Every so often, games come around that try to push the limits of their genres in an effort to broaden their appeal. According to the official website, Spriritfarer is a “cozy management game about dying.” That it is, but it’s also much more than that. Fans of more in-depth management games may not find quite what they are looking for, in terms of gameplay, but Spiritfarer is probably just right for anyone looking for a chill and heartwarming experience.
Story: An NPC-Driven Narrative
The game opens with Stella and her cat, Daffodil, waking up in the boat of Charon, the mythological ferryman of souls. Charon informs Stella that he is done with the business of ferrying souls to the great beyond, and that Stella is now in charge. He is abrupt and, frankly, a bit rude as he departs without leaving Stella and Daffodil a boat. And, so begins the story of Stella and Daffodil the Ferrymen, but it’s not really Stella’s story that drives the narrative of this game. It’s the stories of the spirits she finds along the way. As Stella, Daffodil, and the player travel with their passengers, stories are shared of memorable moments and unfinished business that are sad, heartwarming, and altogether human.
Spiritfarer has the expected aspects of management games such as gathering, mining, crafting, cooking, and farming—but these activities are more engaging than expected. For some of the resource gathering, Spiritfarer is also a light platformer that uses a day and night cycle. Building and platforming are mixed into the same experience. Building Stella’s ferry is an extension of crafting, but also a puzzle. Nearly all crafting is done by means of simple mini-games. The most management demanded of the player is in caring for the spirit passengers and doing so is largely quest driven. These quests add a story-rich element to the game and provide most of the motivation to explore the mystical seas that form the world of Spiritfarer.
Building the Ferry
Stella and Daffodil locate their first spirit passenger and the “new” boat almost immediately. One of the first tasks is to build that spirit a place to stay. When placing that structure, the player will see that a fair bit of space is available on the ship both horizontally and vertically. The player gets to choose where, in this large space, the structure should sit. Players can even place structures as high or low as they can without the need for some supporting structure beneath it; this can lead to some amusing arrangements.
There are resource-collecting events on the world map that require the player to run, jump, and drop around the ship’s structures to collect the resource. The player can rearrange those structures in order to make collection easier or more enjoyable. The structures have a variety of shapes and sizes, and their shapes and surfaces provide a number of platforms for Stella and Daffodil to run and jump on. In a way, the player gets some agency in designing the platforming aspect of collecting certain resources. There is also only so much space. While upgrades are available for the boat, space crunch is inevitable. Players get/need to puzzle out which way they want to squish in everything.
Ferrying Your Passengers
Discovering and transporting spirits is the driving premise of Spiritfarer. It provides the leading set of narratives that keep Stella, Daffodil, and the Player moving forward. They meet their first passenger almost immediately after Charon leaves them to their new job, but the remaining spirit passengers must be found. The various passengers ask Stella to complete a number of tasks for them, and it’s through these requests that players advance through these spirits’ stories.
The spirit passengers also present the most management-intensive aspect of the game. They are the only aspect of the game that imposes and palpable time constraint. They will ask or beg for food at least once per day. Whether, or not, they are hungry and whether, or not, they have eaten a specific dish they prefer affects their mood. Spirits have something of a profile panel that can be read from a small toolbar while speaking to them. The toolbar shows their mood level as well as likes, dislikes, and favorites, all of which are a mystery and must be discovered. There is also an option in the toolbar to give the spirits hugs, which also affects their mood level and which initiates satisfying animations. Some characters talk a little too much, and players may find themselves pressing buttons to just get on with it, but getting hugs in return helps to make up for that.
Nearly all crafting tasks are simple mini-games with no real way to lose and no negative consequences. The game will either produce some amount of the desired item or reset so you can try again with no loss of raw materials. One of the first mini-game crafting options is textile weaving. Stella places her hand in a ready position. To use the loom, the player holds a button to make Stella move her hand along the device toward a marker. If the player can release the button at the correct time, a small light on the loom flashes, and bonus crafted items are a reward—an altogether simple-yet-satisfying way to make crafting engaging. Better results can be achieved by either performing well on the mini-games, upgrading buildings, or both.
