Review: Spiritfarer

There’s one key recurring moment in Spiritfarer, the new adventure game from developers Thunder Lotus, that kept reminding me of the finale to The Good Place. Sadly, I can’t say what that moment is without spoiling a hefty chunk of The Good Place, but it did eventually get me to thinking about various depictions of the afterlife or journeys towards it. And be it an all-time classic like Grim Fandango or even something extremely recent like Necrobarista, there have been a few video games that have used unique visions of the afterlife to tell imaginative stories that have kept me and several others hooked for hours. But can Spiritfarer deliver a similar level of addictive imagination, being fun while exploring themes of life, loss and letting go? I got hooked on it for at least ten straight hours at one point, so I’m gonna say “Yes.”

Spiritfarer sees you stepping into the role of Stella, tasked by Charon to become the new Spiritfarer. Commanding their own ship now, Stella needs to sail around and check out various lands for spirits that inhabit them, looking for those ready to board Stella’s ship and eventually be ferried to the Everdoor once they’re ready to move on, where they’ll advance to…well, who knows what lies beyond. Armed with the Everlight, a glowing orb that powers their ship and can transform into different tools (as well as their cat Daffodil, who can be controlled by a second player), Stella will convince certain spirits to join them on their journey, where they’ll have to decide exactly when they’re ready to go, with Stella helping them every step of the way. Although at certain points, it’s suggested that Stella needs help of their own…

Whenever these particular spirits board your ship, they transform from their initial form of somewhat cylindrical hooded figures into vibrant animals, such as deer, toads and birds. Beautifully-animated ones at that with lovable, creative designs and stellar animation that showcases a ton of personality. Yes, not only do they become more colorful in a literal sense, but they also show off more of their individual traits, mannerisms and oddities, with a cast including overly dramatic romantics, enthusiastic artists, jovial gourmets, strict teachers and more. And that’s just including those on your ship. There’s a lot of nicely humorous, cute and heart-warming dialogue in Spiritfarer, which sets the tone nicely…and makes the more emotional moments hit like a ton of bricks.

This shouldn’t exactly be surprising for a game about helping spirits of the deceased move on to what could be a mysterious new plane of existence, but Spiritfarer uses its characters to explore all of the different ways people deal with death and does a good job at it. Some characters need to try and confront their past, some are ready to move on at a moment’s notice and aren’t afraid, some put up a brave front but are really afraid, some are still clinging to what they no longer have…it can get devastating at times. It helps that the game plays it more subtle and vague when it comes to each character’s background, which means that certain details hit like a ton of bricks when delivered through more relatively casual dialogue. Without spoiling anything, there are certain reveals and certain events each character has gone through that easily make you want to know more about them, getting attached to everyone along the way. It can be rather gripping stuff, so kudos to the writers here.

The fantasy world of Spiritfarer that all of these characters inhabit is a unique one as well, to say the least. While the hooded beings, mystical creatures and supernatural elements may seem standard to some, the locales head into rather interesting territories. The game starts out with quaint port towns, but then quickly sees you traveling to areas inspired by Japanese countrysides, industrial docks, modern urban cities, one entire area made entirely of billboards, campsites in woodlands and so much more. It’s nothing extraordinarily detailed, but it all goes towards creating colorful and enjoyable worlds, ones that you’ll want to explore as much of as possible, putting 2D platforming skills to good use along the way.

Of course, the game doesn’t make exploring that easy. Spiritfarer throws in a couple of metroidvania elements alongside its platforming and simulation sections, namely the need for different upgrades to access certain areas. Not only do you need to seek out shrines and activate them with a currency provided by your passengers in order to gain abilities for Stella like double jumping, gliding and dashing, but even certain areas on the map are blocked off by hazards such as ice or mist, requiring you to find the materials needed for upgrades to the ship as well. So certain areas are locked off at first, but that just provides an incentive to explore even further when it comes to your current areas, sailing all around.

The sailing in Spiritfarer is easily one of its most enjoyable elements, when it fully lets the players explore the non-linear, open world sections of it. Open the map in the cabin, pick a location or spot on the map, then let the Everlight automatically sail the ship there in a straight line (at least until late at night, since light is required to move, but you have the option of sleeping until morning). And during the time it takes to sail there, you basically have free reign to do whatever you want on your ship. Go fishing, check on the passengers, cook up some meals, craft more resources and more. Or even just kick back and listen to a podcast or something, though that means missing out on a terrific soundtrack. It’s all just so nice and relaxing, emphasizing how you’re trying to make this a pleasant journey for everyone aboard your ship.

