Spiritfarer (2020)

After the brutal and challenging adventure known as Elden Ring, I felt like I needed a more relaxed game. I was extremely excited to start Spiritfarer, a cozy journey where you escort spirit passengers on their path to the afterlife. At first, I was enthralled with Spiritfarer, I think it was a novel idea. A game that tackles the themes of death and mental health in a healthy manner surely can be impactful for many people. But I found that Spiritfarer is frankly just too long for the limited amount of actual gameplay that it contains.

The premise of Spiritfarer is that you play as Stella, a young woman who has entered the spirit realm and is given the important role of escorting spirits to the afterlife. You sail the seas in your little boat, stopping at islands along the way and talking to local spirits. Some of whom will become passengers on Stella’s vessel. As occupants on the ship, you will have to fulfill their desires and requests until they feel they are ready to move onto the afterlife.

Spiritfarer engages with the idea of death and moving on in an elegant fashion. Spirits become familiar friends on the vessel. Talking to you, sharing their memories, and hanging around as you carry out your quests. Then suddenly they decide their time has come to an end, and you must bring them to their final destination. These tearjerking moments are equal parts depressing and gratifying. As you share your last moments with the characters you’ve come to know and love, you realize that it wasn’t meant to last forever and sometimes people are just ready to move on. It’s sad, but death is real, and Spiritfarer harbors lessons for everyone.

There is overarching plot in Spiritfarer. Astute players may be able to predict what is happening early on in the journey. Mysteriously, Stella seems to know all of the spirits that join her on the ship from their previous lives. Unfortunately, I felt that the interconnected story elements fell a little flat. Stella’s story is very sparsely spread out across the entire 30+ hour game, with much of it needing to be inferred. The game focuses more on the individual spirits backgrounds and their stories.

Truthfully, I also felt that the self-contained stories about each character also were underwhelming. Somehow, Spiritfarer is simultaneously underwritten and overwritten. Characters have a ton of dialogue, sometimes it seems to never end. But at the same time much of that dialogue is entirely fluff, not revealing anything meaningful about the spirit, their background, or their personality. A lot is left to the player to be inferred, which is fine, but it did feel like there was big chunks of the story cut out. Which makes sense when you learn that there is an entirely separate artbook which does contain more details about Stella and the characters.

When I began playing Spiritfarer, I was enthralled with its relaxing gameplay. I have never been a huge fan of life-simulation games akin to Animal Crossing, but I initially thought that Spiritfarer would be different. There’s plenty of resource management to upgrade your ship, some platforming elements, minigames to refine resources, and an actual narrative. But disappointingly, all of these elements lose their luster after a few hours and the game just does not evolve in any significant manner in its long runtime.

Take for instance the resource management. You need resources like wood, cloth, glass, etc., to construct new buildings. Generally, you collect raw resources while visiting islands and then refine them into materials to build things. To refine resources, you use specific buildings that each have their own mini-game to complete, rewarding bonus materials if you do well in the mini-game. The mini-games are fine at first, but become a complete time-sink as the game progresses. Some of them feel like they are specifically designed to waste your time. Mashing a button to hammer steel or waiting for metal to melt is just not interesting. Not to mention having to tend to crops and feed the chickens and direct the ship to its destination.

A huge opportunity was missed in Spiritfarer, which when I began the game, I thought for sure would be implemented. While spirits inhabit your ship, they have a mood level. You can keep them happy by feeding them food they enjoy, hugging them, or doing certain activities. The spirits are supposed to reward you with things when they are in a good mood. But the rewards are completely meaningless garbage. I’m not going to go out of my way to keep a spirit happy if all I get for it is a single wooden plank every two hours.

It really feels like there was an intention here to have spirits actually do the jobs they enjoy doing. The woodworker should chop logs in the lumber mill, the seamstress should sew fabric, the chef should make food in the kitchen. It’s so bizarre that as the game progresses, you unlock dozens of stations to create materials, but the spirits who obviously enjoy the activities don’t ever interact with them. Instead, the player has to juggle a bunch of time consuming mini-games that get tiresome after the third time you’ve played them.

I thought my ship would eventually transform into a self-sustaining colony. I could direct the ship and explore the islands and take care of whatever tasks I need to while the spirits partake in their hobbies and craft resources so long as they were in a good mood. Instead, they just kind of hang around on your ship, asking to be fed and occasionally giving you some lengthy dialogue about nothing in particular. I would have been far more attached to the characters if they actually felt like they were dynamic parts of the journey that assisted me instead of just being annoying chatty statues.

Unfortunately, most of the quests in Spiritfarer are also uninspiring. While I love the idea of helping the lost souls on your ship and fulfilling their final requests, the mechanical execution of quests is just lazy. Sailing back and forth between islands just to collect a single item or talk to another character for one minute is the epitome of fetch quests. Quests that incorporated some platforming or exploration felt far better than the repetitive fetch quests.

Spiritfarer is an undeniably gorgeous game. The art direction, character designs, and detailed animations are really the star of the game. I loved watching the characters just go about their business, or watching Stella’s cat chase her little ball. Moreover, the concept of sailing and building a community on this supernatural ferry is supremely cozy. This is admittedly what drew me into Spiritfarer, I just wish the gameplay or story did its part to keep my interest.

One of the most common issues that I’ve seen after playing and reflecting upon hundreds of games is that many of them are just too long for their own good. For some reason gamers love to spew nonsense about the amount of “hours per dollar” they get out of a game, leading to bloated experiences. If a movie or an album was eight hours long, it better have an extremely good reason, and even then, it would get lambasted by reviewers and the public. Why do we treat games differently? Honestly, if Spiritfarer was half or even a third of its current length of nearly 30 hours, it would be far more enjoyable. The mini-games and sailing back and forth doesn’t get nearly as repetitive or grating if you don’t have to keep doing it over and over. Spiritfarer simply wears out its welcome far prior to completing the game.

I really wanted to enjoy Spiritfarer. It’s central theme of memento mori and mental health are conveyed in a comforting environment. The game is visually stunning. But the overarching gameplay and story just aren’t enough to keep a fairly lengthy game entertaining for the full duration. It is for these reasons that I give Spiritfarer a 5/10. I seem to be in the minority as most people loved Spiritfarer, and I’m willing to admit that maybe I just have a strong aversion to games like Spiritfarer and Animal Crossing. Clearly a lot of love and care went into the making of Spiritfarer and I wish I could praise and recommend the game. But sadly, Spiritfarer misses some opportunities and is ultimately tedious.

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