From the very first minute, Spiritfarer makes its serene and welcoming atmosphere known. Sure, you’re cruising down the River Styx and being confronted by the ferryman Charon, but instead of the dark and foreboding locale you might expect, with Charon being a sinister spirit, this is a colourful Ghibli-esque world.
The River Styx is a gorgeous melody of blue waters and gorgeous greens. Charon is big, but certainly not bad, as the ancient ferryman is simply a tired soul preparing to finally pass on to the final stages of the afterlife. He’s passing his grandiose responsibilities as spiritual ferryman to the lost souls of the world on to Stella, an unassuming little human who serves as your window into the equally sweet and solemn world of Spiritfarer.
As the newly appointed ferryman, Stella (and her fluffy cat Daffodil, who was also granted the spiritual powers of Charon) must assemble their own sea-faring vessel to serve as a temporary home to the various spirits they’ll encounter and recruit during their time as spirit farers. This translates to a healthy amount of management-style gameplay not unlike something like Stardew Valley or Story of Seasons. You’ve got gardens to tend, fabric to thread, houses to build, ore to mine, and even mouths to feed as you begin bringing spirits aboard your ship.
While life-simulation games are usually laid-back and cheery affairs, the time limit that these micro-management elements put on you can usually be a little stressful or nerve-wracking. Spiritfarer eliminates all of these sweat-inducing road-blocks, though. Crops can’t go bad and there isn’t any sort of stamina meter or time-limit forcing you to stop playing. If you want to play music to your carrots or cook delicious apple pies long after the sun goes down, nothing is going to stop you.
The only thing that the curtain of the night puts a halt to is your ability to sail the spiritual seas, which is how you make most of your progress in Spiritfarer. As you across the unmapped regions of the game, you’ll come across new towns, settlements, and islands to dock at and explore. Almost every inhabitant of these little pockets of civilisation is an identical block-shaped buddy with a silky cloak draped over their entire body. Imagine a Shy Guy that’s swallowed a PS4, and you’re there. Some of these four-cornered friends have a whispy aura hovering above them in the shape of something else. Speak to them and develop enough trust with the wayward spirit, and they’ll join your ship, transforming into their true form.
One might reveal themself to be a meek little anthropomorphic snake in a robe, while another might be an armadillo with an adorable church hat. All of these spirits were once human, but in the in-between-world of Spiritfarer their physical forms are a variety of adorably designed animals. It was always a delight to see what kind of creature each spiritual companion would reveal themselves to be.
There’s a minor overarching story throughout Spiritfarer concerning the newly appointed ferrymen Stella and Daffodil, but most of the game’s narrative meat revolves around the journeys of each of your spiritual companions. As you meet and bond with them, they’ll reveal more of their backstory to you and open up further as they begin to come to terms with their own death. Eventually, you’ll need to bring them to The Everdoor, allowing them to pass on to the great beyond once they’ve fully come to terms with the end of their life.
So many games focus on the grimness of death, or use it as a shocking twist or plot device. For a game that is about nothing but death and dying and the afterlife, Spiritfarer never once adopts that kind of atmosphere. Instead, the tone of Spiritfarer is more like that of a loving family member resting their hand on your shoulder as they explain a loved one’s passing to you. It hurts to know these people are gone, and it can be sad to think about that, but in working through these things slowly and softly, Spiritfarer develops a message about comfortably embracing the inevitability of death. It’s a message that anyone can be touched by.
You would expect an intimate experience like this to be a brief, story-driven game, but Spiritfarer is dozens of hours long. That surprisingly lengthy run-time is certainly kept interesting by the variety of activities in the game. The way you engage with each activity on your ship is different, going beyond just mashing the A button until a task is completed. There’s also a steady and satisfying sense of progression as you map more of the world and greatly expand your ship. The presentation of the game also does wonders to keep you engaged, as the gorgeous and colourful hand-drawn art of the world mixes with silky smooth animation and calming music perfectly.
Still, for as rewarding and enjoyable as the gameplay is, I can’t help but feel like the unique and emotional narrative elements of the game are the star of the show. A version of this game with less of a focus on upgrades and management could have a shorter runtime and help those story beats land even harder.
Spiritfarer has a soft, caring, bittersweet tone that I’ve rarely encountered in video games. For a game all about death and dying, I only ever felt calm and relaxed when playing it. The management gameplay is varied and engaging, and even though the scope if it leads to the game getting a bit too long in the tooth, it helps connect the incredibly emotional story beats together so well. Mix that up with its beautiful art style and enchanting music, and you’ve got one of the most emotional management games I’ve ever played.