At the 2019 Xbox E3 press briefing, the first indie game shown was a vibrant, whimsical, and well-animated title known as Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games. Now it has received a surprise release, with a portion of the games media having been playing it for the past two weeks. Even if it turns out to not be the biggest indie of the year, I think it’s most definitely a must-play of 2020 and there are plenty of reasons why.
In Spiritfarer, you play as Stella, a girl who has just become the new Spiritfarer, an individual who picks up stranded souls so they can acquire their true form and eventually pass on once they have accepted it’s their time to go. These spirits have a number of requests before they’ll be ready to move on. As the Spiritfarer, it’s Stella’s job to complete these requests while learning plenty of new abilities and crafting techniques along the way.
The core of Spiritfarer’s gameplay relies on collecting resources to expand and improve your ship, while also making sure to take care of the spirits who join you along the way. Living spaces for spirits, stations to turn raw materials into a more usable form, spaces to accumulate resources like food and animal-based materials, and more are all a big part of enhancing the ship. Spirits will usually request for things on the ship to be made or improved and most of the time you’ll have to figure out where to obtain and/or how to make some of the materials you need to do so. For some requests, you may be lucky and already be able to access the appropriate materials, while others take longer to create due to either not yet meeting the spirit that will teach you how or not being able to travel to an area with said materials. This has been one of my only problems with the entire game, but once you get into the right groove of cultivating resources, taking care of spirits, completing requests, it starts to become much easier.
Besides teaching you how to craft specific materials, some spirits also let you access events that then let you collect specific materials. From collecting lightning bolts in thunderstorms to gathering money and jelly from swarms of jellyfish, and even helping out some corrupted dragons, these events are some of the most useful experiences to help you collect resources and as a bonus, help illustrate the more whimsical nature of the game. They can be annoying when you have to get through them to get to another location though, as your ship will stop until you talk to the corresponding character and tell them whether or not you’d like to participate in the event, although it’s a minor inconvenience. Additionally, your ship will also come to a stop late at night when it’s too dark to navigate, and you can either choose to go to bed to make time go forward or spend time crafting until morning, although if you’re crafting items for spirit requests specifically, you won’t be able to finish that request until after they wake up and you talk to them the following morning.
Along the way, you gain new abilities by spending the coins that spirits give you as their fare (called obols) at shrines across the world. These abilities include things like double jumping and gliding, which allow you to explore previously unreachable areas. Sometimes they help you reach a secret area of an island you’ve explored previously, while other times you won’t be able to explore most of an island until you’ve obtained the specific ability you need. Although it can take awhile to find and obtain these abilities, they always feel smooth, with their animations helping to show that. I never felt frustrated when platforming, as it was clear to me that any mistake I made was due to my timing being slightly off rather than because of how the ability works.
This may seem like a lot to take in, but luckily Spiritfarer lets you take your time and do things at your own leisure. It never feels like there’s any rush to finish a request, and there aren’t any penalties for not doing something by a certain time. Spirits will get hungry, which they’ll tell you about if you talk to them or you can see it by what their mood is. Sometimes feeding them a specific food will be a request in their questline, and if you don’t have all the ingredients for that particular food, you’ll have to figure out where to get them. You’ll still be able to feed them other food they like while figuring out how to fulfill their request, but you won’t be able to get to their next request until you feed them the specific dish they ask for. But like I mentioned previously, you can take your time and there are no real consequences for not feeding the spirits on your ship if you’re busy doing other things. They might be in a bad mood and say something about it once you talk to them, but nothing more than that.
Another problem I noticed is that when adding new sections to your ship, orchards cannot have their trees cut down and replaced. To put new trees in an orchard you have to either build multiple orchards or salvage and rebuild the orchard to reset it. Seems like an oversight when there’s already a sawing mechanic to help you collect wood from trees on various islands, as well as a planting mechanic for the garden and field sections of your ship, just making collecting fruit and silk that you need all the more tedious and temporarily limiting progression until you figure out what would be the best way to go about it.
Some requests ask you to go to specific locations for various reasons, which the spirits will usually mark on your map for you if it’s not already there. Sometimes these are places you’ve been to before, but other times you might not be able to access these locations until you upgrade your ship with the appropriate equipment to get past certain obstacles. The one other flaw I found had to do with this aspect, as there’s no automatic fast travel between locations you’ve been to before. While there are ship upgrades that will increase your speed, you aren’t able to unlock them until later due to the needed materials, and even then it still takes a bit of time to travel from place to place. There are also bus stops near some locations, which can help but they aren’t present near every location, so it feels like a more limited pseudo- fast travel mechanic rather than true fast travel. On another note, if you choose to travel via bus stop, the areas near bus stops aren’t marked on the bus stop map, so you’ll either have to make sure to remember where places are or go back to the navigation map to make sure. A little strange and another minor incovenience, but not too much of a detriment to Spiritfarer‘s overall quality.
The spirits who join Stella are also great characters who you get to learn about as you talk to them and complete their requests. Because their requests each take some time, once it’s the right moment for them to go it can come as a surprise, with you having thought they’d be with you on your adventure for just a little while longer. I found myself feeling sad when a character that I didn’t feel connected to at first, had passed on. I also realized that I was happy to have had the chance to help them come to their acceptance and appreciative of how they had helped me on my journey. Having just Stella and one specific spirit alone in the boat while said spirit talks to Stella about their life, while also giving her some positive reinforcement, really helps the player reflect, and the music and visuals surrounding these moments combine perfectly into scenes that might be sad but are also very touching. Spiritfarer still understands the sadness that comes with death but portrays it in a more positive light while at the same time not completely glorifying it, in turn letting us understand that we can still mourn once someone is gone, but still be appreciative they were in our lives at all.
For the entire experience that is Spiritfarer, there are gorgeous and vibrant visuals, smooth animations, and great music. It’s easy to see how Thunder Lotus made sure to put a lot of care in every detail, all the way down to the bounce animation that Stella’s hat does during her run cycle. While only a few parts of the soundtrack stand out to me, overall, it’s very quaint and calm for the most part with the appropriate level of whimsy to help match the fantastical atmosphere. The combination of music and visuals also helps to create an almost Ghibli-esque feel, being reminiscent of the more relaxed atmosphere from something like My Neighbor Totoro. Something else I noticed is that the quality didn’t seem to change no matter the screen size, which was something I had been worried about. Whether you play Spiritfarer on a big TV screen or a small monitor, it’ll still manage to look good (at least when playing on PC).
While I wouldn’t consider it a flaw necessarily, there was one unexpected characteristic I found in Spiritfarer. For as much as it looks like a family-friendly adventure, which I think it is most of the time,the characters swear quite a bit. It’s nothing like the level of the more mature adult animated shows on television the past few years, but I think parents who plan on getting Spiritfarer for their kids should at least be wary.
With a solid gameplay loop and very few flaws, I think Spiritfarer is one of the best indies of 2020 and a must-play if you’re interested in it at all. Its theme of death has already seemed to help a number of people who have written about it due to recent deaths in their personal lives or in society in general, and through that, I think it helps show the positive power video games (and particularly indie titles) can have.
Spiritfarer is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It’s also available through Xbox Game Pass.
A code for PC via Steam was provided by the publisher.