Sail, craft, and learn to say goodbye.
The act of saying goodbye is perhaps one of the most painful things to do. It’s part of being human – of leading an ephemeral existence. Despite our best attempts to ignore the inevitable, we know farewells are unavoidable. Spiritfarer, the latest from Thunder Lotus Games, is all about learning to say goodbye.
Don’t let the depressing theme fool you into thinking Spiritfarer is a strictly somber affair. This is a game that’s as equally entertaining as it is thought provoking, easily capable of lulling you into the relaxing rhythm inherent to life-sims, whilst simultaneously asking you to consider those you’ve lost, and the legacy they left behind.
The Spiritfarer – farmer, crafter, sailor, and friend to the recently deceased.
Spiritfarer opens with your character, Stella, and her cat Daffodil being escorted to the Evergate by Charon himself, ferryman of the River Styx from Greek mythology. It is not you, however, crossing into the afterlife. Charon is ready to move on, and he has chosen Stella as his replacement. Shortly after he departs into the great beyond you’re deposited into the world proper, where you immediately meet up with Stella’s best-friend Gwen and in need of a ferry of your own.
Spiritfarer provides players a gentle, guiding hand for the first couple of hours, slowly introducing its various mechanics while establishing its narrative tone through Gwen. At a mechanical level, Spiritfarer is a life-sim set in an open(ish)-world world where exploration is as important as your day-to-day operations on your ferry.
The amount of chores made available to you as the new Spiritfarer ramps up slowly. The opening act is more concerned with setting the scene than it is overwhelming players with as many systems as possible. That’s not to say you won’t have plenty to do: in the first hour alone I was introduced to navigation, fishing, farming, foraging, weaving, and upgrading my ferry. Thing is, no single aspect of Spiritfarer is overly complex.
Sailing the starlit sea is as simple as placing a waypoint on the ever-expanding map in your cabin. Your movement from port to port is handled automatically, though your ferry will not travel in the dead of night. A small clock sits in the top-right corner that indicates the time-of-day, and when it rotates to the set of sleepy “zzz’s” your ship will come to an abrupt halt. That need not be the end of your day, however, because Stella doesn’t require sleep.
In the early hours of Spiritfarer you’ll likely direct Stella to retire for the evening due to a lack of things to do, but as the game progresses you’ll find yourself often avoiding slumber. Every single activity in Spiritfarer has a minigame attached, though none of them are complicated. The idea is simple: every task will require some level of engagement from you, the player. For example, creating thread on the loom is as basic as holding down the interact button and releasing it when the shuttle passes over the beam, though stopping directly on the golden center crystal will net you a bonus.
Every single action – whether it be harvesting, crafting, or foraging – has some sort of interaction. Sawing a tree down for logs is as easy as moving the left thumbstick back and forth. Mining tasks you with holding the interact button down until the absolute last second when your pickaxe glows its brightest. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as sheering sheep and milking cows, but by and large there are well over a dozen minigames in Spiritfarer.
At the start these minigames are almost dull in their simplicity, but as you add more buildings and spirits to your ship the number of tasks vying for your attention swells. The mundane soon morphs into a calming ritual as you direct Stella across your personalized ferry to finish chores and complete tasks. The life-sim half of Spiritfarer is robust, it just takes a little while to open up. That is because Spiritfarer is a narrative experience first and foremost. The wide open sea is dotted with various islands populated by a host of colorful souls, and the eleven spirits Stella can bring aboard her ferry all have stories of their own to tell.
These spirits – ranging from Stella’s uncle Atul, to the elderly Alice – act not only as vehicles for Spiritfarer’s heartwarming, yet somber approach to mortality, but as your through-line for progression. Each has a clear-cut tale to tell, and the objectives that orbit each spirit establish a sort of roadmap through the game. Gwen, your first companion, can be seen to the afterlife with materials and upgrades easily acquired in the beginning of the game. Summer, the flower-child snake, is recruited shortly before Gwen’s departure, and her tasks will lead you to new areas of the map rich with the next tier of materials.
Spiritfarer utilizes each spirit’s requests as a loose roadmap through the game. One spirit will send you off to visit unknown islands rich with the oak you need to craft your next set of ship upgrades, which will in turn unlock more crafting stations for items needed to progress a second spirit’s storyline. Every task, every little quest, orbits one another, and by the time Spiritfarer kicks off the training wheels you’ll have a clear idea of where to go and what to do to move the story forward.
The game is still a life-sim, and it’s perfectly comfortable with allowing you the freedom to set your own personal goals. Wanna sit back and farm an obscene amount of carrots for some extra Glims (Spiritfarer’s currency)? By all means – shortly after meeting Summer she’ll teach Stella how to expedite harvests with the power of music (literally), so you’re more than welcome to stock up on carrot seeds, build a handful of Fields, and get to jamming.
