Spiritfarer reader’s review – Reader’s Feature
A reader offers their review of indie management sim Spiritfarer, which puts you in the surprisingly sympathetic role of ferryman of the dead.
Management sims by their nature are stressful experiences. Keeping all the balls in the air, knowing that dropping one could spiral a situation out of control elicits a sense of anxiety which can make playing them both satisfying and off-putting at the same time. Too easy and you’ll set it down quicker than a red-hot coal, too hard and you’ll run away faster than a greyhound after a hare. It’s extremely hard to strike the correct balance, which makes Spiritfarer’s accomplishment of making a stress-free management sim both engaging and engrossing nothing short of a miracle. This is an impressive and essential game.
As you can probably guess, I’m not going to mess about here making you wait for a verdict, this is a very good game and you should go and buy it, bottom line. Any platform will do but I’ve been using the Switch, staring into the screen, zombified by its brilliance. All that remains in this article is to pick two or three things from the multitudinous reasons why this is a great game, to help explain why.
Before we start a bit of context is in order. In Spiritfarer you play the part of Stella, a bubbly and charming young lady who is told in the first minutes of the game that she will be replacing the foreboding but tired Charon as the ferryman of the dead. He gives Stella a lend of his beaten-up skiff and is promptly consumed by the Everdoor, the boundary line between this world and the next. You are directed to a shipwright to pick up your own craft and are soon on your way to pick up spirits, guiding them towards peace and the next life.
Doing this involves building accommodation, providing food, collecting resources, and most importantly listening to your passengers as they tell you about their lives and needs. Fulfilling these needs will eventually lead to them deciding to go to the Everdoor and leave what remains of this life. The minute to minute gameplay boils down to a management sim where you undertake a dizzying array of mini-games alongside a tight daily schedule to accomplish them. This can seem overwhelming at first but pressure is released by the easy going way of the game, so what differentiates Spiritfarer from the rest?
The structure of the game is the biggest key component. You have a basic cycle of picking up a spirit, finding out all you can about them, providing them with their needs, and dropping them off at the Everdoor when they’re ready. You can have several spirits onboard at any one time, which means you always have a revolving door of underlying stories unfolding as you play. As a result of these short tales playing out and ending the resolution of the game is not some far off or ephemeral thing, as it can be in other management sims, but very real, emotionally immediate and there are many of them.
The art style is another facet. I’ve been playing a lot of indie games and that means a lot of pixel art, it was refreshing to see a lush, superbly animated and absolutely gorgeous game busting with subtle details. I revelled in the visual detail of it all but for me the key animation was the hug. Stella exudes an affable friendliness and is responsible for keeping the spirits under her care happy and content.
There are a number of ways of doing this: building them an appropriate place to stay, cooking their favourite food, and finally giving them a hug. Of all the animations this was the one most saturated with personality. Stella leaps towards her charges with a full body hug that usually surprises the recipient, they engage and then, infected with happiness, they hug back. The spirits are represented by anthropomorphised versions of the people they once were – dogs, snakes, hedgehogs, and the like – and again just looking at them moving and pottering about is a joy.
Life on the boat consists of a litany of small tasks, each of which is usually linked to a mini-game to complete. These usually reward you with some form of resource. You use the resources for building and feeding but the order of when they are done is up to you. No two days are entirely the same, you enjoy engaging with the work because the characters you are dealing with are so well rounded and fleshed out that you want to know more about them.
As your busy days fill out the action is paused occasionally for time out to chat to one of your passengers, learning about their life, sorrows, joys, and find out how they met their ends. I found these conversations affecting and thought-provoking, they felt like real people who died with all the unresolved feelings and regrets of unsaid words and undone deeds, lamenting the people they will miss or have hurt.
The last element is the boat itself. You start with a small, cramped canoe and upgrade the boat as you take on more spirits. You build on the boat a rickety Kowloon of houses, pens, gardens, and factories to churn out the industry needed to keep your buoyant town afloat. The boat is a character in the game as much as Stella and you build a bond of ownership over it, rearranging and perfecting the layout for maximum efficiency and economic impact.
The lasting ingredient is the fact that every spirit you escort to the Everdoor leaves their accommodation behind them on the boat, it cannot be deleted or destroyed. They also leave the loom they trained you to use or the sawmill they gave you guidance on. The boat becomes a living reminder of the ex-residents’ foibles and their comfy little empty homes remind you of loss and how though people may leave us they never are truly gone.
It’s an odd mix of elements that pull together to form a coherent whole. The cartoony visuals masking a deep exploration of death and people affected by death. It would be easy to make a game like this mawkish or for it to hammer you over the head with bald, ignorant metaphors but Spiritfarer never does this. It respects your ability to read between the lines and extrapolate who these people are, which is the sign of great writing.
It also would be easy to make the gameplay deathly dull but it never is, you always have some goal to work to and you always have a hook to keep you playing for just a few minutes more, which is the sign of great gameplay. Spiritfarer is an emotionally charged take on the management sim, except the thing you are managing is how people say goodbye.
By reader Dieflemmy (gamertag/PSN ID/NN ID)
The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.
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