The Grim Reaper that runs a Floating B&B
Also Available on: macOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Stadia
Genre: Adventure, Construction and management simulation, Platformer
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games, Thunder Lotus
Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games, Thunder Lotus
There is something amazing about Indie games that often transcends what mainstream games can achieve. It might be because the heart and goal of the creator is that bit closer to the surface compared to a game played after a million edits that make it palatable to mainstream success.
But there are some Indie games that transcend their 'Indie' title to get mainstream success while keeping their Indie heart, such as Stardew Valley. I believe Spiritfarer will be one of these.
Spiritfarer's creator describes the game as 'a cozy management game about dying', which sounds depressing. It wasn't a description that made me want to play this game initially. But time and again I opened Steam to see the hand drawn art and animation, and that adorable cat and I caved. Something that beautiful deserved to be played, and I am glad I did because it is SO much more than its description.
Is it as Loose in Plot as Other Management Games?
While the plot is driven by your actions, and you can take it as quickly or slowly as you want, this game has a far stronger story than the majority of management games out there. And I don't believe that I have played many games with better character development.
I will say now as a game largely about its characters there will be some spoilers here. I'll try to avoid character names (barring the protagonist) so at least if anyone reading this decides to play then you might not remember the specifics.
The game opens with Stella, the silent protagonist, and her cat Daffodil standing in a canoe in front of the 'Everdoor' with Charon. You may recognise that name from Greek mythology, where Charon was the ferry master tasked with transporting the souls of the deceased across the River Styx for the fare of one gold coin.
Charon is straightforward when he says he will be leaving his post as Spiritfarer to Stella, as 'his time is up'. He says that Stella has been chosen for this position based on her past experiences, which you learn later on was as a palliative care nurse. A lot of the story is ambiguous at this point, but Charon gives you a brief explanation as to what that entails. He passes on his 'Everlight' to Stella, a multi-purpose tool that can transform into pretty much everything you need from oven mitts to a pickaxe to a saw. It also doubles as proof of your new occupation as Spiritfarer, so any souls you come across can identify you easily.
He then explains that your role is to search out lost souls, house them on your boat, receive their payment of one gold coin (known as Obols) and effectively make them happy enough to move on through the Everdoor. The Everdoor is a large bridge that allows souls to pass on to the beyond by sailing with them underneath it. And so, you are sent on your way in that tiny canoe to get your main boat at the shipyard and begin your journey.
𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮 I'm On a Boat! 𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮
This boat will be one of your main priorities throughout your playthrough. It is fairly empty when you start off, consisting of just the deck and the captain's cabin.
In order to make this a comfortable place for your passengers to stay, you will need certain upgrades. A generic guesthouse and a kitchen are some of the first requirements, but you will also quickly need gardens, a forge, a loom, a sawmill, a foundry, and more in order to craft materials needed for quests or create meals in order to feed your passengers.
As each of your passengers becomes more comfortable (read: comfortable asking you for stuff) most characters will beg you to build them their own private room. This building often requires different materials gained by exploring the myriad of islands you can sail to. Even after you assist in helping that soul pass on, these homes will stay and serve as a base for the minigame that the spirit introduced you to. And to fit all these mini houses on your boat you will need to make your boat bigger by returning to a shipyard and paying for upgrades. I did think it was kind of a shame that you couldn’t remove these homes after the spirits passed on, especially for characters whose minigames did not yield materials that you would need very often, but that is the nature of this game.
Thoughtfulness precedes utility in many cases, and in the end I am glad of it.
𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮 Sail Away, Sail Away, Sail Away 𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮
The navigation in this game is a dream to work with, and requires no boat upgrades. Inside Stella’s Cabin is the map projector, an old-fashioned cinema-themed movie projector that projects the map of the area onto the wall.
You simply need to move the crosshairs to where you would like to travel, select it, and the boat will begin the voyage. The map does open incrementally as you travel, initially only covering the small area in which you begin the game. Something I did enjoy was that these dark patches on the map did NOT mean that you couldn’t go there. The boat will bring you to even black areas of the map once you input the coordinates, which is a fun way to open up the game more in the beginning.