The only limitations are those bound to the spirits themselves. Spiritfarer is also a side-scrolling platformer, and there are upgrades to be found that’ll allow Stella to explore and access more of the world, and in-turn reach additional materials needed to upgrade her ferry to explore more of the map. Every spirit Stella assists will grant her an Obol (the currency the ancient Greek placed over the eyes of their deceased that would cover their passage across the River Styx), and these are in turned redeemed at altars in a couple of the larger ports for new platforming abilities. Stella will learn to double jump and glide, among other things, and these skills grant her access to areas formerly inaccessible on the various islands across the sea.
In addition to new platforming skills, Stella’s ferry can be upgraded in one of three ways. Additional space for buildings is the simplest improvement, costing an ever increasing amount of Glims, but nothing else. Her workbench can upgraded as well, providing the blueprints required to create more advanced crafting stations like the Foundry and Smithy, which in-turn allow her to make the items needed to advance the third and final upgrade for her ferry: the figurehead.
There are three areas on the outskirts of the map that are sealed off at the start of the game, and Stella will need a certain figurehead to reach each. This final tier of ferry upgrade also bundles some general speed boosts into the linear unlock track, but those aside it’s this third path that dictates your place in the game. Every material and craftable in Spiritfarer follows a logical chain, and if you can’t make it yet you’re likely overlooking something obvious.
Nine out of ten times a spirit’s quest will guide you towards the next item or area you should be exploring, foraging, and trading in, meaning it’s fairly uncommon to find yourself lost at sea so long as you’re keeping tabs with the tasks within your journal and building upgrades as soon as able. That said, there are a handful of times where the game doesn’t provide any clear hints as to where you’re next required material is acquired, leaving you a touch lost. A simple reminder from one of Stella’s companions would go a long way, but the setback rarely lasts long.
All these disparate pieces – life-sim, exploration, and platforming – come together beautifully, and the gorgeous hand-drawn graphics and animations make even the most tedious of tasks feel like a decadent indulgence. Spiritfarer is a breathtakingly beautiful game, with an art-style that evokes childlike awe and wonder, even among the mundane. The rich color palette pops with personality, and every inch of the game has been drawn with crisp, sharp lines that often make Spiritfarer look like an animated film when in motion.
Sound design is stellar across the board as well. Pounding stone to dirt with the crusher rings with a solid metal thud, and sawing down trees has the right reverberation and sizzle. Spiritfarer has a richer soundscape than some of the AAA games I’ve played this year; I’d often find myself leaning back in my office chair soaking in every wave that broke upon the bow of my ferry, as the seagulls squawked hungrily above while Atul played a lively tune on his flute.
The soundtrack is as impressive – equally somber as it is joyful. The recurring leitmotif from the main theme has a haunting habit of popping up when you least expect it the most, punctuating emotional scenes with a sucker-punch to the heart. The compositions are a brilliant mix of woodwinds, strings, and piano that are both evocative and stirring. Spiritfarer’s soundtrack may easily be among my favorites from 2020, which is high praise considering Final Fantasy VII Remake currently tops the list.
As a video game, Spiritfarer is a magical, sublime experience throughout. The core loop of exploration, foraging, farming, and crafting is addictive, and I lost hours upon hours of late night rest to managing my ferry. Its life-sim elements easily stand among the best in the genre, but in marrying them to the spirit of adventure Thunder Lotus has crafted a game that is damn near difficult to put down. The lovely art, fantastic animations, and sublime score all further elevate the experience, and on these merits alone I’d recommend Spiritfarer.
My only complaints rest with the UI. To its credit it’s mostly fine, but I would have appreciated a few features that are currently lacking. For one, you can’t see how many of an item you already own when buying from a vendor, which makes it easy to overspend. As a second point of umbrage, you also can’t see your current count of a material while crafting. I’d would have liked it if the kitchen notified me of what I was cooking if I threw in ingredients from a known recipe: there are over 80 in Spiritfarer, so a little extra notification indicating I was making something I already knew would have saved me some precious materials. These are minor quibbles, and they don’t drastically affect the game. Perhaps they’ll be addressed in a post-launch patch, but for the time being I’ve had to learn to live without them.
All that said with barely a word about the story. You see, life-sims are not well know for their narratives. They can be charming, or willing to tackle difficult topics via a character or two, but the underlying plots are usually rather threadbare. Rune Factory is a notable exception, sure, but it’s pretty familiar as far as stories go. Spiritfarer goes the extra nautical mile, with a sincere tale about loss, death, and the legacies we leave behind.
O’ Death, our oldest companion.
