Review – Spiritfarer

A game about dying that feels like Heaven

Overview

Developer Thunder Lotus
Publisher Thunder Lotus
Genre Adventure, Management
Platforms PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Release Date August 18, 2020

Spiritfarer is the latest game from independent studio Thunder Lotus, makers of Jotun and Sundered. The game takes players on a journey with new Spiritfarers Stella and her cat, Daffodil, as they ferry various people to the afterlife. Each passenger spirit has a distinct personality, and the player’s job is to make them as comfortable as possible before they move on.Stella fishing on the edge of her boat

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Spiritfarer is a game about what happens after death. While nothing graphic or gruesome is shown, some of the dialogue deals with intense memories of dying and other trauma, such as child neglect. One character, who used to be a soldier, describes a friend dying in his arms after an explosion. Another vividly details his brother beating someone nearly to death.

Language: Frequent use of language such as h***, d***, a******, and s***. A passenger often uses g******. The game has no voiceover, and language appears only in subtitles.

Uncle Atul speaks to Stella about how great she is.
Look at that expression. Beautifully done.

Drug/Alcohol References: One character smokes a cigarette, stating she started when she was a teenager. Someone else requests hard liquor in his room, and the player must add it as part of a quest. Though he mentions enjoying alcohol, this person is never seen drinking it. A line of dialogue mentions someone’s secret stash of alcohol.

Sexual Content: A married character is seen going into a house with a mistress at night. This character dates multiple women while still married, and it is implied he sleeps with them. He and his wife are sometimes seen in bed together, both fully clothed. Someone talks about a man’s wife discovering his mistress.

Other Negative Content: The game implies a couple of characters had neglectful or abusive parents.  A husband tries to hide his infidelity, and the player can choose to become complicit in his lies. At the end, he is not remorseful of his decisions and tells the main character he is in love with her. A couple of passengers work for this world’s equivalent of the mob, possibly as hit men. One of the mobsters discusses his brother’s past enjoyment at injuring someone. A character implies he would rather be dead than stuck in a wheelchair, as he was in life. This line has been called out as ableist by the disabled community, and Thunder Lotus has since issued an apology (see below).

Apology letter from Thunder Lotus about ableist storyline

Spiritual Content: This game is about ferrying the dead to the afterlife. However, there is little mention of what type of afterlife they are heading to. Once the spirits reach the Evergate, they simply disappear in a shower of sparks. One character gives a nihilistic speech about how humans are forgotten when they die. Another passenger teaches the main character about attuning to and becoming one with the universe through chakras and meditation. She also has visions in the form of disturbing dreams. Players level up by visiting shrines.

Positive Content: The protagonist tends to the needs of all her passengers and makes them comfortable until they feel ready to pass on to the afterlife. When remembering their lives, passengers often have family members or friends they recall fondly. For instance, one character suffering from dementia remembers going to the beach with her daughter and departed husband. Another passenger has dedicated her life to helping others: starting unions for underpaid workers, hiding children in her basement during the war, and serving in the military.

Review

Stella and Summer play music for the garden
Nothing like some guitar for getting those plants to grow.

Simple but Effective Gameplay

Unlike other post-death games, Spiritfarer does not focus on the details of death, fighting the undead, or even the afterlife. Its whole premise is comfort. Stella and Daffodil must improve the emotions of each of their passengers until they are ready to leave the boat and, thus, the world. For the player, this takes the form of cooking, building, improving, and exploring until each spirit is satisfied. Stella must talk to her passengers and learn their personalities in order to fulfill their wishes. Each one has favorite (and least favorite) foods and activities. They will ask for specific decorations or buildings to improve their mood, and these requests manifest as the main story quests. Players can undertake these quests in almost any order, though certain stories are required to unlock others.

In addition to the main story, side quests are scattered throughout the world. Buildings on the boat unlock tasks, such as creating cloth or farming in a garden, which players can use to earn money or make new items. Money can be used to purchase food, seeds, or ship upgrades. These upgrades occur at crucial points in the story and unlock new portions of the map to discover and explore.

Stella talks to the shipyard owner
My favorite part of upgrading is the shipyard owner. He constantly tells puns based on your new experiences.

Spiritfarer’s storyline is not very linear. At the beginning, Stella’s boat begins with specific spirits, but once the initial passengers board, finding more is up to the player. Most islands have a small population of hooded ghosts, but not all of these will join the journey. Players have to be willing to talk to everyone and complete seemingly banal side quests in order to find new passengers to guide. This search and find mechanic encourages players to approach everything in this game with curiosity. It also adds even more depth to already intriguing characters.