There aren’t many mini-games in Spiritfarer, but there are variations that change with the quality of the material being crafted. While weaving, for example, the light indicator is in a different spot with higher-grade materials, and there is a measurement piece to assist the player in timing the button release, which grows ever smaller. Lastly, Stella moves her arm along the loom at different speeds. Different games have their own unique variations, and that helps to keep the mini-games fresh and interesting through Stella’s adventure.
One of the earliest forms of crafting introduced is cooking. Cooking is the one exception in that there is no mini-game to play. Rather, you’d only be waiting. Recipes can be found, but many of them come about through simple trial-and-error. Perhaps the game, here, is the guessing game. It plays out as players trying to guess what new recipes they can cook as well as guess what recipes are the favorites of their passengers. Cooking is also very forgiving. After some testing, it seems that the food will never burn regardless of how long it has been left in the oven.
On Stella’s and Daffodil’s ferry is a map room. Engaging this map brings up the world map, a stylized, hand-drawn sea chart. Navigation is simple, requiring only a click on the map the send the ferry in that direction. Although players can click anywhere on the map, a great deal of it is hidden at first. As the ferry traverses more of the sea, the more will become clearer.
Poorly handled, Spiritfarer could have been overwhelming from the start, but the game does an excellent job managing the ways that new mechanics and new areas are introduced to the player. The deliberate and careful introduction of these things might be one of Spiritfarer’s greatest design strengths. Stella can perform some typical platforming skills such as double jumping and gliding to the ground, but all skills must not only be acquired before the player can use them. This provides some satisfaction in discovery, and it also gives the player a reason to re-visit some locations to see what can be found with new abilities.
The world map is not a massive place, but it is impressive for an indie game. Fully exploring it can take a few dozen hours. It could have been overwhelming, or even tedious to explore it without some help. Physical barriers on the map prevent the player from exploring too far. When the correct upgrades are acquired, the barriers can be broken and the new sections of the map revealed. This mechanic imposes a moderate pace that players can advance when they’re confident.
Speaking of locations; there are quite a few little islands to visit throughout the whole map, but again, this potentially overwhelming freedom has been carefully measured for players to provide easy-to-manage space. On the map, are literal, physical barriers that keep Stella, Daffodil, and the player bound within a certain area. These barriers can be breached with certain upgrades to the ferry. The materials required to purchase these ferry upgrades are only available to the player after completing certain tasks. The result is a progressive open-world that retains a free and natural sense of advancement as part of the experience.
As previously mentioned, there is a unique form of resource gathering that briefly turns Spritifarer into a light platformer and which is affected by how players build their ferries, but more traditional forms are also present. There is no fighting of any kind. Animal part resources are farmed from animals in a non-violent manner. They can also be found or purchased from a shop. Some resources are simply picked from their location, and some have simple, no-risk mini-games attached to them. Mining, for example, requires that the player hold a button to have Stella bring her arms back for a powerful strike against an ore deposit. Hold the button too long, and she will drop her tool, forcing the player to wait a few seconds before trying again. There are no other consequences. Simply wait, then try again.
Perhaps the only risky venture is in the resource gathering events that dot the map and that briefly turn the game into a light platformer. These events are timed, giving Stella only a few brief moments to attempt to intercept as many airborne items as possible before the time is up. Even if players are not as successful as hoped, there is no need to worry too much. There are multiple instances of each resource event on the event, and they all respawn with time. These events are the most intense aspect of the Spiritfarer experience. Accompanied by music filled with energetic chimes and flutes, these instances add an appreciated burst of fun tension to a slow and mindful journey.
