I’ve definitely been getting a bit more into indie games lately (mostly because they’re relatively cheap), but most of the ones I’ve played are very much in the raw gameplay category. Of course, indie games are just as well known for being more “video” than “game”; as in, they fall into the realm of artistic and emotional experiences that have definitely turned the meaning of the word “videogame” on its head. From Journey, to What Remains of Edith Finch, Gris, and more, a lot of these are highly acclaimed and have brought tons of gamers to tears. I’ve watched people play a lot of the aforementioned titles, mostly from StephenPlays and his wife, Mal. While those games definitely presented themselves really well, I never cried over them. And honestly, it does kind of make me self-deprecate when I’m literally watching people break down in sobs and I… don’t. Basically, the crux of this long-winded preface is me thinking “What if it’s because I’m not playing these games myself? What if I need to be the one moving the character and pushing the buttons and looking at them from my own TV?” This is what’s led me to trying one of the latest emotional indie games, Spiritfarer. Well, that and the fact that you get to construct a cool boat in it.
In Spiritfarer, a girl named Stella suddenly awakens in the River Styx (or something). This creepy hooded guy named Charon looms above her, and says that he’s retiring from his job as the Spiritfarer. Stella, and her cat Daffodil, are given Everlights, which make them the new Spiritfarers. Their task is to find any spirit who isn’t ready to pass on and help them to pass on (which, in terms of gameplay, is to spoil them rotten until they’re happy). When they’re ready, she is to take them to the Everdoor, where they will finally join Prince in the afterworld, a place of never-ending happiness, where the sun shines both day and night.
Normally, I discuss story, gameplay, and audio-visuals in that order. However, because of how Spiritfarer is, I’m actually going to discuss it in reverse, mostly because I want you to writhe in suspense over whether or not I—as the heartless machine I am—cried over the game’s story. For reasons I’ll get to throughout the review, the gameplay and story rely on how the game looks and sounds.
At a glance, Spiritfarer seems just alright visually. Indie games with hand-drawn art styles are nothing new, and this one looks no better than an American graphic novel (and if you’ve read my review of The Witch Boy, you’ll know how much I don’t care for that artstyle). However, you can’t truly appreciate Spiritfarer’s visuals without actually playing the darn thing, and lemme tell you… this ended up being one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever looked at. The colors are striking and vibrant, with beautiful lighting effects. The character design is fantastic, with every person having a unique and creative look. What really surprised me was the animation. Like I said, games done in hand-drawn style are nothing new, but I daresay that Spiritfarer has phenomenal animation. They know that good animation comes down to subtle mannerisms and minute details. And despite being a silent protagonist, Stella dynamically reacts to dialogue, which helps make her feel alive as well. Word of warning, though. Remember how old videogames loved giving you seizures? Something similar occurs in this game during specific scenes, such as when you welcome a new character to your boat.
The soundtrack is just as deceptively fantastic. As one of the few people who actually loved Zelda Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack, Spiritfarer’s was just as enchanting. It’s super chill (except at certain points, which I’ll cover later) and soothing. But unlike Breath of the Wild with having one overworld theme and then the final dungeon theme, Spiritfarer has several different themes. Sometimes, I’ll play as inefficient as possible just as an excuse to chill (that, and the fact that I’m never efficient in these kinds of games).
Regardless of what I end up thinking of the story, what made me more invested than anything was Spiritfarer’s gameplay, which will be discussed at length. In essence, Spiritfarer plays like a 2-D Raft, where you collect resources through various methods in order to craft facilities and structures for your boat. The system is pretty simple and intuitive, and you can place buildings anywhere within your boat’s space, since it’ll auto-construct ladders. The tricky part, especially early-game, is wrestling with the boat’s size. The various facilities come in wild shapes and sizes, and it’s as fun as it is frustrating to try and clutter it all together. Fortunately, there is an edit feature where you can freely move the buildings without having to dismantle and rebuild them.
There’s also plenty of upgrades for your rig. You can go to Al’s Shipyard to increase the boat’s size, unlock new facilities, and a host of other things. One of the best aspects of this is that your quest menu will actually list the next upgrades, showing you what you need without having to go to Al’s just because you forgot what was required. You can also upgrade individual facilities, but you need to unlock those upgrades as they come. Stella herself also has upgrades. You earn Obols as payment from newly welcomed spirits, and by donating those to various shrines found throughout the world, you can give her improved mobility and whatnot. It gives the game a sort of metroidvania vibe, even though it really isn’t.
