Cruise to the Afterlife
* Gorgeous hand-drawn art style
Building and crafting a bigger ship is more satisfying than expected.
Goal-oriented gameplay and emotional character stories keep you invested once the grind kicks in.
Smooth, fluid platforming controls and Metroidvania progression
* Late game becomes extremely grindy and tedious
Some materials and spirits have esoteric requirements for collection
No real incentive to properly invest in the cooking system beyond giving basic meals to your spirits
The Bottom Line
Death is one of gaming’s most fundamental themes. How many countless creatures and humanoids have we killed across all of the games we’ve played? We often done so without a second thought: every kill is just another frag, a point to be earned, an obstacle to overcome. Spiritfarer takes a different approach: it’s a game about death set in the afterlife. Very much inspired and at times blatantly derivative of games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, Spiritfarer finds its own identity thanks to its more mature tone surrounding the subject of death.
Spiritfarer takes place in a world between life and death, where spirits roam a collection of small islands. As Stella, the new Spiritfarer appointed by Charon at the start of the game, it’s your task to board the world’s spirits on a voyage towards the Everdoor, the portal to death. Until they’re ready to go, you’ll cater to their every request: building a home, keeping them fed and happy, taking them on shore excursions, and of course making sure to give them a hug every once in a while.
The spirit passengers take the forms of different animals, although as far as I could tell there didn’t seem to be much correlation between their personality and the animal form they take. As you fulfill their requrests, they’ll gradually open up more about their past life. Once their quest chains are completed, you’ll then need to take them to the Everdoor for a final goodbye.
At the start of the game, you’re given a basic ship with only a cabin for yourself. You’ll start out by building a guest house for spirits to sleep on board, and a kitchen for cooking meals. Gradually, you’ll gather blueprints for new kinds of buildings, such as fields to grow crops and looms to manufacture thread and fabric. You’ll also find blueprints which allow you to upgrade these buildings to increase their efficiency and output.
Traveling to new islands will unveil the surrounding fog of war on the map, though you’re also free to explore by simply picking a spot to sail towards even if it’s covered up. Each island contains several different types of resources, which you can either harvest from the natural surroundings or purchase at shops run by raccoons. If you choose to harvest a resource, it will eventually renew after some time, so you’re perfectly free to take as much as you need. Some islands contain new spirits, and though some of these will join you immediately, others will take a bit of convincing before they choose to board your ship. You might need to build a house for them on your ship, for example. Each spirit will offer you an obal, which can then be cashed in at various shrines to earn new platforming abilities for Stella that allow you to reach new areas within the islands. Some islands also contain sidequests, which can net you resources or glims to put towards major ship upgrades.
Resources can be spent on building new cabins, upgrading both residential and manufacturing cabins, and upgrading your ship at Albert’s shipyard. Upgrades include increasing the size of your vessel, unlocking new buildings to craft, and adding features such as a mailbox or an icebreaker to enable travel in the northern part of the map. One curious feature is that you are not allowed to delete any spirits’ homes, even after they have passed on through the Everdoor. These custom homes often have unusual shapes which make fitting in all of the cabins you want a bit of a pain until you upgrade ships. There’s no in-game reason given for this, so I can only assume the designers created this rule as a means of showing respect for the dead. This can still be kind of frustrating until you get your hands on the bigger ships.
During voyages, you’ll have time to chat with your passengers abut their past lives, or perform various chores around the ship such as fishing, watering plants, cooking meals, and manufacturing fabric, wood, or metals. While some spirits will do these tasks on their own, the results are never as potent as doing them yourself, and you’ll need to spend a fair amount of time grinding away at the somewhat repetitive minigames in order to obtain all of the resources you need. Minigames also occur when you sail your ship into specific spots on the map like storms: these will also give you glims and opportunities to harvest specific resources, though they are optional and can be skipped if you’re trying to get to your destination quicker.