Plot points are only divulged in dialogue. There are no cutscenes, dictionaries, or voiceovers. The player must decipher everything about a character’s life only from what they discuss with Stella and each other. This method encourages exploration of not only the world around Stella’s ship but also within it. Unfortunately, it leaves gaps in the player’s knowledge. For example, one character, a friend of Stella’s, talks about hating her father. Because Stella is already aware of her reasons, they are never fully divulged to the player. Many times, I looked up certain characters online because I wanted to know more information about them. The Spiritfarer wiki contains many spoilers, almost all of which are not seen in-game. Most of the information reportedly came from the game’s artbook, not the playthrough itself.

Grinning Ghosts

While the knowledge gap can be irritating, it serves to immerse the player more into the world of Spiritfarer. You only know what Stella sees during the voyage. There is no lengthy backstory for the heroine and no convenient cutscene to sum up everything. The game forces players to focus only on the present moment, just like the passengers.

Stella and Daffodil wait for a log to be cut

As a book reviewer, my main focuses in games are the story and the characters. Spiritfarer’s farming simulation gameplay and river Styx storyline may seem overdone, but the characters’ charm draws it into a new light. Because the stories of each passenger are the main storyline, I will not divulge anything specific about any of them. However, every character was unique and three-dimensional with their own needs and personality.

The point of this game is to bring people to the afterlife. That necessitates connecting with the player’s emotions so they feel something when that goal is accomplished. Throughout my playthrough, I wanted to learn more about each passenger on my boat. I hated some of them (see Content Guide for a clue which ones) and loved others. Each time I saw a passenger disappear, I was overwhelmed with emotion, positive or negative.

Stella and Gwen hug on the red water near the Evergate
Cue the tears…

Comforting Atmosphere

Despite the emotion over losing a character, Spiritfarer is not very sad. It is relaxing and full of whimsy. Seeds grow glass, sharks make puns, and bugs detect ghosts. Everything seems ridiculous at a glance, but that eccentricity fills Spiritfarer with a unique sense of childlike wonder. The beautifully hand-drawn graphics and calming soundtrack in the background will ease even the most impatient gamer. This is the real magic of the game: its ability to make you feel content and happy just as you are creating that feeling in the passengers.

A giant turtle with trees on her back surfaces near the boat
Whimsy = giant turtle growing trees on her back

Confession time: I am not a very good gamer. Farming simulations and other time management games make me impatient and frustrated. However, I found myself playing Spiritfarer for hours without even realizing how much time had gone by. The gorgeous water splashing on the side of the boat is hypnotizing, and I wanted to try every combination of food to acquire all the recipes. Gardening can be sped up with a rhythm mini game, and the plants even dance along to the tune.

Exploring is just as much fun as staying on the boat. The islands have different qualities, just like the passengers. Northern islands are covered in snow while Eastern islands are mostly uninhabited forests. Not every island was necessary for a quest, but I still took the time to explore them all thoroughly. One of my favorite parts was watching the map open up as I pushed the boundaries of how far I could travel.

Spiritfarer map

The quests can be done as quickly or as slowly as you want. You can rush through the islands collecting passengers, finishing their storylines, and completing the game’s plot. On the other hand, you can take your time and soak it all in. Finishing the story is not the end. Players have the option of aiming for all the trophies, which are not hard for even a novice gamer. Collectibles can be turned in for in-game rewards, incentivizing players to “complete” the game instead of just making it to the credits. Even the fishing segments were fun; tuna on the fishing pole get their own theme song.

You can also use the local co-op mode to play with a friend or family member. The second player controls Daffodil and can do anything the first player can. The cat chops trees, harvests wheat, and shears sheep. After all, Daffodil is a Spiritfarer, just like Stella; she deserves to be a playable character, too. This co-op mode is handy for mini-games which require the player to collect a certain amount of items within a time limit. None of the difficulties change, despite the extra hands, and the second player can enter or exit the game at any time.

Zoomed out boat with comets hitting the deck and Stella trying to catch them
This is one of those mini-games. The others are similar.

Conclusion

Spiritfarer is not so much a game about death as it is about enjoying the present moment. Stella has to learn a lot about each character before she can adequately make them comfortable. She does not do this by grand displays but by tiny shows of affection: cooking their favorite meals, listening to their troubles, and helping them with mundane tasks. The game’s music is soft and soothing, especially coupled with the sound of waves against the boat.

Its soothing soundtrack and simple, though not overly repetitious, gameplay is calming for veteran gamers and novices alike. The characters face relatable troubles, and players will either love or hate them, possibly a bit of both.

The Bottom Line

 

Spiritfarer is a calming game about being present in the moment that can be enjoyed by gamers at any level.

 

9.5

Courtney Floyd

Courtney has loved reading since she was a child. Kid's books, YA, memoirs, comics, graphic novels, manga, anything. She also loves bingeing anime, keeping up with her favorite shows (including Star Trek), and playing video games. She has a dog named Kora, but she prefers The Last Airbender.

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