A different kind of Animal Crossing
As a kid, I’d tag along with my podiatrist father fairly regularly on his nursing home circuit. He needed an assistant, I wanted an allowance, so it worked out — I’d find his patients scattered across the building and bring them back to their rooms, keeping them occupied with small talk while waiting for my dad. The Veteran’s Association facility was by far one of my favorites; of course, there were obvious reasons, such as free sodas and a fat, friendly feline that would follow us around the building, but I particularly enjoyed hearing the stories the ancient veterans would tell.
There was one man who stood out above the rest, however — excited for a listening ear, he regaled me with stories of his time spent in France during WWII. He recalled sitting in a car after Paris was freed and vividly remembered being surrounded by Parisians, all of them cheering and smiling. He started looking around the room for the photo depicting his tale to show me, and was crestfallen when it was nowhere to be found. I could feel his loneliness sink in; he had wanted to foster any sort of connection with another human and was sad to not be able to provide photographic evidence of this life-changing event. “Come by next time,” he had said, “I’ll find the photo for you.”
Upon my next visit a week later, I raced to his room to see if he had found the photo, only to be told that he had passed away.
I spent nearly 20 years working alongside my dad as he tended to his thousands of elderly patients, and while many of those faces have faded from my memory, it’s that man who I can still recall. Perhaps I did nothing for him, but I’d like to think I was a friendly face with a listening ear who may have reminded him of a grandchild. I never did see that photo, but in my mind’s eye, I see a young soldier surrounded by people chanting and cheering, living in a euphoric moment frozen in time. Relief. Happiness. Celebration. Joy. All borne of sorrow, grief, and misery that they knew was well behind them, the crowd moving forward into a unknown future — together. It may have been such a brief conversation, but it’s one I still think about often; it makes me think that, sometimes, people need to connect again before moving on.
It was only natural, then, that I was drawn to Spiritfarer, a bittersweet game about quick hellos and quicker goodbyes.
Developed and published by Thunder Lotus Games, Spiritfarer — “a cozy management game about dying” — has players taking the role of Stella, the newly appointed ferrymaster replacing the withered Charon. Accompanied by her cat, Daffodil, the pair sail the seas to find wayward souls scattered across islands and help them take the next step on their spiritual journey. With a comfortable completion time of approximately 40 hours, Spiritfarer’s launch price of $29.99 is reasonable, although Switch players may spend less time on the title considering the lack of achievements available on the platform.
Spiritfarer opens up on Stella and Daffodil taking the reigns from Charon, who gives them the power of the Everlight and tells them they’ll need to procure a boat to begin their journey. Luckily for them, a familiar face is nearby — Stella’s friend Gwen, who seems to understand quite a bit about these uncharted waters. With her deer friend’s assistance (get it), Stella acquires a ship, upgrades it, builds necessary facilities, and even finds more spirits to guide. A tutorial character of sorts, Gwen provides a soft landing into this strange new world, and Stella, in turn, provides a listening ear and plenty of hugs to help comfort Gwen during this difficult time.
You see, Gwen, like the other animal spirits onboard, were once humans who had since passed through the veil of mortality. Stuck between that world and the next, Gwen and the others require guidance to the Everdoor; before that can happen, however, they must make peace where possible, or at least feel ready enough to proceed. It’s up to Stella to help the spirits become comfortable, both in body and mind, before crossing over to the other side.
How Stella prepares each spirit for their final journey differs depending on their personalities — take Atul, for example: her uncle in their past lives, Stella is asked to prepare specific dishes that remind him of his loved ones, ultimately being asked to serve up a big family dinner with their newfound friends. Gwen revisits her family home, reliving painful memories before deciding to forgive and move on. Then there’s Summer, Stella’s aunt by marriage, who made peace with the dragons that haunted her throughout life, accepting her fate and finally welcoming the resulting peace within her heart.
On paper, Spiritfarer sounds deeply emotional — and it is — but how you fulfill each spirit’s dying wish can be either extremely enjoyable or downright cumbersome depending on the player. Hearkening back to the phrase “cozy management sim,” Spiritfarer is predominately about crafting and collecting, with resource gathering playing the biggest part of the game. If crafting and resource chains sound up your alley, you’re in for a treat, but if you’d rather get your teeth pulled than play management sims, ask yourself how much you really want to get attached to animal spirits before hastily saying heartfelt goodbyes before buying blindly.
