REVIEW: Spiritfarer

REVIEW: Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer puts you at the helm of the afterlife.

Death is one of those things in life that’s a bit taboo to talk about. It makes people uncomfortable, they don’t want to think about the inevitable fate we all share, which, like, fair, ya know? It’s not like it never comes up; over the last year and half, with the failure of the UK’s Conservative government resulting in a six figure death toll, it’s been impossible for it to not come up in conversation. It’s something that I personally think about maybe too often, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about death and video games. Life isn’t so kind that it will let us avoid the topic. And neither is Thunder Lotus Games’ Spiritfarer. 

Originally released in September of last year, Spiritfarer is a management sim of sorts where you help the dead cross from the afterlife to… well, whatever is after that. There’s a whole host of spirits you get to meet, each with their own wants and needs, with numerous quests that further their individual storylines. And the spirit faring is quite literal – you, as Stella our protagonist and her cat Daffodil, travel from island to island in your boat, making friends and picking up spirits along the way. The management aspect comes from gathering resources to craft buildings for your ship, as well as expanding the size of and what your ship can do. 

All in all, it’s a fairly simple game to play. There’s nothing challenging about any of the tasks you need to complete. There are pseudo-mini games you can play in different buildings on your ship, like having to balance the heat of the furnace in your foundry when making ingots, or cutting planks from logs in particular patterns in the sawmill. And the game is beautiful too – it’s almost impossible to not mention this game’s 2D art style and Studio Ghibli in the same breath, and the developers themselves acknowledged that in a recent documentary on the game. It’s an incredibly cosy experience, and one that could easily fit the description of “wholesome”. In fact, it was featured in a Wholesome Games Direct last year. But for a number of reasons, I don’t think it fits that discourse laden term.

Management games normally aren’t my kind of thing. They frequently include resource gathering, which for Spiritfarer is the main driving force behind progress. I don’t like having to go from place to place to get a piece of ore, or some wood, or anything. It feels so unfulfilling in most games to me, and here it’s no different. It’s worse, even, as it hardly feels like it connects to any of the narratives in any meaningful way, the hoarding is just a means to an end. Moreover, it makes me uncomfortable how blase the game is about resource collecting. When you first need to cut down a tree, Gwen, your best friend in life and the first spirit you meet, tells you that it’s fine to cut down the trees as they grow back quickly. 

Stella sat at the back of her boat at sunset. She's fishing. In the background there's a small island covered in trees.

The game knows there’s something wrong about going from place to place and taking what you want, but the justification just seems like it wants to wash its hands of any complicated ideas surrounding resource collecting that is so prevalent in so many games. It makes me wonder why even the afterlife, a place where ideally you should be able to live as you please, still isn’t free from colonial mindsets and approaches to land. The act of sailing from island to island is generally so pleasant – the music is absolutely beautiful, and once again the artstyle makes every frame a joy to look at. But when the only way to progress at certain points was to go and get a certain amount of wood, I felt like I was pulled out from the world like a cane hooking a bad stage performer.

[Spoilers Ahead]

I was also surprised by how ‘adult’ Spiritfarer was. Things like characters swearing, or one story arc focusing on infidelity genuinely pleasantly surprised me, because I expected the game to be more “wholesome”. I thought the game would be a more comforting presentation of death, not necessarily going into other heavy topics. Alice’s storyline in particular threw me off. Alice is an older, sweet hedgehog, who loves making food for the whole crew. She doesn’t have a particularly developed story, mostly little touches of talking about her family, but after a while she starts to become forgetful. The game never outright says it, but it’s clear that she’s meant to be suffering something along the lines of alztheimers or dementia. 

Bringing Alice to the Everdoor, a gate where the inhabitants of this world go when they feel they’re finished with their afterlife, was one of the most painful experiences in the game. She was so confused about everything, and having had a family member experience the same, it hit a little too close to home. Except it was undercut by something mentioned earlier: she didn’t really have much of a story up to this point. In her time on the boat you don’t really get to know her, and this applies to a lot of the spirits who join you along the way. You don’t even really get to know Gwen all that well, which to a degree makes sense considering she was your best friend in life, so why exposition dump on the player? But the player doesn’t know what happened to Stella in life, or about her relationship with Gwen. 

Stella and Gwen hug on a small boat at the Everdoor. They both look happy to be holding one another.

The first spirit you bring to the Everdoor is Gwen, and I did of course feel sad to say goodbye. I was sad because I could so clearly see how interesting a character she was – she was unapologetically herself, at all times in the moments you spend with her. She cares about Stella deeply, clearly, and the first time I hugged her made me weepier than I realised I could get at the moment. In the end though, I didn’t know her. And then I didn’t know the next spirit. And the next one. And the next one. And that’s where my largest problem with the game lies.

Spiritfarer is a game about death, obviously. But in its preoccupation with the afterlife, it forgets to deal with the second half of that word; life. It seemed that most of the time, you only got a feel for the life of each spirit when you brought them to the Everdoor. The game obviously understands how important life is, with the very final mission of the game involving Lily, Stella’s sister, reminiscing about your life. In those last moments, you learn that this version of the afterlife is a coping mechanism for Stella, as she’s dying herself. She’s looking back on all the people she lost, whether they were friends or family, of the people she cared for in her medical career. Providing a good life for others is important to her, yet I never got to know if that was the case for the real versions of these people Stella knew, or the fictitious version that existed in her take on the afterlife.

I didn’t hate or dislike my time with the Spiritfarer at all. There were moments of beauty in there, and in some cases there were such honest depictions of death that you don’t see in many other games. But there was so much more that I wish the game did. I don’t necessarily think I’m owed insights into the lives of every single character of the game – even digital lives deserve their privacy. I do wish that I’d gotten to know some of them a little better, though, so that in their death I could think of their life to make things a little easier.

(A quick note: normally at PLAY, we include a score at the end of our review along with some pros and cons. After speaking with my editor, we agreed that for the style of review I’ve written, a score wouldn’t fit as it no number would accurately reflect the content of the piece.)

[A review code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.]

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