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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Management
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
Release Date: Aug. 18, 2020

About Andreas Salmen

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Switch Review - 'Spiritfarer'

by Andreas Salmen on Sept. 10, 2020 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

As ferrymaster to the deceased, build a boat to explore the world, care for your spirit friends, and guide them across mystical seas to finally release them into the afterlife.

Spiritfarer is a beautiful, hand-drawn game that is a mix of 2D-platformer, management sim, and visual novel all in one — something I wasn't sure would work well together. Now that I've had the pleasure of playing it on Nintendo Switch, and it turns out Spiritfarer doesn't just succeed in what it tries to do, but it's also one of my favorite indie games this year.

The best way to describe Spiritfarer is as a mix between Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. We play as Stella, who is suddenly named the new spiritfarer, so it's now your job to find lost souls at sea, make sure they're happy and well fed, and then deliver them to the afterlife. If you're not a fan of simple management sims that are designed to keep you busy, Spiritfarer might not be your cup of tea. If you're up for a game that creates genuine characters that you take care of before sending them to the afterlife, this is the game that you didn't know you needed.

We start out with a single soul accompanying us and a massive boat that will be our home base. It has a captain's cabin, where you can sleep and navigate, and there's a building area that we'll eventually fill with buildings for our rescued souls. While there is an overarching story, we aren't required to adhere to a particular order or structure; we can simply punch in coordinates on a map, and our boat safely navigates there. Traveling is important to meet new characters that eventually become passengers on our boat and to collect resources that can be used for upgrades, new buildings or to feed our guests. One draw is the cute art style and the fact that all characters you rescue are in animal form, clearly drawing inspiration from Animal Crossing — but in 2D and infinitely cuter.

At times, Spiritfarer can feel like a hotel management sim, since all passengers aboard the vessel have unique needs that must be met before they can pass on to the next life. Stella does not need to eat, so your whole day is spent tending for your boat guests and gathering required items and resources. She can give everyone special items, talk to them, feed them, and hug them. Each interaction improves their happiness, but not providing food regularly may decrease it. There aren't major consequences if you do lag behind, so there is no real-time imposition on getting everything done on a specific day. There is a day and night cycle, but there aren't many restrictions about that, except that your boat cannot navigate at night.

On your boat, you may have a garden and field to grow vegetables and crops to create meals. You also have heavy machinery to create planks from wooden logs, shear sheep, melt ore into metal, and much more. The further we progress, the more buildings and upgrades that we'll eventually unlock. Some will be special buildings, since long-term residents prefer to not be in the same room as everyone else. Every character has a distinct story, and some are even directly connected to Stella's former life. They also have food preferences that can make them incredibly cheery or may merit a quest to organize a special dish for them. Most characters are charming, although they're not all created equal, with some standout and some forgetful encounters.

On paper, you directly tend to the needs of your crew — cooking, hugging, and running errands — until they are ready to move on. There is much more to do and see than just what's on your boat, though. As mentioned, we are free to navigate our boat almost anywhere. Some parts of the map are locked early on but become accessible with the correct ship upgrades. As we travel from island to island, we discover new resources, skill upgrades, side stories, beautifully drawn vistas, and an occasional soul to shelter. Souls don't just join us, either; they often need us to do them a favor before joining us. A lot of what you do in Spiritfarer is repetitive, but it manages to feel like you're always working toward a distinct goal.

This works well due to Spiritfarer's character design and storytelling. Everyone you rescue turns into an anthropomorphic being, with their characteristics and stories often mirrored in their appearance. Since you spend a good amount of time listening to their stories and providing support, the repetitive tasks become meaningful. You create a strong bond that makes you care about the characters you meet, and you seek out the interaction. As previously mentioned, not all of the characters are enjoyable, but even if you connect to every other one, that is an incredibly high percentage. This game is a personal affair, since you deal with death in a graceful way; it's rare to experience in any other medium or game. It's what makes Spiritfarer special, and it's why the simple and repetitive game mechanics don't interfere with what the title tries to achieve. It manages to be a relaxing but touching experience of about 20-30 hours, depending on how much time you spend exploring the world. I implore you to seek out every nook and cranny in Spiritfarer, since it's always worthwhile to explore new places, find resources, and discover other characters.

While a lot of the gameplay is based on simple management tasks and waiting for timers to pass until your crops have grown or a meal is cooked, Spiritfarer is not just an idle clicker. Every task is often interactive. Ore can be mined by keeping a button pressed exactly long enough before releasing, while trees need to be sawed with horizontal motions of the analog stick. On your boat, you create planks by following cutout patterns on the logs, and you melt ore by controlling the furnace heat with bellows. It's not complex, but you're responsible for refining resources before they can be used. There are even some special resources that can only be acquired during certain events, such as capturing lightning in a bottle during thunderstorms, or jelly, which can be acquired by collecting flying jellyfish at certain spots in the world.

The game runs well on the Switch, both in handheld and docked mode, although the latter showcased some occasional stuttering. The visuals are beautiful and hold up well regardless of screen size. Spiritfarer embraces its unique art style, and the character art reminds me of the Blacksad comics, but slightly cuter in execution. It's beautiful and unique, and the music creates an incredibly relaxing atmosphere. There were several occasions when I sat on my boat and fished while my boat passed an island and the sun set on the horizon. While the Switch iteration doesn't have console-exclusive content or features, the performance is on par with other versions, with the obvious additional portability of the system.

With a touching story, charming characters, simple but engaging management gameplay, and an interesting world to explore, Spiritfarer does a lot of things right, but it isn't perfect. You may sometimes get into a slump when working toward several objectives at once, and you end up doing the same things over and over again without any noticeable progression. Motivation can drop during these times, but these instances are relatively rare.

A bigger issue I have is its 2D perspective. While it works well for simplicity and the sake of the beautiful visuals, the game it sometimes crams too much into one spot. When there are several building structures on your ship, it can be difficult to select the correct thing, since interactions are all done with the same button. If a character stands in front of a door that you want to use, you often end up starting conversations instead of entering. It's an annoying issue that I constantly encountered. If this feels like cherry-picking issues, it certainly is, but this was all the more noticeable since the rest of the game is executed to a fairly high standard, especially for an indie title.

After everything I've mentioned so far, it's not a surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed Spiritfarer. What initially looked like an eerie combination revealed itself to be a thoughtful, relaxing, and enjoyable journey that deals with loss and caring in heartwarming ways. It's not a flawless masterpiece or a crowd-pleaser, but it knows what it's good at and executes it to an incredibly satisfying degree. If you vaguely enjoy titles like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, be sure to pick up Spiritfarer.

Score: 9.0/10

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