Death is such an inevitable part of life that there is certainly no shortage of it in games, usually in bloody and violent fashion. So when a game comes along that tackles the complex emotional sea surrounding it in a sensitive and unique way, it immediately stands out. Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games dived in headfirst and became one with the waves in a wonderful way.
Charon, the legendary ferryman of the Dead, has decided to retire and pass on his underworldly duties. As Stella, along with fluffy sidekick Daffodil, you are the new blood entrusted with said duties. Using the ‘Everlight’—a magical orb that can transform into any desired object—and your sturdy boat, you must welcome spirits aboard and help them discover what they need to move on before finally ferrying them through the Everdoor to the world beyond.
During its marketing campaign, Spiritfarer was dubbed as “a cozy management sim about dying”; a statement that carries both a warm light-hearted air and an undertone of incredible weight. It’s also one that’s spot-on! The game revolves around building up and customising your ship to accommodate your spiritual guests, as well as learning more about them through conversation, quests and even food. To accomplish this, you need to sail to different island locations in the spirit world and acquire various items for crafting and cooking.
So you take to your navigation map, plot your course and get sailing! Like any management sim, maintaining balance can be sometimes tricky, but never does it become overwhelming or off-putting. The atmosphere is still effortlessly cosy and it’s unbelievably easy to spend an unearthly amount of hours on it. And if you ever do start to feel a little management pressure, you can give your feline follower a cuddle and feel rejuvenated.
Not so grim
Given the subject matter, it’s easy to think that the journey will be filled with heart-wrenching tear-jerkers at every turn. At times the emotional impact can take a toll on you, but Spiritfarer doesn’t just immediately go for the gut punch. There is an almost tangible sense of purpose and fulfilment; as you talk to spirits and complete quests for them, you feel the multifaceted warmth of developing a close companionship. You get genuine joy out of cooking their favourite foods and giving them a big hug to pep them up when they’re feeling a little low. Spirits have a variety of different memories and emotions and, despite their animalistic appearance, their responses are unabashedly human. This is all the more poignant with the game originally released during the throes of a pandemic, when people were isolated from those they felt closest to and robbed of connection and companionship–and developer Thunder Lotus delivered warmth in exquisite fashion.
Complementing this is a first class soundtrack. Calming, sweeping, adventurous, heart-warming, this score by Max LL has it all. From evocative piano and acoustic guitar to delicate flutes, bombastic trumpets and Southeast Asian sounds, the tracks punctuate every aspect of Stella’s journey as the Spiritfarer perfectly. Ancient mythological elements are illustrated with a modern twist, reminiscent of Studio Ghibli movie scores in its heartfelt nature. You are being invited to become an important and integral part of a deeply personal story.
And of course, I saved the best for last. Games with striking visuals will never fail to work their illustrative magic on me. Every time I think I’ve seen the heights of graphical greatness, the bar is raised ever higher; Spiritfarer is off the scale. Vibrant hand-drawn character animations mix beautifully with backgrounds channelling the essence of ancient Japanese tapestry. The animations are so intricate and expressive with every scene. Stella’s reactions to different facets of conversations are wonderfully charming. While a spirit is describing house improvements they’d like, she turns the Everlight into blueprints and begins sketching. If they make a happy discovery, she claps her hands in joy. And anyone who fails to fall in love with Daffodil and her adorable antics probably has a heart of stone. Watching her meow in perfect harmony while Stella plays guitar or hanging off the other end of a cross-cut saw when chopping down a tree is enough to make your head explode into candy!
There’re always slight concerns about how non-exclusive games will ‘fare’ aboard a Switch, but it’s all smooth sailing with this one. Spiritfarer is a fantastic title that runs like a dream and firmly delivers on its warm aura interlaced with emotional weight. Beautifully executed in its approach to complex subjects, players will be thoroughly engrossed and immersed in the nautical spirit world Stella and Daffodil inhabit, and the carefully built (if inevitably fleeting) friendships of unique spiritual companions. Step through the Everdoor and see what’s on the other side.