‘Spiritfarer’ review: a beautiful management game about dying too mired in frustrating busywork

An abundance of charming mechanics doesn’t stop this boat trip from going adrift

Video games are no stranger to death, especially when you’re the one dealing it out violently. What we get less of, however, is confronting the gravity of our own mortality, and it’s even rarer to approach it in a tone that’s not tragic or sombre.

Spiritfarer is a game that chooses not to mourn the dead but celebrate it as part of the cycle of life, similar to the Day Of The Dead observed in Mexcian culture, with a protagonist adorning a hat almost as big as a sombrero.

You play as Stella, a young woman who wakes up on a boat being ferried by Charon, the cowl-cloaked figure from Greek mythology who takes the newly deceased kicking and screaming to Hades. The twist here is that they’re passing their role to Stella as she’s made the new titular spiritfarer – and she inherits a much longer job description than you might expect.

Spiritfarer review
Spiritfarer. Credit: Alan Wen

Spiritfarer is a management sim, sort of like if Animal Crossing ran a mobile care home – there’s even an unsubtle dig at Tom Nook – dressed up in a warm and cosy aesthetic, which is evident from its immediately arresting hand-drawn illustrative art style and uplifting music.

You sail around a purgatorial 2D open world populated with spirits, cloaked formless figures from out of a Studio Ghibli film. Some will choose to join you onboard your gradually expanding boat where they transform into an animal that’s representative of their true form.

You’ll then need to attend to their needs, such as a roof over their heads, regular meals and other manner of requests until they reach a point when they are ready to be taken to their final destination via the Everdoor.

Keeping these spirits in a good mood also requires crafting items that cater to each spirit’s unique personality and tastes. Finding the necessary resources happens through a wide and ever-growing list of activities onboard and ashore, from familiar chores like gardening or mining to the more fantastical – one such early highlight has you literally bottling lightning during a thunderstorm. There’s a nice touch that many of these skills are essentially passed onto Stella by specific spirits, such as new-agey snake spirit Summer who asks you to build a garden.

Spiritfarer review
Spiritfarer. Credit: Alan Wen

For a management game, Spiritfarer prides itself on playful mechanics, instead of burying you in menus. This extends to its surprisingly delightful 2D mechanics, from double-jumps to the satisfying feeling of skidding down slanted rooftops, which I’d be happy to play with in a traditional 2D platformer.

Its most affecting mechanic however is also its simplest, which lets you go up to a character and give them a big hug. The animations are especially heartwarming, especially for aloof (and occasionally sweary) deer spirit Gwen who initially looks caught off guard before succumbing to your embrace. It really encapsulates the game’s wholesome energy.It’s the same simplicity that the rest of Spiritfarer could have done with.

Perhaps it’s the result of a condensed day/night cycle as opposed to the leisurely real-time clock of Animal Crossing, but while sailing to another location, you become acutely aware that you’re getting mired in an endless cycle of busywork.

Between the areas, you need to maintain productivity by popping another recipe in the oven while continuing to dash around attending to reminders to water the crops or answer another spirit’s urgent demand. No wonder Charon took early retirement.

Spiritfarer review
Spiritfarer. Credit: Alan Wen

While each activity has clearly been well thought out with its own interesting minigame, it’s so early to get caught up in these mechanics that you lose sight of why you’re doing this in the first place. Unlike the open-ended nature of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, Spiritfarer has a narrative running through it where you’re supposed to be learning about each spirit’s life and their potential connections to Stella and each other.

Too often, however, this is through snippets of dialogue given only after satisfying an arbitrary request, or even worse when you’re forced to pass the time before they’ll speak to you again. So, when a character arc takes a turn or it’s finally time to bid them farewell at the Everdoor it doesn’t resonate emotionally like it should.

Instead, the game is fixated on throwing one fetch quest after another, resulting in more objects and buildings stacking improbably upon each other on your boat like What Remains Of Edith Finch-on-sea. It does rather run counter to the maxim that you can’t take any of this with you.

Spiritfarer review
Spiritfarer. Credit: Alan Wen

More frustrating is how everything has been structured. The game initially starts out seemingly non-linear, only for you to come across ‘gated’ paths in the sea that require specific boat upgrades, which in turn need materials you haven’t yet come across. Indeed, objectives are constantly dangled in front of you that can’t actually be achieved until much later.

Unfortunately, players aren’t given a steer on just what is within your current capacity. In one case, I had a task to find some rare stones for a certain spirit only to realise I had them for a couple hours but never received a prompt indicating otherwise, and so never progressed the narrative. Quite often I found myself drifting aimlessly exploring islands or grinding for resources that serve little purpose.

The worst part is once you’ve figured out what to do, this doesn’t necessarily move a spirit’s arc right away as the narrative has them disappear for a while until ‘the time is right’. If you had magically completed your requests in the right order, this would be more a natural window to explore and grind out another request. In my case, having already wandered around aimlessly for a few hours, this just ends up dragging out your patience.

Spiritfarer review
Spiritfarer. Credit: Alan Wen

With a total of 11 spirits who can join you, the game takes around 30 hours to complete. You don’t even need to take all of them to the Everdoor to reach the credits (although a few must be taken in order to progress past certain points), but I was already tired of its confounding quest structure, while some late fetch quests serve little justification apart from dragging things out longer than necessary.

Given how much I wanted to fall in love with Spiritfarer, the resulting game is a huge disappointment. There is still much to love about it – especially its well-drawn characters, many inspired by the development team’s departed family members – but sadly, it’s the game’s frustrating structure and pacing that makes it outstay its welcome.

‘Spiritfarer’ is now available for PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Our Verdict

While Spiritfarer looks and feels incredible to play most of the time, it gets too bogged down with busywork that it loses sight of what it wants to say. It’s easy to fall in love with at first sight but the more it drags on and frustrates, the more its charm fades.

Pros

  • Gorgeous hand-drawn art and animations
  • Platforming feels terrific
  • An abundance of activities, each with its own well-thought-out minigame
  • Hugs

Cons

  • Too often the emotional story beats are overshadowed by busywork
  • Progression can be very restrictively yet lacking direction
  • Longer than it needs to be

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