Indie Watch – Spiritfarer Review

I hate saying goodbye to people. From the simplest goodbyes like going home after the pub to the most drastic, like funerals. The prior example is always a little awkward and uncomfortable, and the latter is always immensely sad. Today’s title handles the subject with an unexpected grace. This is my Indie Watch Spiritfarer review.

Goodbye, either with finality or as a temporary sentiment, is one of life’s unarguable facts. It happens regularly throughout , and there’s nothing we can do about it. From leaving school, where you go from spending entire days with people to suddenly never seeing them again. University, where bonds are built between people like no other, and eventually lost to time and adult life. 

Goodbyes suck, and that’s the whole idea behind Spiritfarer. Developed and published by Thunder Lotus Games, this brilliant little indie launched quite recently onto every major platform. In case you’re curious, it launched straight onto Game Pass on Xbox, which is where I played. 

“..a game of impressive depth and breadth”

Spiritfarer takes the form of a mild management sim, not entirely unlike something like Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley. Spiritfarer is also one of the most calming experiences I can recommend. It’s a game of impressive depth and breadth, with a completion time of around 30 hours. Not a short game especially for an indie of its type. 

There’s a variety of mini-genres in here as well, if you will. Stella, the main character, has a movement range that feels designed for a platformer. The camera orientation is that of a 2D side scroller. There’s mild exploration, and some very light action segments, that come into play when looking for resources.

There’s no real pressure or, as far as I can tell anyway, any real “fail state” for the game. 

You play as Stella, the titular Spiritfarer, and your ultimate goal is to ferry souls of the dead across the oceans of the afterlife. In possession of a vessel, you have to improve, manage, and captain a ferry. In ferrying (get it) these souls, you’ll develop relationships with each and every character you pick up. You have to feed them, make sure they get up in time, and provide ample housing for them. 

“Spirit Farer’s ultimate strength is in its dedication to making you know these souls”

What characters they are as well. Gwen is the first soul that you’re tasked with in your job as a soul-Uber, and she has a craving for comfort foods, and especially loves coffee. Not only that, but she’ll teach you the base mechanics right at the start of the game. 

Right at the start of the game, your job is explained. Not only do you have to locate and care for these drifting souls, you have to deliver them to the afterlife when their time comes. Spiritfarer’s ultimate strength is not only in the surface level visuals and mechanics (we’ll come back to that), it’s in its dedication to making you know these souls. So much so, that saying goodbye is heartbreaking. 

Funerals are, and forever will be, the worst experiences of my life. Some people see it as an opportunity to celebrate life, others as a way to express their appreciation, but I can’t help but feel aggrieved at the loss of life. Doesn’t matter how well I know them, it stabs me in the chest every time.

Spiritfarer emulates this emotion in a way I didn’t think was possible in a digital medium, which is no small compliment. You spend five or six hours caring for something, providing its every need, only to have to say goodbye as their soul drifts off to somewhere… else. I don’t necessarily know if this sentiment will resonate with everyone who tries Spiritfarer. I imagine the more cynical people out there might even laugh at the fact I was so affected by the game, but that’s fine. 

Spirirtfarer is more than emotional baggage though, thankfully. By collecting various resources across the open world, you can upgrade the size and capabilities of your ship, add new buildings to its deck, and provide the needs of every soul you pick up.

“..all the mini-games quite satisfying both in visual and audio design.”

There’s a kitchen for cooking, farmland for growing produce, foundry for crafting ingots, sawmill for creating planks, and more beyond that. Each of these types of buildings house charming mini-games for you to engage in. Pumping bellows to maintain the heat required to craft ingots, or playing guitar to plants in order to encourage growth for example. None of them are difficult, but all the mini-games quite satisfying both in visual and audio design.

The ding sound and small flash when using the loom and perfectly time the button press, the tug of war game when you’re fishing, all of it is rather appealing on a sensory basis. Which is what you need in a low-key kind of game. 

Low-key is exactly what Spiritfarer is as well. I already mentioned there’s no fail-state, but there’s also no danger, combat, or high-octane moments of any kind. This isn’t a game for people that require constant adrenaline, or instant gratification. 

But, for people like me, Spiritfarer is something quite special. The management mechanics are deep enough that I constantly feel engaged, but not so overbearing that I’m perpetually stressed. Your occupants might moan they’re hungry, but food and recipes are so plentiful that keeping them full is easy. Upgrading your ship is expensive, but getting hold of currency doesn’t take very long at all. 

“..for people like me, Spiritfarer is something quite special”

All of the little games within the game help push Spiritfarer along the ocean, but it’d be less appealing without a final goal. Which is, like I said, this indie’s greatest success. Each soul upon your ship will have a quest attributed to them. Usually it’ll start with building them a place on your ship, and then progressing from there. It’s very often related to the memories of their life, or the people they were with before they died. All of it is quite touching. 

I don’t know how important these characters were to the people that developed the game, but the sentiments and emotions of each one are quite believable. After clearing their quest, they’ll inform you that it’s their time to go, often hinting at their real life struggles in the process. I won’t ruin Gwen’s goodbye, or anyone else’s, but I’d wager they might affect you in the same way it did with me.

Coping with death is the major theme of Spiritfarer. After a character has left you their house will stay on your ship, as well as the resonations of their impact on your game. Gwen helps you to learn the loom and most of the important early mechanics of the game. Every time that you craft some linen fabric using the loom, you’ll be reminded of her. 

How you react emotionally to a game like Spiritfarer might be widely dependant on how attached you get to characters in a videogame. Generally, videogames and other digital media don’t affect me on the same level that Spiritfarer did, so colour me impressed. 

Don’t mistake Spiritfarer for an unhappy or depressing game either, it’s really not. Which might be why it works. The soundtrack is airy and upbeat, the visuals are brightly coloured and varied, and the activities are fun in a very laid back way. 

“The wide array of colours and animations only help to strengthen the unique identity Thunder Lotus has created.”

The artstyle is one of the high points of Spiritfarer. Reminding me of a pop up picture book from when I was a kid, each scene is layered so that objects are either in front or behind Stella, and the lack of 3D stylings make each scene look remarkable. I’ve obviously littered screenshots throughout this article and hopefully you’ll understand what I’m driving at. The wide array of colours and animations only help to strengthen the unique identity that Thunder Lotus has created.

Every animation is smooth, and has an impressive range. Characters don’t generally house duplicate animations (that I could see). Stella is animated beautifully, with every jump and sprint characterised perfectly. Your pet cat, Daffodil, is delightful in the way she scurries and plays. 

There’s not a thing I’d change about the way that Spiritfarer looks and performs. It’s pretty wonderful.

I don’t necessarily think Spiritfarer is perfect. The strength of Stella’s movement cries out for some REAL platforming challenge, and she’d benefit from not being an entirely silent character. I also don’t think Spiritfarer is for everyone. It doesn’t have that worldwide appeal that some games do. But I’ve never been drawn to management games, and Spiritfarer grabbed me in a way I didn’t expect.

“Spiritfarer grabbed me in a way I didn’t expect.”

I’m not sure if it was the emotional payoff for each character, the gorgeous visuals, the satisfying audio, or the whimsical mini-games. All I know is that I’m floored by what Spiritfarer achieved with me personally. If you’re open minded about what you might get from it, it’s an indie experience I can’t recommend enough.

It says a lot that I was heartbroken by the fact I forgot to give Gwen her favorite meal before she left:

A cup of coffee.

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