After Jotun and Sundered, I was not sure what to expect from Thunder Lotus. Similar to their transition between those two titles, Spiritfarer would have a theming about the afterlife, but in a completely different setting and gameplay. Now the shift was made to a resource management game, where your goal is to get spirits to their next life by making sure that they find peace within themselves. All done on a boat. I suppose after tackling themes of heaven and hell, this was a nice middle ground. In fact, that is actually the best way to describe Spiritfarer as well: A nice middle ground between Jotun and Sundered.
Tell me about your life
On a boat drifting through a red, yet calming ocean, we meet a spiritfarer by the name of Charon. For a long time, he has sent people’s spirits onward to their next life and is now retiring from his job, letting Stella be the one to take on this responsibility. He gives her a lightbulb known as an Everlight, before her cat Daffodil steals another one for himself. With those artefacts and an upgradable boat at disposal, Stella and Daffodil set out on a heartwarming journey.
While Spiritfarer will take you to plenty of locations, it is not so much about the islands you will discover. Instead, the game takes a heavy focus on the characters you will take on board, since you will get to know their past and how their final days are affecting them. It can be the snake Summer trying to find her own peace through meditation and gardening, or Astrid, the sophisticated lion who wants to help those less fortunate due to her own tragic events, just to name a few examples. Every character comes with interesting personalities that showcase what diverse characters they are and all are memorable due to their stories and how this journey gives them an arc.
It is lovely to simply interact with these characters on their long journeys, as you get to see how this voyage changes them into accepting what is to come and themselves. Even more wonderful, is how their traits affect the gameplay. For example, the hedgehog Alice is old and reminiscent of a traditional grandmother, to the point where she will even make apple pies for the crew if her mood is up. Details like these shine all the way through, and it is hard not to hug them constantly or simply be saddened to see them go.
I do wish the world was as interesting as the characters, but it clearly takes a backseat and the islands become rather small breathers. It is a shame though, as the areas do not vary enough to make each of them memorable. Mines for exploration, lighthouses in the cold region or places with warmer climates, and a couple of suburban towns; things are rather familiar than personal. It is not on a poor level though, as there are spirits everywhere that presents life to these islands. Some of these inhabitants might argue about a song’s true origin, others struggle with their relations to a workplace, and one was understandably angry at me for cutting down the trees in a park. It is all cute and admirable, but never personal due to the lack of unique cultures. This can also be said for the lore, as it is not fleshed out enough to be intriguing.
However, Spiritfarer is first and foremost about the companions you get on your ship and since there are clear amounts of quality put into their creations, I am happy that they are at focus. The world is still a nice place to witness, it just lacks the same amounts of depth and personality as the cast. I suppose it is similar to a dinner at a cosy restaurant where the main dish is excellent, but the vegetables and rice are rather acceptable and nothing more. It is hard to not say that I still had a great experience.
Story Score: 8/10
As the spiritfarer, you will be controlling Stella in a side-scrolling game, where your ship will be the main source for gaining and utilising resources. Sure, you will have to gather certain items on land, such as materials from mining, logs by cutting down trees or even specific foods, but how to change or use them, comes mainly from your ship. You will have to build constructions like a sawmill to make planks out of woods, a kitchen to cook meals in, and a loom for making fabrics. Doing this is severely important in order to upgrade your ship with more blueprints to use, to the point where you can even create gardens for planting trees or vegetables.
This must be structured thoroughly though, as you only have so much space on this 2D boat. Luckily, a shark will be able to upgrade your boat by making it bigger. Including this, he can also sell you more blueprints for important buildings, and equip your ship with more assets in order to access new areas. It is nice to see your boat improve with the materials you gather, and even upgrades can be provided to your houses, such as making your kitchen use two ingredients to cook something up or add furniture to the homes of your spirits to make them more comfortable.
You will need all of these in order to help your passengers. By exploring the islands, you will come across spirits that have a shadow of an animal smoking from them each, which will be the ones to board your ship in order to find peace and get to the afterlife. How to achieve this will vary for each of them, but none stray away from the core concept of the game. One might just want the ability to create their own museum, another will wish for different types of food to the point of making a feast, and some might need to confront their past. All done through exploration or utilising your resources.
Keeping their happiness up by feeding them food they like, hugging them, and generally making sure they are comfortable, will make their mood go up and they will even help out on the occasion. Perhaps they will work in the loom, play music for your plants or give you random garbage that might turn out to be treasure. All of this truly makes it worth it to help out every person and it is genuinely lovely to see how important your interactions with your crew are in order to make their final journey a pleasant one.
This might sound like Spiritfarer has a lot going on, but it is still hard to get fully invested. Unlike other titles dealing with resource management and upgrades, Spiritfarer becomes very linear in its approach. Upgrades can only be acquired for your boat through a linear progression, the characters are set on specific places, and barriers your boat cannot get through will be upgraded one after another, due to the specific materials being available on designated islands. Because of this, you will not experience much diversity or even planning in how to approach the upcoming situations. Rather, you really have to go with the game’s linear flow.