Case in point — each animal requires a room while aboard, which will then require further upgrades after some time has passed. Gwen’s room is simple enough, but as more animals require lodging, their needs get more and more difficult to fulfill, meaning you’ll spend most of your time doing chores. Mine ore to take it to the foundry to make ingots, then take those ingots to the smithy to make metal sheets. Chop down trees for logs to take to the sawmill to make into planks. Grow crops for vegetables and other materials to cook and use for fibers. Raise livestock for milk, eggs, and wool, then use the loom to make thread and fabrics. Catch jellyfish, comets, pulsars, and XP for those occasionally odd upgrades here and there.
Don’t forget that while you’re running around ragged attempting to gather, farm, mine, and craft, you’ll also need to keep your passengers fed and happy. This means you’ll need to cook them up a meal and feed them a minimum of once per day and provide them with plenty of hugs. Be sure to cook them something they enjoy (Gwen likes comfort food and fine dining, for example, and her favorite meal is black coffee) and avoid giving them stuff that will make them sick, like glue (which happens FAR TOO MANY TIMES accidentally). Failing to do this will result in the spirits being sad, and that… well, I’m honestly not sure if there are any consequences to that, but why would you let them be sad when hugging them is so rewarding?
In between hitting crafting quotas, the animal spirits in Spiritfarer will tell you more about how they lived, fostering connections between the passenger and the caregiver. One that surprisingly hit me hard was Alice, the motherly hedgehog who stayed home to raise her children. She’ll ask you for one last adventure, wherein she’ll take you around a small town and regale you with an epic tale that was clearly important to her. It was almost as if she was holding on to be able to experience that last hurrah; soon afterwards, she begins to slip away. First her body goes, then her mind — she’ll go from asking you for help walking around the ship to confusing you for her daughter Annie real quick, her final moments fraught with confusion. Of all the animal spirits, Alice is the one who broke me — they’re all sad to some degree, but it was Alice who made me weep.
In the early stages of Spiritfarer, the pacing is solid and the connections are plenty — some of the fan favorite characters, like Atul, Astrid, and Summer are all experienced upfront — but Spiritfarer’s late stage almost became more work than it was worth. An occasional achievement chaser, Spiritfarer gave me the impression that I could probably 100% the game easily enough, but the exploration process locating the necessary collectibles became a fruitless exercise in endurance and the crafting became tedious to the point of torture. Understand that I love Spiritfarer to the point where I’ve spent 40 hours in less than a week trying to beat this game, but moments of bittersweet goodbyes were grossly outpaced by the time I spent crafting, fishing, and searching for one stupid f&%king doll in every single hard-to-locate treasure chest on every single island. By the time I sent off the last character, I was sorely ready to leave myself, burned out by the unending repetition.
Yet, in an odd way, that never-ending busybody crafting work lent to the emotional aspect pervasive in Spiritfarer. How often do we get so caught up in our day to day lives that we forget what’s truly important to us? We blink, and suddenly it’s been a decade, our loved ones aging and time spent chasing things that don’t matter gone forever. I got so focused on fulfilling quests that I failed to recognize just how attached I became to these characters in the first place, and when it was time to say goodbye, I felt robbed of their presence. How many more stories could they have told me? How many more meals could we have shared and hugs could we have cherished? Those connections, as brief as they were, impacted me on an emotional level that was surprising — some more than others — and I recognized myself procrastinating their final journey where possible.
Just like the elderly man from the nursing home almost 20 years ago, the animal spirits reached out to me in their final moments, established a meaningful connection, and departed, leaving me holding onto a memory of unknown importance. I am not sure what to do with these now one-sided connections, or if I even made a difference, but I know they made an impact on me, and I felt the love held within a life well-lived as each spirit made their peace. It’s interesting that a game featuring animals teaches so much about what it means to be human; maybe when my time comes, I’ll understand the importance of these last minute connections as well.
Spiritfarer has the body of a seafaring exploration game, the mind of a management sim, and the soul of an emotional journey depicting love, loss, and grief. With gorgeous visuals and a soundtrack to match, Spiritfarer is pleasing to the senses while providing a core loop that’s easy to get lost in. If you like crafting and crying, take a voyage with Spiritfarer, with fair warning to the completionists that this journey may cause more suffering than intended. For smooth sailing, be sure to choose the Switch version of Spiritfarer over anything with achievements enabled. Regardless of the conduit, you should absolutely play this cozy management sim about dying — just be sure to keep the tissues nearby.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Stadia, Nintendo Switch, & PC (reviewed); Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games; Developer: Thunder Lotus Games; Players: 1; Released: August 18, 2020; MSRP: $29.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of Spiritfarer purchased by the reviewer.