‘Spiritfarer’ guides us through troubled waters
If my daily interactions with folks today are emblematic of our current state of the world, then I’d say we are greeting each other with stressed smiles. Many months and even longer days have come through us knowing we are in a raging pandemic, but oftentimes rather than naming it, I’ve extended opportunities to talk about literally anything else as a courtesy to all of us. That avoidant impulse is usually what I associate with grief, an emotion that is easily ignored– and an emotion that Spiritfarer intends on shining a warm light onto.
Spiritfarer is a 2D ship-building-management sim and ocean exploration adventure game about finding and ushering derelict souls as the titular Spiritfarer. You play as Stella, the newly inaugurated Spiritfarer who begins their adventure just as the previous guide, Charon, is completing theirs. After recruiting said spirits, you will be tasked to keep them comfortable on your ever-expanding ship, learn about their lives, personalities, tastes, and relationships before taking them to their final destination: the Everdoor.
The instant you are greeted by Charon at the Everdoor, you are enveloped in a lush white forest on a crimson ocean. The elegiac flourishes of sound impart a grand sense of awe and responsibility that promises a richly animated, composed journey beyond. The best comparison to this feeling is The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker or the original Kingdom Hearts that both prepare your disembarkment into epic worlds. Spiritfarer speaks of its scope through visually arresting hand-drawn setpieces and vistas akin to Studio Ghibli stills. It is very easy to get lost in the world watching the sun rise, peak, and set. Characters are animated with their own gravities, weights, and patterns that imbue so much nuance to each of them. If you were the one asking for more personality out of your Animal Crossing neighbors last year (I was), then you can’t miss Spiritfarer.
Another strong similarity to Wind Waker comes from its oceanic setting. You’ll spend the entirety of the game charting courses to island villages, remote arctic mines, and urban city ports. As you scour the sea for spirits and resources, your crew and ship will grow in number and size. But rather than cannons and ballasts, your ship will be equipped with gardens, chicken coops, and foundries. You’ll have opportunities to build your ship from the ground up until you’re steadily urban planning proximities between neighbors based on their dispositions and house architecture. Tracking the visual progression of your ship is rewarding and keeps you engaged in the lives of your passengers.
Much of the management in the game takes the form of gathering resources such as wood, ore, vegetables, and fish of varying quality tiers. Many points of the game will ask you to perform light to moderate levels of platforming to find these resources. You’ll gradually acquire new abilities that will grant you access to previously hidden nooks by completing the main narrative. However, fetch quests across the map get tedious when you forget just one more berry or fish or log. The platforming is serviceable, but at times feels unthought out and frustrating due to a noticeable lack of level design. On both these fronts, the game’s weak points reveal themselves whenever it feels like any one thing is taking too long. And you feel that time mount as you have to wait through a day/night cycle to attend to your guests and optimize when to move the ship, since you are unable to do so when it’s dark.
Hovering above all of your actions are themes of death, passing, loss, and grief. You’ll encounter multiple passengers with unresolved regrets about their past. Their expressions vary from direct recitations of their deeds to cryptic internal dialogues to unspoken passive aggression. It’s remarkable to see how many voices are tenderly incorporated into the game. Certain characters don’t get along, and it feels more real in that way. Some characters are insistent on teaching you something and others cannot be bothered. I easily imagined people in my life embodying my crew. I should also point out that the ability to hug characters is such a straightforward and satisfying feature that drives home the warmth this game confides. There are plenty of moments of sympathy, mercy, and complicity for these characters that allow you to speculate who they may have been, what they thought was important, and why you are even here.
Behind the scenes, the team at Thunder Lotus memorialized real people in their lives who have passed on as the cast of characters you meet in Spiritfarer. This is a game about saying goodbye, and how different that will be for everyone. I was touched approaching the end of each character’s arc, coming to terms with my impressions of them knowing I would never be able to see them again. The game never feels confrontational about this. We are politely asked to take care of each other to the very end.
While some of the nuts and bolts from a gameplay perspective aren’t as tight as I would prefer, I was absorbed by Spiritfarer’s voyage to find a better way to cope. From the beginning to the game’s epilogue, there is an undeniable sense of curiosity and compassion that prevent sensitive topics from becoming overwhelming. In this way, Spiritfarer and Thunder Lotus begin to disentangle cultural and pop cultural tendencies we may associate with death and open up the door for life to continue.
This version of Spiritfarer was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.