ll sometimes have quests in your mission log sat for a long time until you’re able to complete them– and it’s always your responsibility to figure out what you need to do before you get to the point you’re able to complete them.
In other words, Spiritfarer never holds your hand. It won’t tell you how or where you need to find that zinc – or whatever material it is that you need – but if it isn’t already readily available to you, it’s safe to assume you need some sort of upgrade before you can access it. There are several upgrades you’ll need to unlock, both to your boat and to Stella herself. A shipyard allows you to upgrade your boat in three meaningful ways: you can improve your blueprint table, allowing you to add new rooms to it; make it larger; and give meaningful upgrades to its structure, allowing you to get past barriers (like ice) on the map.
As for Stella, her upgrades come piecemeal as you explore the world; she’ll eventually be able to double jump, glide through the air, and use bouncing platforms to gain height. They’re all important skills for gathering resources, and it won’t be until you’ve got all of them that certain areas and materials become accessible to you.
One of the best things about Spiritfarer is that there’s never any pressure. Even if you have a bulging to-do list, you’re free to take them at your own pace. Sure, a resident of your boat might give you a nudge once in a while – don’t forget I’ve asked you to do this! – but there are no penalties for taking your time. You’re free to explore and tackle things however you want. Equally, you’re free to completely ignore your tasks if you’d prefer; perhaps you’d rather experiment in the kitchen, finding new recipes, or taking your time to go fishing, perhaps trying to gather one of every type of fish. For those who want it, there’s very much a ‘collectathon’ hidden within Spiritfarer – and even a museum to visit, where you’ll be rewarded for your collecting efforts.
However you decide to play Spiritfarer, though, one thing is for sure: everything about it is nothing short of magical. Its 2D art style is reminiscent of an animated movie; every location you can visit has been beautifully crafted, coming alive with its own unique atmosphere. There’s the Japanese-inspired rolling countryside of Furogawa; the European prestige of Villa Maggiore; the run-down inner city vibe of Edgeborough Lane – and just about everything in between. The characters, too, are gorgeously designed, with every passenger you take in on your boat taking the form of an animal. They each ooze their own personality – some you’ll come to love; others you’ll hate. But it’s all down to incredible writing and characterisation.
There’s not a single line of spoken dialogue in Spiritfarer, so it’s a testament to the writers that so much personality can shine through simply from written lines of text. Whether it’s Atul’s innate optimism or Giovanni’s sleaziness, every character has the ability to evoke an emotion from within you. The nicer characters, you’ll find yourself becoming attached to them – making it all the more emotional when you have to say goodbye. After all, your ultimate goal is to take them to their final resting place.
Gorgeous, emotional and heartwarming from start to finish, playing Spiritfarer is like sinking into a nice, cosy duvet. It envelops you, and you won’t want to leave. Its slow and steady pace won’t be for everyone, but for those who want a beautiful game to unwind with, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Spiritfarer Review: GameSpew’s Score