Spiritfarer Review: Almost a Masterpiece

Spiritfarer is a island exploration / boat management game developed and published by Thunder Lotus. It was released in August 2020 on the PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. It costs $25. I played the Nintendo Switch version.

Death in inevitable, and its timing is uncertain.

What then, should you do with your life?

Spiritfarer is a cozy and wholesome management game where this existential question always hovers in the background. The game begins with the main character, Stella, waking up on Charon’s boat. We assume Charon is taking Stella to the afterlife; instead, Charon announces his retirement and makes Stella the next guardian of departed spirits. He gives her a boat, a magic tool called the Everlight, and leaves her to ferry new departed spirits to the Everdoor.

Oh, and Stella takes along her fluffy cat, Daffodil.

Spiritfarer nestles into the comfortable but compelling feedback loop characteristic of most management games. Along with that, you navigate your boat across a large sea populated by villages, storms, and continent-sized turtles. Your routine in Spiritfarer looks a little like this:

  1. Chart a course to new islands
  2. Gather materials, recruit new people who are ready to journey with you
  3. Do quests, feed your clients, cook meals, craft materials, and in general keep your guests happy
  4. Learn about your guests’ backstories
  5. When they’re ready, take them to the Everdoor so they can pass on
  6. Cry
  7. Upgrade your boat, build new amenities
  8. Chart a new course and start over again
I was a very good helper cat. I would cut the wood on top while my wife crafted fabric below.

If you have a friend or significant other, then Player 2 can be Daffodil and take care of some tasks in co-op. What I find special about the gameplay is the way it handles crafting. Each crafting station has a minigame that, if you do well enough, will increase your material yields. This is usually the opposite in such games – most base materials create a net loss once you craft them. You end up with a lot of materials you don’t need and never enough of the materials that you do. It’s a small change that makes a large quality of life improvement. The game’s strengths truly shine in the middle part, the player has to juggle several tasks and quests and once. You’re always busy and there’s always something you need to do, or someone you need to take care of. It feels good to be needed (even if the recipients aren’t always grateful).

The guests themselves are a bunch of misfits. It’s simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. You meet them, you learn about them, but you know you have to say goodbye to them eventually. Some are sweet and meditative like Summer, some are annoying philanderers like Giovanni, and some are brash belittlers like Bruce & Mickey. You take in all sorts, and I love taking care of them. You can even hug them to uplift their mood!

I’m not crying, you’re — oh, you ARE crying.

However, if you think that you’re going to solve all of their problems and make everyone feel rosy with the idea of dying, then you’re going to be disappointed. They may tell you they’re ready to go to the Everdoor, but they still have their doubts, their fears, their lingering trauma; they don’t always resolve it. It’s a chilling reality check. With every goodbye, the question “What do you do with your limited amount of time?” grows bigger and bigger. It gets harder for you to ignore.

Helping those emotional notes hit home is Canadian composer Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis (Max LL) with his raw and sweeping orchestral soundtrack. This is one of the best video game soundtracks I’ve ever heard. From the light guitar that lulls you to sleep to the strings that mimic the flow of the waves, this game simply wouldn’t be the same without its soundtrack. Just listen to the main theme and all of the emotions packed into just three minutes of musical score:

As much as this game made me feel, though, I do think Spiritfarer has a few flaws. Intermittently during your journey you’ll have light platforming challenges with new moves that unlock as you progress. At first they were inoffensive, but eventually these platforming sections got rather annoying. The controls for some abilities are too loose, and I don’t think the camera was designed with co-op platforming in mind — the camera can never quite track both players at once, and in the end, neither player can see where they are. In addition, the game suddenly puts the ending in your lap. Without spoiling much, the game shows you the door to the end, and even though you could technically keep playing, your purpose for doing everything suddenly falls apart. Once we realized that, my wife and I limped to the end. Now, that ending was emotional and beautiful, but its reveal was so jarring that it sapped the remaining enjoyment that we were looking forward to.

But isn’t that how endings in life can be sometimes as well? The more I think about it, the more I see it less like a flaw and more of a deliberate narrative choice. It certainly got me thinking about the game’s themes all the more. Once my controller was down and I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, that question was even bigger in my mind. What will I do with my life, knowing it has an end? What will actually be worth my time and energy? What would I change?

In the end, only you will know what those answers will be. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t help each other along the way.

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