So how do you get resources? Well, the main way is to visit various islands. Your map starts out pretty small, but expands as you explore further. And while you could theoretically shoot in the dark for a new island (especially on repeat playthroughs if you know where they are), you can also receive quests and random messages in a bottle that will mark out those otherwise darkened areas. Like Wind Waker, your boat actually needs to sail to it. And honestly, I think the sailing in Spiritfarer is better than in Wind Waker by a long shot. Once you start getting new facilities, you can kill the long sailing times by doing tasks (more on that later), fishing, or just straight-up relaxing. The ship cannot move at night, but that can be remedied by going to bed. Just remember to ring the bell just outside of your room to wake your guests (and also remember to never ring it unless the time display on the HUD has the bell symbol, especially not while they’re supposed to be asleep).
Also unlike Wind Waker, there are a lot of resource gathering areas that regularly respawn en route (although you can and should go out of your way for them if you don’t have a straight shot to your next island). THESE are where things get fun. Despite the game not having any stakes or feeling of death, these special respawning zones (with the exception of collecting drifting crates) make resource collecting fun and exhilarating. From jumping around to collide with space jellyfish that live in random rifts in space-time, to letting yourself get struck by lightning to capture it in empty bottles, Spiritfarer somehow makes an adrenaline-pumping experience even though you can’t die. The soundtrack ramps up during these sections to make it even more fun. One of the best parts is that despite how “casual” Spiritfarer is, you are still rewarded for having intrinsic platforming skills, since you get more resources that way.
That philosophy extends to the facilities in the boat. Normally, the loom or the furnace are used like normal crafting tables, except you sometimes have to wait a minute for results. Here, you have to make them yourself. From playing a rhythm game to speed up plant growth to precisely cutting logs into planks, there are different mechanics for making various resources. Again, you are not straight-up punished for doing bad, but doing good gets you a bonus increase in results. They really keep you busy while the boat is moving. If you can’t stand the long journey (or don’t have any speed upgrades), you can sail to a bus stop (once unlocked) to fast travel around the world.
Cooking is done really well in Spiritfarer. At first glance, it seems like the usual “put ingredients in, get a thing, and slam your head against the wall trying every possible combination in order to get all the recipes”, but it’s a bit more than that. One thing I learned was that you could insert up to five of the same ingredient to get five that dish at once with the cost of more cooking time. Furthermore, your kitchen is a deceptively good source of coal because the sawdust you obtain from cutting logs can be cooked into it. There are also treasures that contain recipes so you don’t always have to brute force them.
SO… all of that covers what you can do on your way to a given island. How about when you GET to an island?! Sadly, the islands are hit-or-miss. Some are just flat albeit lovely plains, while others have a fair share of nooks and crannies. In any case, you will regularly need to visit these places to replenish your basic resources. Fortunately, the preview of it on your map will indicate if resources have respawned, which is a really nice touch.
As expected from a resource collecting game, the platinum trophy is tied to obtaining at least one of every item in the game. These are presented to a lovely walrus named Susan, who is probably one of the best collector-type characters I have seen in any videogame. At certain milestones, you will get some great rewards, so stop by often.
Anyway, I’ve just talked about the faring part of Spiritfarer for about ten years but not the spirit part. Basically, you find wayward souls on various islands. A lot of people are dead in this world (for some reason), but the ones you want will have a silhouette over their heads. When recruited, they will begin to make the ship their own. As previously discussed, you need to make them happy.
The main way of doing this is to complete quests. This ranges from building new facilities (like their own private quarters) to going to particular areas of story relevance to them. You also have to worry about their moods. You’ll have to feed them regularly, keeping their individual tastes in mind. One of my gripes with the game is that the feed menu itself doesn’t show you their preferences, but honestly you just need to regularly look at their favorites (in the Mood tab) BEFORE you select feed. Unfortunately, they also fail to show what you’ve fed them already, making it an incredible grind to find their favorite dish. As far as I know, there is no trophy for finding everyone’s favorite food (and if there was then I missed it).