But what if you want to make it the best journey for everyone involved? That means having to build several homes and facilities on the ship. This is done via a 2D grid, where with the proper materials and money, you can create kitchens, foundries, gardens and more, maneuvering all of the buildings around the grid and either stacking them on top of each other or trying to create gaps to fit them in, as if it were a game of Tetris. Eventually, you’ll also find yourself investing in the upgrades that make the ship larger, causing you to likely create something that can only be described as a cross between a cruise ship and the Winchester mansion. An insane yet eye-pleasing blend of buildings stacked on building with a multitude of ladders connecting them all, with you leaping around them in glee (even moreso if you invest in ziplines and umbrella to bounce on). There is a method to this sort of madness. Certain buildings are required when it comes to story purposes, as aside from providing a way to harvest materials, your spirit passengers will require them in order to boost their happiness, providing various passive benefits. Some perform music that makes crops grow faster, some will give you valuable trinkets that you can sell, some can deliver you snacks and more. It’s a nice touch that also shows off various bits of each spirit’s personalities.

It’s not just buildings alone that affect moods, though. Spirits can have an effect on the moods of others in various ways. One might play music that entertains others, but they may also perform repairs that can create noises others don’t like or particular spirits may come across as bullying to others. Each one does have particular needs, be it home upgrades or certain positions on the ship at times. They also all require food, so you have to spend time in the kitchen either on recipes you’ve collected or just experimenting with whatever ingredients you have. Spirits also have certain tastes as well, with certain types of food (fine dining, pub food, exotic dishes and more) and favorite dishes boosting their happiness even further, although they also can’t accept certain cuisine (some refuse veggies, some are lactose-intolerant, some are allergic to shellfish). And if all else fails, hug them when needed.

It may sound odd, but some of the most enjoyable parts in Spiritfarer come from having to deal with a crew of about five or so, having to dart around and check on them, making sure they’re in good spirits. It’s satisfying to see everyone happy and it’s a tricky yet fun juggling act at times. But for those who crave more action, certain areas on the map give you quite a bit to work with. Would you like to jump between massive sea dragons and harvest ore off of them? Catch lightning in storms that turns into currency? Collect jellyfish-like creatures flying through the air? Gather the remains of comets as they crash on the ship? You can experience all this and more, and it’s where the game shows off its rock-solid platforming as you dash about, trying to get to everything you can in time. And if you want action that’s less intense, there’s mini-games you can undergo to get certain resources on your ship, like properly working a bellow to make ingots, trying to hit the sweet spot in working a loom, performing precision cuts on logs to get planks and several other tasks. They’re nice, simple and fun to play, making sure that even the act of managing crafting materials is enjoyable in some sort of fashion.

One of Spiritfarer’s biggest strengths is that it gives you so many different options when it comes to exploring and playing, and so many buildings to construct on your ship and experiment with, giving players a lot to work with in general, but that sadly leads to one of its few weaknesses (aside from the occasional repetitive dialogue). Later on in the game, Spiritfarer just gives you so much to work with that resources will be plentiful and certain gameplay elements can end up being ignored. Entire structures such as the lounge, windmill and cellar basically each just got built and used once for story missions, then never got used again. The former two were useful towards more optional recipes, but it still felt like the game just threw those parts in without any idea on how to fully utilize them, sort of stretching itself thin at times.

Spiritfarer never feels bloated and it always has some goal on hand for you to achieve. But as good as it is, the later parts of the game do suffer from a combination of having less spirits to manage as you gradually bring them all to the Everdoor and a ship filled with so many now-useless rooms that’s less lively. Granted, challenge is arguably secondary to the compelling stories and relaxing atmosphere here, but even the narrative seems to weaken later on. The games just sort of seems to shrug when it comes to the end, and in order to voice criticisms with that, I do have to go into what are at least some minor gameplay spoilers, so feel free to skip to the closing comments if you still want to go in mostly blind.

As it turns out, you actually don’t need to release all of the spirits you come across in order to beat the game. Once you deliver a certain amount, it just pretty much gives you the option to end the game right then and there. At first I just thought some sort of fake-out, especially since I still had a few spirits on the ship, and figured releasing them all would get a good ending or something. But no, once you’ve reached a quota, there you go, Stella’s arc is complete, you’re done. Now, I get it, maybe not every player will easily come across every spirit during their travels, so this provides more accessibility. But the ending is still a notable anticlimax and doesn’t provide any closure for the remaining spirits, especially since one of them can’t be released, making me ponder what happens to them after the game. It feels that while the journey in Spiritfarer was incredible, nobody could realize how to properly end it, which is a shame. But hey, at least the journey there was incredible.

Closing Comments:

Spiritfarer is an absolute triumph and easily goes down as the best game that Thunder Lotus has created. It’s no easy feat to juggle a cast of charming characters with captivating stories, a vibrant world that allows for a ton of fun platforming, enjoyable bits of resource management and crafting, and genuinely moving moments, but they have somehow pulled it off. It’s easily one of the year’s most unique games, an incredible hybrid of genres that almost feels like it has something for everyone. It may be a lengthy beast, clocking in at a meaty twenty or so hours, but it’s a rewarding one. Even long after the curtain falls on the tale of Stella and all the friends that they’ve made, you won’t be forgetting this charming take on the afterlife anytime soon.

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