As you reach the later parts of the game, ship upgrades become more and more costly, often requiring you to sell your excess junk and materials and/or grind for all the glims you need to actually afford them. The crafting system is such that after a certain point you will rarely need “lower tier” materials to craft the necessary items for progression. Linens and maple become almost useless after a certain point of the game. I found it hard to gauge when I could safely get rid of these materials, as I have an unfortunate habit of holding on to everything until the last minute. It can also be difficult sometimes to gauge where to get certain materials. For example, certain world events to harvest specific materials or build specific items only begin to appear once you have certain spirits on-board, but the game doesn’t do a great job of sign-posting when this happens. I often had to look up guides on how to get certain materials since there was no information on how to get them in-game.
Yet for all of my talk about late-game grindiness, Spiritfarer ultimately leans onto the casual side of video games - this is no in-depth or hardcore sim, and certain design choices reflect that philosophy. The ship, Stella, and the spirits, are effectively immune from any environmental hazards and cannot “die”: crashing your ship into a rock before you get the rockbreaker upgrade will merely stop you ship instead of sinking it. Your inventory is also unlimited and you can hold as much stuff as you want, which is great for those players with a hoarder mentality like mine who have to hold on to everything because they’re convinced they will need it someday. The cooking system has been designed where there are numerous dishes you can make, yet actually digging into this system doesn’t confer you any particular advantages. Spirits will refuse to eat the same dish twice in a row, meaning you’ll need to be stocked up on several types of foods, which could be the start of an interesting challenge. Yet while there are specific dishes and dish types that each spirit prefers, such as Summer’s refusal to eat meat, you can feed most spirits simple foods like fruits and veggies or coffee and tea and that will be enough to keep them satisfied. The later spirits will force you to prepare more complex dishes, but there’s no incentive to actually feed them specific dishes. I wish the game was a bit less lenient as far as how the food and hunger systems go, and actually rewarded me for cooking as many different dish types as I could: perhaps different dishes could confer specific benefits onto spirits when eaten. Still, I can appreciate that I was rarely in a position where I was unable to keep my spirits fed given how much work there was to do elsewhere.
Graphically, Spiritfarer opts for a simple but striking Saturday morning cartoon-inspired look much in the same vein as Thunder Lotus’ previous games. The hand-drawn sprites are wonderfully expressive and at times downright gorgeous: bristling with personality and charm. Every area has its own distinct architectural and environmental design inspired by the real world: the starting islands have a summery Mediterranean vibe, while later areas are inspired by Japan and Nordic countries. The game also makes great use of lighting and weather effects, giving just a touch of realism and believability to this cartoon world. Sunlight rays pierce the open air in the early morning, while storms are very dramatic and filled with loud bangs and explosions. The game is exceptionally well-optimized considering it runs on the resource-heavy Unity engine: I didn’t see any slowdown, camera jitter, frame pacing, or unexpected stuttering at any moment during gameplay. It’s a fluid experience from the moment you press start.
The sound design is simple but effective. There is essentially no voice acting aprt from some grunts and noises from the various characters you meet. The score in Spiritfarer consists of jaunty orchestral themes when sailing the seas and venturing through storms, and quieter tunes when exploring on-shore or sleeping at night. The instrumentation used often reflects the architectural settings of the surrounding environments - the Japanese inspired areas have Eastern-style background music. There’s also the occasional use of ethereal electronic elements to give a more other-worldly sound. There were some irritating pieces such as the songs played when the junk merchant Francis visits your boat, but for the most part the music is a pleasant experience and mostly made up for the lack of voice acting.
Spiritfarer made a strong first impression, although that faded into eventual tedium as I got later in the game. Still, considering that this is primarily a crafting-driven game, Spritfarer managed to keep my attention for longer than most games in its genre thanks to its more goal-focused design over sandbox meandering. The gorgeous art design and charming characters also kept me playing even during the extremely tedious parts of the game. Ultimately, Spiritfarer is a refreshing look at life and death that isn’t a morbid or macabre experience, although it could have used some streamlining.
by krisko6 (813) on March 29th, 2021