You also need to make sure you talk to them whenever an exclamation point or a random text box appears. Usually, it’s just a reminder that they’re hungry or have a quest; but sometimes, you get random tidbits of their backstory. You should pay attention to what they say, because if they talk about an unpleasant memory, it will decrease their mood, and you should respond appropriately by giving them a hug (yes that’s a thing in this game).
So, we’re finally onto the story. The story that many have said is emotional, heart-rending, and powerful. I’ll admit that I was impressed. The writing is phenomenal, with a lot of dry humor that somehow fits in well with the more emotional stuff. All of the characters have basic personalities, but are given more life by the excellent writing and emotive expressions. The game is great at building anticipation for releasing them, and the actual cinematics when that happens are breathtaking.
And yet, I didn’t shed a tear.
There are some reasons that can be blamed on the game. While the writing is really good, a lot of the more nuanced aspects of the spirits’ character arcs are very loose. Heck, you won’t even be explicitly told exactly how they died. Also, you could literally just be checking on them while you make your rounds, and they’ll suddenly be like: “Let me share with you this traumatic memory!” I tried to pay attention for the most part, but it’s hard to pay attention while you’re trying to make sure everyone (including assorted farm animals) are fed, your windmill is actually rotating, your plants are watered, while also squeezing time to smelt ores or use the loom. This game was something that had to be left up to interpretation, but the Lily Update that came out early 2021 straight up tells you Stella’s backstory and each spirit’s role in the overarching story.
However, the blame still rests on me, and it probably has to do with my autism. I say that the characters are loose and interpretive, but that could easily be my inability to understand people. There are some aspects of the brain that completely elude our best neurologists to this day, which are part of some sense of “understanding” that I do not have. Most neurotypical people can probably read the lines of these spirits as it is, and piece together exactly what happened to them—down to their cause of death—with no problem. In fact, based on one of the patch notes I read, the fans knew more about one character than the devs themselves! Honestly, I feel jealous. Games like this are part of why I question if I like having autism.
Regardless of what the exact backstories of these characters are, with Spiritfarer being a slice-of-life, they’re all going to amount to being a normal, realistic, human issue of some kind. People and critics seem to think that those are the most objectively and unequivocally fascinating narrative themes, but I don’t. I suppose you can blame my autism again.
Also, my impression has sort of been colored by the content updates. It’s not really the content of the updates, but the fact that they were announced when I was in position to beat the game. Since I wanted to play those first, I ended up waiting months for them. And as a result, a lot of the plot was lost to me. My clearest memories are the above passages that you just read, written while they were fresh in my mind (this review, consequently, took over a year to write to completion).
Beyond all I’ve discussed, there are still a couple of flaws with Spiritfarer. It’s nothing game-breaking, but I don’t want to sound like that guy who glosses over issues just to sound “right”. First off, while the game appears to be pretty open world, progress is deceptively linear. Usually, these kinds of games gate you from certain progression by just not giving you certain resources, and having you craft what you can in order to gradually find those resources. Spiritfarer is a lot more strict than that. The resource collection events, such as lightning and stuff, are tied to a specific character, requiring you to have them on your boat before you can obtain the resource. Also, certain regions of the game are locked behind specific boat upgrades. Those upgrades require a Spirit Flower, which is only obtained by releasing a spirit, making the game even more linear. This also, sadly, can make you look forward to releasing a spirit, which kind of kills the emotional value of the sequences. Other than that, some chests require blind leaps of faith to reach. There’s no punishment for missing, of course, but the lack of bottomless pits doesn’t make that kind of level design any less annoying.
It also gets grindy if you go for the platinum trophy. Fishing isn’t too bad if you can find the optional upgrade that allows you to catch even the most difficult fish in less than a minute. The problem is the cooking. If you don’t look up all the recipes, you’ll end up brute-forcing a lot of them. While most items take any of a given type of food, some are more specific. It didn’t make the game fun anymore, so I just gave up on it. Oh well, like Hudson Hornet said: “It’s just an empty digital cup.”
Final Verdict: 9.65/10
Spiritfarer is one of the greatest casual gaming experiences of my life, and definitely one of my favorite indie games. It didn’t make me cry, but it’s something I will never forget. I’d try the other two games by this team, but they—in a stark contrast to this game—look rip-your-ass-off-difficult. Hopefully they’ll start working on a new project soon-ish? In any case, I recommend Spiritfarer if you like Stardew Valley and Edith Finch and stuff.