2-Player, Shared-Screen Co-op
Spiritfarer can also be played with a friend. With a second controller, another player can take control of Daffodil to help Stella plant, water, harvest crops, craft items, and cook food. Co-op is played in a shared screen style, and Daffodil can do anything that Stella can normally do except for speaking to characters. This can turn the crafting and farming on the ferry into an extremely efficient and productive venture. Doing so is not at all necessary to finish the game or event to make sure there are always enough resources. The best reason to play co-op is to share the experience with a friend.
Graphics and Performance: Lessons from Legendary Animation Directors
Spiritfarer’s graphics use the hand-drawn animation style that has become popular of late. Some games use this style less effectively, but Spiritfarer is excellent in this regard. The character designs have a realistic appearance, even though most of them are anthropomorphic animals. What’s meant by that is they have proper proportions and there are realistic details. Characters look like high-quality cartoons and feel like a sincere attempt at realistically representing the animals.
Backgrounds are more stylistic with vague shapes to represent clouds and some land features. They skillfully and effectively evoke the real-world environments that they are meant to represent. Islands in the mystical sea seem to draw heavy inspiration from Japan, Germany, and the United States. There are a lot of great details in the animations that make the game a pleasure to play and watch. An example of this is when Stella rows a small boat ashore from the ferry; when she does, she alternates the side of the boat from which she paddles, and when she alternates sides, she actually changes her hand position is clear and fluid animation. Additionally, there are amusing little details such as when you shear the wool from a sheep, they have a simple but expressive eye animation that communicates an entire emotional transition from suspicion to shock to satisfaction.
These kinds of details show the influences of legendary animation directors such as Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki. Bluth, of Disney’s early, classic feature films, is known for directing highly expressive characters, which can be seen when hugging characters or Stella’s idle animations. One of Miyazaki’s animation traits is attention to natural details that are easy to take for granted. One example is the above-mentioned oar paddling but can also be seen while Stella performs crafting and gathering tasks with Daffodil’s movements alongside her.
Despite these strengths, Spiritfarer is not perfect, at least not on the Nintendo Switch. Generally, game performance is smooth. The controls are responsive and fun to use. However, some resource-collecting events that appear later in the game have considerable frame drops while playing in handheld mode. Performance is far better in docked mode, at least. Spiritfarer on Switch also has an issue with periodic game crashes. The autosaving system keeps progress loss to a minimum, but a possibility remains to lose more progress than one would like. This issue can be mitigated by using the “save and quite” command on the game’s main menu. While the game takes a moment to boot from the home menu, reloading from within the game menu is quick, making this workaround less annoying than it sounds.
Music quality is excellent and rich. Tracks sound like they were played with real instruments as opposed to synthesized sounds. The overall tone is relaxed and cozy. Even the more energetic pieces, played while platforming around the boat to catch resources, have a cozy and warm feeling, if not as relaxed as while casually sailing across the sea.
There are changes in music style when the player moves to different areas of the world. One track was a little discordant, which was a bit annoying, particularly if you ended up stuck in that spot for the night. The overall quality was just as good as the rest, but this track will probably have a divided opinion among players.
Spiritfarer does not seem to have much replay value built into it, especially given the heavy themes of community, exploring humanity, dying, joy, and regret. While there is plenty of content to occupy players for dozens of hours, the overall experience has a fixed logic that denotes a definite beginning and a definite end. However, Spiritfarer’s colorful positivity with its deep themes raises the possibility of catharsis, and that makes it a thing that could well be enjoyed some time in the future, like a good friend who is always around when needed.
Spiritfarer represents a beautiful and well-designed adventure from the diversity of characters to the carefully arranged upgrade and progression systems. The small number of technical issues are unfortunate but are easy to manage with little to no frustration. The premise of carrying spirits on their way to the great beyond is not a small thing to consider. That could be a deal-breaker for some players. The colorful world and positive representation, however, imparts a bright outlook (as well as plenty of happy tears).
Spritifarer gets a 9/10.