Almost every major video game to release is about death in some way or another. There are obvious outliers like Animal Crossing that are carefree life simulators, but the vast majority of video games give players some kind of weapon and tell them to kill everything that crosses their path. Gamers have become stuck in a loop of mindlessly killing enemies as they appear on screen and hardly thinking about the consequences of their actions. Spiritfarer does something radically different than anything I have ever seen in a video game though. Players never kill anything throughout the entirety of the game, but yet the player is still constantly surrounded by death at every turn as they help ferry the souls of the dead to whatever comes after death.
Thunder Lotus, Spiritfarer's developer, refers to the game as a "cozy management game about dying", and there is honestly no better way to describe it. You are put in the shoes as a girl named Stella who has been chosen to take over as the new ferryman of the dead. Rather than just collecting dead souls and delivering them to their final resting place though, Stella must find the spirits of people who are close to death and take care of them in their final days. These spirits aren't just sick bedridden people though. Far from it actually. Stella will be tasked with building houses for her new wards as well as keeping them fed and going on quests with them around the world. Once Stella has fulfilled the final requests of each spirit they will then be ready to pass on.
Building Management Feels like Tetris
Once the game begins you are granted the use of a fairly large but decrepit ship that can travel around Spiritfarer's world. As more spirits climb aboard the ship players must create houses for them to live in as well as build specific buildings that make the spirits happy and allow you to craft new items. For example, one of the early spirits in the game requests that you add a loom to the ship. This makes that character much happier in the long run, but also lets you create thread and cloth out of linen and wool. In turn, players are able to take the things crafted in these special buildings and use them to create more specialized buildings.
This is the main gameplay loop in Spiritfarer. You will get a request from a spirit, craft something to fulfill that request, use the crafted material to create something else, and then use the new object to fulfill another request. It is relatively straightforward for the most part, but what really ties the gameplay together in Spiritfarer are the management aspects. For one you only have a limited space on the ship for buildings, so situating everything becomes very challenging as time goes on. The buildings are all different sizes and shapes, so players will have to carefully construct everything to ensure that it all fits properly.
Gotta Keep Everyone Happy
You also have to manage all of the spirits on the ship as well by making sure they stay happy. Each spirit has its own preferences for food and living spaces, so you must keep track of this in order to make sure everyone is happy. One character is a strict vegetarian, so you must make dishes for them that only contain fruits and veggies rather than animal products. Another character isn't a fan of gourmet food, so they will only be happy with the simplest of dishes. Keeping spirits happy will let players progress through their individual quest lines, but you also get special benefits for doing so. Happy spirits will complete tasks for you like crafting items or acquiring materials whenever the ship is docked. If everyone is happy then you can progress through the game at a much faster rate.
You will also spend a lot of time exploring individual islands throughout the world. Spiritfarer has some very light platforming sections that let you explore hard to reach areas and find rarer resources. Each island has something new to discover and several of them will actually challenge your ability to jump and climb platforms. The added benefit to acquiring new spirits out in the world is that they will each give out a resource that allows for upgrading the platforming abilities. By the end of the game, you can double jump, glide, and even ride on zip-lines to make it to previously unreachable areas.
Repetition is Key
On paper, Spiritfarer seems like a very repetitive and slow game, which on one hand is a solid assessment. Nothing about the gameplay is unique or particularly rewarding, and after a couple of hours, you will probably have mastered all of the mechanics. Where Spiritfarer sinks its claws in you though is the amazingly well-written characters and the relationships that are built with them over time. Each and every one of the spirits are incredibly complex people and it's not possible to sort them into good and bad people. Each of them has made mistakes throughout their lives, but yet all of them manage to bring something wonderful and wholesome to their relationships with Stella and each other.
It can take a long time to make it through a spirit's quest line (some of them can take upwards of four or five hours), and each of these quests boils down to simple crafting or fetch quests. Yes, these quests are rote and repetitive, but at the same time, they allowed me to have more time to connect with each of the spirits and get to know them. One of my favorites was a small old woman who loved her family deeply but seemed to be estranged from her daughter. She was a wonderful person who became a mother-like figure during the mid-portion of Spiritifarer. Towards the end of her life though it became harder for her to move around the ship, so I moved her house to the bottom level. Sadly, this didn't help and before long her body and mind both began to go. I almost broke into tears at one point when I went to speak with her one morning, only for her to not remember who I was. It was moments like these that make Spiritfarer one of the most unique and deeply personal video games I have ever played.
A Spiritual Experience
Spiritfarer forces you to confront death head-on throughout the entirety of the game's run. You won't find the corpses of your enemies littering the world, and you won't be able to pick up a gun or sword and go on a murder spree. Stella is not the one who dishes out death, but rather helps the dying come to terms with their life before passing on. I have never played a game that made me think of death in such realistic and heartbreaking terms. At the same time, there is also something intensely therapeutic about assisting people to realize it is time for them to leave the world of the living. You don't get to choose when your favorite passengers die, but you can do everything in your power to help them end their life happy and satisfied just like with real-world friends and family.
TechRaptor reviewed Spiritfarer on PC using a Steam code provided by developer Thunder Lotus.The game is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
- Complex Characters
- Fun Building Management
- Beautiful World
- Repetitive Tasks