I was blown away by Spiritfarer when it was first revealed back at E3 in 2019. Described as a management game about dying, the game explored the afterlife and themes of loss and regret through the gorgeous veneer of a colourful, hand-drawn world. In my time with the game last year, I found a game that dealt with these heavy themes using the softest and warmest of hands, crafting an experience that was equal parts melancholic and zen.
In playing an updated demo of the game at PAX East this year, that same style and atmosphere remains, but it’s now complemented perfectly by sharp new humorous writing and adorably quirky animations that translate to the video game equivalent of old friends cheering you up with laughter after the loss of a loved one.
My fresh time with the game also served to highlight its fully-featured co-op. Your protagonist has an adorably fluffy cat companion, and a second player can choose to control that critter whenever they want, exploring the world and performing any and all of the same actions that you can. As my partner for the demo, Spiritfarer art director Jo Gauthier took control of the feline and helped guide me around the game as we handled chores on the ship and set sail for a new island. Incredible detail has been put into every animation for the cat companion, and seeing your fuzzy friend swing an ethereal scythe to harvest crops or expand into a wide-eyed balloon to glide across the air as squeaks of air escape from it’s mouth kept me endlessly entertained.
As we ventured to the new island, we encountered a handful of new characters who inhabited it. One was a neurotic tour guide who refused to let us walk ahead of him at all costs, and every line he spouted was absolutely hilarious, from awkwardly talking about his connection with an oak tree to firmly admitting he has no clue who the woman standing near a spirit tree is and that we should promptly ignore her. Bits of perfectly paced humour were sprinkled throughout the entire demo, and I was really blown away by how genuinely entertaining it all was.
The other two characters on the island, meanwhile, were a grumpy sheep owner and a meek and mild-mannered older woman. They all sported similarly blocky frames and cloths draped over their heads and bodies, but unique ethereal shapes floated off them like mist. Jo revealed that as you interact with each of them and help them with their requests, they’ll eventually join your ship and reveal their true form.
We started by helping the gentle spirit, building a house on our ship in the image of her old home so she would feel more comfortable joining our crew. We gathered wood from the trees on the island, before heading back to our ship and carving the wood into building planks. Every minor action like this, from harvesting materials and crafting planks to watering plants or fishing in the water, is performed through a different kind of minigame. Having to perform a range of different tasks like this proved to add a sense of variety to the gameplay that got me even more immersed in the calm and collected world of Spiritfarer.
Eventually, we built a house for the gentle spirit, Alice, and invited her to join us on our boat. Once she arrived on our ship, a flurry of golden light surrounded her as she transformed into her true form; an adorable, person-sized hedgehog with a gorgeous bonnet and string of pearls around her neck. As it turns out, Alice’s character was inspired by the deceased loved one of someone from the development team. Everything from her accessories to her personality was influenced by the real life experiences and photos of this departed family member related to the team.
This is true of many of the characters in Spiritfarer, taking those real world connections of the team and giving the game a deeply personal touch. Something like that is truly heartbreaking to hear, but at the same time, the warm and welcoming atmosphere of Spiritfarer feels like the perfect way to pay tribute to all of these dearly departed friends and family members.
Spiritfarer is shaping up to be an unforgettable experience, both tugging on heartstrings and poking at funny bones. It’s all tied together, though, with smooth controls and delightful gameplay that are sure to please fans of management sims and exploration games alike.