Thunder Lotus has not shied away from advertising Spiritfarer as a game about learning to say goodbye. Every person on this planet has either had to do say farewell to a loved one, or will have to eventually. It’s an integral part of being human; no one lives forever. Every spirit Stella takes on has to pass through the Evergate, their death no less inevitable in this strange purgatory they’ve all found themselves within. Stella is the new Spiritfarer after all, and it’s her job to care for them and to see their final requests fulfilled before they depart forever.
I’ve already mentioned the gameplay functionality behind these requests, but each spirit is written with a deft, respectful arc that reflects on the nature of life, and the heritage we all leave behind. Every spirit has a story to tell – a life once lived – and in helping them they begin to open up and reveal their sorrows, regrets, and joys to Stella. Not all the tales are tragic, but every last one of them burrows into the core of your soul.
I don’t want to say too much, otherwise I’d rob Spiritfarer of its gravitas. Writing as much as I have about the gameplay has in some way already done so – Spiritfarer is an excellent video game on a mechanical level, but its self-aware and reflective story places it well above its peers. Spiritfarer is a game that wants to you feel something, and to question and confront those emotions. Every goodbye was bittersweet, as more than a few of the spirits reminded me of my own dearly departed. Perhaps I’m a bit compromised in that regard – I’ve never been able to say goodbye to anyone I’ve lost – but damn did Spiritfarer hit me where it hurt.
Despite its more optimistic take on death, and by proxy life, Spiritfarer posits a compelling thesis: are goodbyes altruistic acts for those about to move on, or are they for our own selfish benefit because we’re unable to confront the inevitable? What is more painful: making peace with a loved one’s demise, or running away from it?
There is no right answer, but Spiritfarer challenges you to find the correct one for yourself. It never reaches for cheap emotional payoffs. The game moved me to tears a few times due to the strength of its characters and writing, and the harrowed memories they resurrected. Spiritfarer is a difficult game at times to play if you’ve ever tasted loss, but it’s also therapeutic.
In celebrating life and memory – in the stories we leave behind – Spiritfarer helped me come to terms with the guilt I’ve always carried for never saying goodbye to anyone. I can’t change the past or resurrect the dead, but that feeling of regret is perfectly human, and Spiritfarer reminded me of that. We can’t change the nature of death, but we can learn to live with it, and to pass on the stories of those who’ve gone on. And maybe, just maybe, one day our loved ones will share our story. The goodbyes may be unavoidable, but we can continue to live on through the memories of those our lives have touched.
The writing is uniformly brilliant across the breadth of experience, from the spirits and their final moments, to the various normal lost souls wandering around. I helped one cast a movie that will never leave development Hell. There was a group of underground rappers who needed my help spreading their latest album across the sea. I helped a workers union successfully press their CEO for better treatment and pay. The majority of side stories are minor allegories for death, but they’re there to provide some much needed levity to Spiritfarer. Some of the main spirits have depressing endings to their arcs, so whenever the game gave me a chance to smile I took it.
Spiritfarer is structured in such a way that it has a definitive end, which is uncommon within life-sims. That’s not to say you can’t go on and play for hundreds of hours. After reaching “the end” Spiritfarer allows you to return to a point just prior, and there are plenty of secrets to plunder, crops to grow, and Glims to accumulate beyond the story’s conclusion. You can play until the end of time if you so choose, but the narrative is worth seeing to its poignant end.
There isn’t a game out there quite like Spiritfarer. It’s a life-sim set on a boat, where mini-games make up the minute-to-minute gameplay. It’s an exploration game built around platforming and sailing the sea. It’s a somber, yet uplifting dissection of life and death that will both sap the breath from your chest and make you smile from ear to ear. Even those who usually balk at life-sims and platformers will find much to love about Spiritfarer, so powerful is its pull.
Spiritfarer is an excellent game in its own right, yet its candid handling of death truly sets it apart from its peers. A couple of small issues with the UI and some progression quirks do pop up here and there, but overall Spiritfarer is easily an essential game for not only fans of life-sims, but video games as a whole. Its addicting gameplay loop is well complimented by its thoughtful story – anyone who likes their relaxation with a side of healthy contemplation will be hard pressed to find a more compelling game this year.
- This article was updated on:August 30th, 2020
- Available On: PC, Mac, Linux, Stadia, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass (PC and Console)
- Published By: Thunder Lotus Games
- Developed By: Thunder Lotus Games
- Genre: Adventure, Life-Sim/Management
- US Release Date: August 18th, 2020
- Reviewed On: PC
- Quote: "Spiritfarer is an excellent game in its own right, yet its candid handling of death truly sets it apart from its peers. Its addicting gameplay loop is well complimented by its thoughtful story - anyone who likes their relaxation with a side of healthy contemplation will be hard pressed to find a more compelling game this year."