However, this would have been one minor issue if the islands were fun to explore. Sadly, this is not the case until the last third of this game. Until then, your moveset is limited in terms of platforming, with you starting off with a simple jump, and the abilities to climb and swim. As you send passengers to the next life, you will gain Obols used at shrines to gain more skills, such as gliding or be able to use zip lines. Unfortunately, the platforming is still rather simplistic and neglects interesting exploration until the later parts where you will have to utilise more of your abilities continually and simultaneously.
The boat is full of problems too. There are a lot of resources to use for creating other elements, but there is no form of pressure to work hard in order to gain more resources. Cooking never burns your food, failing sawing perfectly still provides planks, and not watering plants will just make them stop growing until you take care of them again. There is no consequences to how you take care of this ship and your materials, making this title more about resource gathering, than resource managing. Because of this, you become rather nonchalant about the situations, even if the moods of your passengers are low due to how easy they are to get up again.
I suppose the developers noticed this and figured they needed to make the acts of gathering and crafting materials more involving by turning them into QTEs. Yes, there are inputs you will have to do. Fishing will have you tap carefully on the designated button in order to reel in your catch, cutting logs will have you guide the saw in specific patterns and so on. It is nice to have some interactivity, but it becomes a chore when things never evolve, just slightly changes. Getting strange or otherworldly materials will also have you play a mini-game of dodging into projectiles, such as flying jellyfish or catching lightning bolts in bottles. These work better as they utilise Stella’s platforming abilities, but are still rather shallow and do not require much skill to succeed at.
While the interactivity is nice, it is hard to feel like your inputs matter in the grand scheme. Even travelling by your boat is automatic as you just choose your destination on a map. You cannot do this at night though, which is confusing when nightfall does not affect anything else. At least warp points can help to make this not too tedious, and the floating shop and shipwrecks for gathering more materials are nice inclusions. Tools and such are all readily available through your Everlight, and I am happy that there is a variety in materials. However, the restrictions on how to approach this world and no penalty for failing, makes it all become rather underwhelming. For a game that can last up to 30 hours, it really can be dull at times.
Gameplay Score: 5/10
The ocean is such an underrated location
Going still strong with the hand drawn art style, Spiritfarer is a wonderful title to experience thanks to its visuals alone. All characters have impressive amounts of frames of animations to them, all done through this artistic choice, making everyone come with enough expressions to be memorable and admirable. Be it the buffalo who has a hummingbird to do all the talking and drag him around, the giant frog Atul working on buildings, or simply the different takes on hugs, with all idle animations being personal and unique to look at. I will be honest to say that the eating animations do not always represent what you are giving the characters, but that is a minor nitpick.
This world brims with colours and lovely weather effects that add to the atmosphere. Everything is easy to be immersed with, especially with the ocean being beautiful with clear attention to details to make the travels atmospheric and give subtle transitions to new locations. The islands are not truly interesting due to similar setups with a couple of exceptions, but are nice to look at nonetheless. Though there is a strange cut for the clouds that makes them seem unfinished on their bottom parts, and it is severely distracting when everything else is done with the utmost care.
Max LL returns for a third time to help out Thunder Lotus with his music and he has created a wonderful tone that emphasises the calm nature of being on a boat. The beautiful take on echoed and diverse instruments chime to make the ocean feel mysteriously inviting and are only tense when the sky is filled with black voids. The soundtrack even comes with diegetic sounds whenever characters play instruments, and it is wonderful how well implemented they are without clashing with the non-diegetic sounds. The voice samples also help with making the cast more appealing and personal, without going overboard. It is a simple premise that oozes with charm and artistic care.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Is it a rock? An Island? A BLOODY DRAGON?!
Every island will showcase materials to gather, as well as undiscovered chests, treasures and upgrades. There is the opportunity to collect and find every material, recipe, and so on for filling up your catalogue of discoveries. Unfortunately, despite that it adds to the exploration, finding everything does not provide any fulfilling reward in any sense. This holds especially true, when you do not really need the improvements you get for your ship through these optional discoveries.
What ultimately saves the replay value here, is the co-op! Having a friend to help out in order to get more resources quickly and just plan on what to do together, makes the experience feel more fast-paced and involving. The camera will zoom out to see both players, and since the second player controls the cat Daffodil, she can do everything the first player can, except for talking to the other passengers. This is perfectly fine, when this is probably the only productive cat I have ever met.
Extra Score: 6/10
This is an example of a title that is not going to be for everyone, despite the clear hard work gone into it and even if you are invested in its genre. The interactivity is underwhelming, the resources are just there to be gathered, and the game is on a too linear pathway that hinders exploration or varied playthroughs. However, Spiritfarer is at the same time a journey that is filled with charming characters and a beautiful atmosphere that always makes me smile, with some mechanics that are at least intriguing. If you just want a calm experience and do not mind long travels with routines to take on, you might have an easier time to get invested in this heartwarming world. Others will need a podcast in the background or at least someone to chat with.