I’ve been floundering for a new game ever since I completed the Dark Souls III platinum. The problem is that my taste in games is very eclectic, quixotic, and random. They span different genres from roguue-like-lite to story-rich indies to Dark Souls. Not ARPGs. Not Soulslikes, but Souls games themselves. Games I used to love (Torchlight and Borderlands) are doing nothing for me in their current iterations, even though I desperately want to like them, I just….don’t. I was looking forward to Mortal Shell, which released on August 18th. I was going to buy it, but then Ian told me that Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games had released on the same day, and my interest suddenly pivoted.
I had heard of it ages ago, and I was immediately drawn to the gorgeous hand-drawn art. The artstyle is simply lovely, and looking at it was a balm to my beleaguered soul. And, the premise of the game was intriguing. You play as Stella, a young, dark-skinned woman, the titular spiritfarer, who takes over for the fabled Charon in ferrying the dead to the next world. While wearing a big, floppy hat with a star-shaped hat (get it?). And your cat, Daffodil. Whom you can pet, cuddle, and swim with.
When I went to check it out on Steam, I saw there was a demo. I tried the demo which was relatively short, and I was hooked. I bought the game, installed it, and fired it up.
It calls itself a cozy management game, and it is. But, it is so much more than that. I tried Stardew Valley after watching someone play it on YouTube, but it just didn’t hit the mark for me. It felt tedious and repetitive, and I put it away after an hour. I wanted to try Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but I didn’t have a Switch and couldn’t get one. It seemed to me that Spiritfarer could be my ACNH, and after five hours playing it, I can say that it definitely has that kind of vibe.
In the demo, it was further into the game when you help one of your passengers finish their earthly business so they can leave this mortal coil. Starting a new game, I wondered how long it would be until I had to do this for someone. It was in the back of my mind, but not pressing because there were so many other things to do.
Within fifteen minutes of playing, I had forgotten that Mortal Shell even existed. I was able to put my personal mental health issues aside (depression, anxiety, anger at the state of the world, etc.) and just become absorbed in gentle, vibrant world of Spiritfarer. The game is very good at laying things out and letting me know what I need to do. I get a boat, and part of the game is to add buildings to the boat to make it livable for everyone on board. There’s a kitchen at the start, and a guest house, I think. I’ve added a field and a garden (for different crops), and three houses tailored for each of my passengers at their request.
Let’s talk about the passengers for a minute. They’re all animals, which I love. The first is Gwen who’s a deer, and she’s a very posh one. She also smokes like a chimney and likes her coffee black (in my head canon). One thing I love is that when you first meet your passengers, they’re just regular block-like beings who are caped/cloaked, like the other townspeople. For some reason, everyone has a cloud of a similar color to them that emanates from them. I’m sure there’s a reason, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Anyway, when you talk to someone who is going to be a passenger, their true form hovers over them in shadow, and then they turn into that true form when they board your boat.
I feel as if it’s an allegory for how we hide our true selves inside, covering it with the cloak of normality that most people drape about them as we go on our daily lives. When we are close to death, then the true self emerges so you leave the world as you came into it. Or I could just be spinning tales out of nothing, but I’m sticking to it.
Once they’re onboard, they share stories with Stella about her past. The first three passengers are all people she knows in her personal life, and Stella becomes more fleshed out as seen through their eyes. They also each teach her different game mechanics like catching jellyfish for their jelly and doing the same with lightning. They’re cool little mini-games, and they remind me of the dream sequences in one of my favorite games of all times, Night in the Woods. Not as trippy or moody, but has the same dreamy feel to them.
Let’s talk about the resource gathering part of the game because there is a lot of it. It doesn’t feel overwhelming, though, because there are no timelines for any of the tasks (at least not that I’ve noticed yet). There is fishing, which I enjoy, but one niggling little thing about the fishing is that you have to watch the rod. When it turns red, you have to quickly release the button (X in my case) and then press it down again. This can happen anywhere from none to ten or so times per fish, and I’m just glad the reaction time is very generous.
I want to point out one small touch that I really appreciate. All of Stella’s tools are golden and obviously magical. She was given the Everlight by Charon, and my guess is that’s where she gets the magic from. The tools include the fishing rod, oven mitts, a guitar, a two-man saw which is adorable because Daffy as I call my cat pulls the other side, and that’s not the whole list. It seems like basically anything Stella needs to do, she does with magic.
Stella is a silent protagonist, but because of all the talking the others do about her, she’s not just an empty vessel. Don’t get me wrong. I love me a silent protagonist; I play Souls games, after all. But it’s really neat to see how Stella is viewed in the eyes of her passengers, and she’s slowly becoming more than just the spiritfarer through their stories.
In addition to the fishing, there’s growing crops and cooking the food. Your passengers need to be fed, and you have to pay attention to what they tell you to know what to give them and when. I know it might sound stressful, but it really isn’t. I did eventually figure out you can cook more than one, say, squid at a time, which greatly speeds things up. And I can store the cooked foods presumably forever without having to worry about them spoiling. I’m carrying around something like fifteen grilled fish at the moment.
Gameplay-wise, the ramp up is incremental and clearly laid out. The passengers will tell you what to do/build next, but in a way that makes sense within the narrative. One of the passengers will say something like, “Oh, you could have a garden and grow crops,” which means you should implement the garden and grow crops.
There is a map which allows you to mark the next place you want to navigate to. There are spots that are just resource gathering nodes, and there are towns that have more things going on in them. It’s still early days, but I love just boating around from place to place, doing whatever catches my fancy at the moment. It’s my way of playing games in general–doing everything but the main mission for as long as I can–and I’m loving every minute of it.
The downside is that my passengers voice disappointment in me that I haven’t done x or y yet because I haven’t gone to the new area to get the resources I need to do x or y, but I can just ignore them with impunity. For example, I needed oak planks in order to build something for one of my passengers. I hadn’t run into oak trees yet. She was starting to get sad about it, so I fed her veggies (she’s a vegan) and hugged her, and that helped. I didn’t want her to be too sad, however, so I went to the oldest new place I’d discovered, and, lo, and behold, oak trees! Daffy and I sawed them down, and then I converted them to planks in my sawmill back when I was on the boat. By the way, the sawmill mini-game is one of the minor things I don’t like because it’s too finicky for my old hands and eyes. But it’s a small thing, and I was still able to get what I needed because the game is very generous with resources.
One quick gameplay note. Besides the resource management, gameplay is rather light and easy to learn. A for jump (double A when you get the double jump), down on the D-pad and A for dive, X to interact, and hold Y to play guitar. One thing I appreciate is that the game taught me I had to earn the double jump and now that there are things outside my reach, I know that at some point, I will learn another ability that will allow me to go higher (maybe flying?? More likely, triple jump), and I’m not worried about it as I normally would be.
The game is about death, ostensibly, but it’s more about life and reflection in reality. Five hours in, and I haven’t had to assist anyone to the afterlife yet. Before going in, I thought it would be a pretty simple and quick process, but I’m glad to discover that it isn’t. There are quests to do for the passengers (I know this from the demo) before they are ready to go, and right now, I’m more interested in exploring everything around me.
I keep using words like lovely and gentle, and there’s another word I’d like to throw into the mix–heartwarming. The game is all heart, and I connect with it on an emotional level. I want to learn more about Stella and her passengers, and I want to assist them in whatever way they need. I’ll add charming, tranquil, and whimsical as three words that also describe this game, and I’m saying it without a whiff of irony. It goes without saying that I’ll write more about it after I’m further into the game (or finished with it), but for now, I’m just thoroughly enjoying the journey.