This is controlled in a region-to-region way in the later game when certain boat upgrades are required to pass through ice blocks, rocks, and dense fog. Sadly your boat will not magically transport you through these blockades no matter what you select, so it is a good idea to keep an eye on the boat’s movement when you are exploring in a more aimless manner in case you have gotten stuck somewhere. I wasted more time than I should have the first time I came up against a blockade, it was only once I realised it was taking much longer than usual to travel the distance that I noticed we had stopped at all.
Something that I don’t believe is advertised enough about Spiritfarer is its strengths as a platformer.
When you start off the game Stella can jump, interact with her immediate environment, and run around in basic Mario fashion. This alone was a delight, as it had been a while since I had played a 2D side scrolling platforming game, but the game began to open up further and further as I played. As you gather spirits on your boat they each pay you one ‘Obol’ for their passage. Once you gather at least two obols you can visit one of a number of shrines scattered around the world.
If you pay the two obol fee at the shrine, Stella gains a new ability. These abilities vary from double jumping, to gliding long distances with her hat, ziplining using her Everlight, and more. Each of these new abilities also has a new gorgeous animation sequence to accompany it.
Even when returning to older maps you had previously explored, you can discover new areas as you unlock more of her abilities. This becomes invaluable later in the game as more unusual items are needed for crafting for different quests.
Whenever you convince a new spirit to join you on your ship, there is always some excitement as to what they are going to look like. They are fully cloaked until the moment they step onto your ship. If there are any prerequisites before they join you, you will have to wait to see their true form.
While each of the characters were human in life, when they died their spirits took an anthropomorphic animal-based form. You can get hints about their personality from this new appearance. Gwen, Stella’s extremely rich best friend during life and first passenger on the ship, takes the form of an elegant deer. Atul, Stella’s food-obsessed and cheerful Uncle, takes the form of a fat frog. Giovanni, a man who was extremely focused on his appearance and how much others loved him, took the form of a well-coiffed lion.
Due to Stella’s profession as a palliative care nurse, most of the passengers you encounter knew her in some form or another. It is through these interactions regarding their past that you begin to learn more about them.
***There will be major spoilers from here, but I will try to keep which character the event involves as vague as possible.
The writing of the characters already mentioned, plus others, is where the game truly shines.
Some of the passengers died of old age and passed away of diseases relating to it. They have had full lives and usually have a bittersweet attitude towards death and what awaits them.
They are not lumped together under one umbrella, and have distinct stories and personalities that I appreciated in spite of the lack of true ‘tragedy’ surrounding their deaths. There is an old couple that had always struggled with one’s infidelity, which continues to cast its shadow into the afterlife. And my absolutely favourite character by far was a sweet, older passenger who began showing signs of dementia as the voyage continued on. This was a poignant moment for those whose family members have suffered through something similar, and was handled with a surprising level of delicacy as Stella was confused for their daughter in the end when helping them pass through the Everdoor.
There was a young child whose presence was a joy on the ship, but less joyous was the knowledge that their presence was the result of a terminal disease.
There were two who died of cancer at a youngish age.
One who died of a degenerative disease that took over their life.
All of these deaths are approached thoughtfully, and not just an attempt to garner sympathy and depress the player. There is some solace for the player in that most of these characters are relatively at peace with their fates.
The game mechanics were more entertaining than I expected any 2D platformer to be. The animation accompanying it was beautiful, and the setting was extremely imaginative.
No cause of death or personality is thought of as more or less important in this story, and every character has a poignant approach to it.
I thought this game would be depressing, but the tone is more bittersweet in its interactions with the characters. And often funny. But always charming.
I would definitely recommend playing this game, as it is not what you expect before jumping in.
Play this game if:
You like hand drawn animation
You enjoy management and platformer games
You value character development as much as plot
You want to try something different
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