Undoubtedly, it’s the visual style that initially attracted me to Spiritfarer. I’d been following this game’s development for some time, so I was delighted when it announced during Nintendo’s Indie World Showcase in August. The 2D hand-drawn, cartoon style is reminiscent — to my eye, at least — of Japanese animation studios such as Nippon Animation or Studio Ghibli.
Set primarily on board a boat, your initial task is to populate this vessel with both the souls of main character Stella’s past acquaintances, and buildings that will support the voyage. Typical early-game structures include a kitchen, in which you can conjure up all manner of dishes, and a sawmill which converts logs into planks for further crafting. The overarching task is to care for those souls as you accompany them on their journey into the afterlife. It’s a setup that provides for plenty of plot development and moments of deep emotion.
Many of the rooms you build provide a ‘mini-game’ to add a small amount of challenge to the standard crafting mechanic, and also to provide a very welcome element of additional entertainment. For example, the sawmill tasks you with moving a blade up and down, in order to follow a wavy ‘cutting line’ alongside the length of each log that passed through. Whilst the skill involved is minimal, it’s a brilliant innovation that means there’s rarely a dull moment at sea.
Other activities include fishing — off the back of the boat — tending to crops in your gardens and orchards, working with fibres and threads to create cloth, and raising sheep, chickens, and cows for the raw materials they provide. All these elements combine to produce a huge amount of variation when it comes to crafting: there are over 90 food recipes alone. Aside from its storyline, Spiritfarer is all about discovery through experimentation.
Progression means crafting more and more buildings atop your ever-growing ship; upgrades increase the size available as you go. The extra space allows you to accomodate more passengers, but the game also entrusts the player with deciding just how long they wish each of their friends to remain on-board — to an extent. At first, it might seem as if the player has complete control, in an open world with endless possibilities. However, to provide some small amount of direction, Spiritfarer locks certain content behind the act of bidding farewell to increasing numbers of souls, so it’s likely you’ll progress in a more linear way than you might at first imagine.
Aside from the action on-ship, various destinations dotted around a gradually revealed map provide additional elements: resources, side-missions, and the all-important souls seeking refuge. These locations provide a modicum of platforming challenge, some of which in turn requires a handful of abilities such as a double-jump or a bounce upgrade which allows Stella to reach extra heights. Cleverly, these abilities can also be used to get about the ship, vital as it expands in size during your journey.
Some of the land-based resource gathering can get a little repetitive towards the end of the game, but since things have generally sped up by that point, it’s not much of a problem. More of an issue is the nature of how each character is required to be managed on the boat.
On one hand, there’s some brilliant innovation at play here: characters can be hugged to increase their wellbeing, they have personal preferences when it comes to the food you’ll need to supply, and their overall happiness rewards with various perks. Such benefits include resource-gathering, the playing of musical instruments to, in turn, increase the happiness of others, and the bestowing of occasional valuable gifts.
It’s very nearly a perfect mechanic, but the edge is taken off ever so slightly by the lack of any real downsides. There’s no penalty in letting a passenger go hungry, except for the temporary loss of those perks. Now, bear in mind that this is supposed to be a feel-good game, not one in which you’re supposed to ever worry about the weight of failure — and that can clearly be a very welcome contrast to the vast majority of games out there. I just maybe would have preferred more of a tangible drawback to punish neglect — although you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel pretty terrible if you forget about Alice the hedgehog during a certain quest.
The tales that are told here are really a thing to behold, and it’s this aspect where Spiritfarer truly shines. Each of the main NPCs has their own background and personality, and they’re written with remarkable depth and thought. More so than most games, I really found myself understanding each character, remembering what their own desires and purposes were from play session to session. These individual stories really come into their own when saying goodbye to each character, and it was a rare occasion that I wasn’t moved to tears by their departure.
It was perhaps a foregone conclusion that, sinking so much time into Spiritfarer, I would eventually find flaws. It must be said, first of all, that nothing really detracts from the overall experience: this is a solid, 20-hour game, full of enjoyable and tear-jerking moments. Still, there were one or two small improvements that could make it even better.
A few quality-of-life enhancements would help a bit, and they’re easy to identify. Occasionally, characters get in the way, something that happens most often when you’re inside a building and they’re on the outside, in front of you. Navigating the map is sometimes awkward — for example, when using the fast-travel system which highlights points you can travel to, but obscures nearby destinations.
More significantly, the map becomes quite an ordeal late in the game. References are often made to points on the map solely by name — and there are quite a lot of named destinations that you’ll either need to memorise or seek out by trial-and-error. It’s also slightly frustrating that you can’t consult the map at night, even though it makes sense that you can’t actually travel after sundown.
Beyond the obvious, I had a very slight feeling that the gamification system wasn’t quite as rewarding as it could be. Spiritfarer is not a challenging game — that isn’t really the point — and I felt slightly let down by that fact. The management side of things is certainly extensive, but it doesn’t really feel as though it counts for that much alongside the exploration and crafting.
Spiritfarer is a game of great warmth, humour, and emotional depth: a wonderful example of how the videogame genre can go far beyond its stereotypical simplicities. The game engine itself might have some minor flaws, but the overall experience is utterly unique and captivating. If you have any interest at all outside just shooting and killing things, Spiritfarer will delight you and confound expectations.
I played Spiritfarer on Nintendo Switch, for 40 hours and I still haven’t quite found everything. The game can probably be finished in 10–15 hours, or thereabouts, but this is one to savour for as long as you’re enjoying it.
I paid £23.79 for Spiritfarer which is towards the pricier end for an indie title, but I have no issues with that whatsoever, in this case: it’s more than good value. It was developed and published by Thunder Lotus Games.
Originally published at https://bobbyjack.me.