When it comes to indie titles, I tend to follow the crowd rather than setting trends myself. A lot of the indie titles I have tried ultimately caught my attention due to lots of recommendations from friends or seeing a large number of positive reviews from journalists or influencers. Titles that now rank among some of my favorite games – experiences like Into the Breach, Celeste, and Hades – I jumped on the bandwagon late because I’m so hesitant to pick up indies unless I know they are good first. In this regard Spiritfarer is no different. I vaguely remember seeing a trailer that didn’t particularly impress me in an Indie World presentation, but then hearing nothing but glowing reviews when the game came out. Everyone I knew of who touched it considered it a strong contender for best indie and wanted it to win every Game Awards category where it was present. But I never really knew what it was all about until a friend of mine reached out to me personally to recommend the game.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about Spiritfarer,” I told her, “but I honestly don’t know anything about what kind of game it is. How does it play?” She explained to me that it was a management game – utilizing your resources and time in order to assist spirits on their journey to move on to the afterlife. It’s not every day that I receive such a direct recommendation from a friend and she did an excellent job pitching Spiritfarer, so I added the game to my shortlist of titles for purchase within the next few months. Coincidentally this happened around the same time that my wife Des decided that she also wanted to try out Spiritfarer and potentially stream the game on her channel. With both of us eager to give it a try, we picked it up and dove into the game.
As my friend originally described to me, Spiritfarer falls at least partly into the simulation genre. If you’ve played games like Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, or Animal Crossing, this is something in a similar vein. You play as Stella, the titular spiritfarer who takes on the job of guiding spirits who are essentially in a purgatory-like state. Lingering in the spirit world not ready to move on, you help them to fulfill their final requests and get comfortable with the idea of passing into the afterlife. This means growing or catching your own ingredients to keep everyone fed, harvesting and refining materials to build them homes, and socializing with them on a regular basis to hear their concerns and talk them through their lingering problems. But to describe Spiritfarer as strictly a simulation game leaves out another core element which adds so much to the experience that the game brings to the table. Spiritfarer is not just a life sim or farming sim – it is a platformer, and the satisfaction of movement that comes from that genre adds so much to what Spiritfarer accomplishes.
So intertwined are the two aspects of Spiritfarer’s gameplay – sim and platformer – that it is hard to talk about one without the other. The core gameplay loop is focused around spirit requests. A spirit on your boat needs something that requires you to travel to one of the world’s many islands. You go to the navigation room on your boat and select that island on the map, which begins the process of the boat traveling there. While the boat is moving, you have free reign to move from place to place on the boat and accomplish tasks. You might fish for ingredients, grow plants in your field, garden, or orchard, get animal products from your coop, corral, or barn, or refine and combine materials or ingredients in your sawmill, foundry, crusher, cellar, smithy, or kitchen. That may sound like a lot to juggle but the game introduces every element slowly over time. You’ll start out with a kitchen to cook up the fish you catch and quickly unlock the garden and field to grow plants. But all the other facilities are purchased over time using materials you develop in those first two locations. This allows you to learn one mechanism at a time and get into a rhythm before adding something new to your plate.
I say “mechanism” because remember, Spiritfarer is a platformer as well as a sim. Every activity you do on the ship is kinetic in some way, making each type of gathering or crafting its own minigame. These games generally aren’t that complicated – on Nintendo Switch, fishing has you alternate between holding and releasing the A button while cutting a tree is a left and right motion on the left stick to move your saw along the trunk’s base. Some mechanics like the kitchen or the cellar ultimately boil down to selecting choices out of a menu and then finding other activities to keep you busy while you wait out a timer. Some of the most involved minigames involve moving around and performing specific button presses. The foundry, for example, has you load ore into the foundry and then coal into a furnace, then run back and forth between bellows to press them down in order to blow air into the machine and keep a temperature meter in the ideal zone for the particular ore you are working with. In the garden, if you can’t wait on a plant to grow naturally, you can speed it along by playing music and doing timed button presses in a simple rhythm game. These varied mechanisms keep gameplay fresh and none of the minigames are so long that you’re really inconvenienced by one you may not like as much. Spiritfarer respects your time by letting you operate so many tasks in the background simultaneously; you may at one time be sailing your boat, growing six different plants, and cooking a meal passively while you as the player are more actively engaged in the more involved minigames like fishing or sawing logs. It allows you to get a lot done at once, and it creates opportunities for platforming on the ship as you move from place to place checking on things that have been running in the background.
This I think is one aspect of Spiritfarer that really jumped out for me, pun intended. In games like Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon in particular, going from place to place feels like a chore. You may have tools to help you go a little faster – riding a horse instead of walking or maybe fast travel to a particular location like Stardew’s minecart – but moving from place to place is an experience that you wish to mitigate or shorten. Going all the way out to the mine from your house or crossing to the other side of town to meet a particular villager is a pain. In Spiritfarer, this is a non-issue because the game revels so much in the joy of movement. The facilities on your ship take up a decent amount of both horizontal and vertical space, so a trip to the loom from your corral to weave some wool into fabric might involve you jumping off a platform, sliding down a slanted rooftop, and then descending rapidly down a ladder to reach the deck. The placement of your buildings is under your control to a degree, so you can decide which ones are only a few steps from your cabin and which ones way need an extra boost for you to reach. Moving from your barn to your kitchen is a lot more exciting when there are ziplines involved, and the trip from one place to another is made so much more enjoyable by being able to jump or launch your way there. Crossing to the other side of an island feels less like a chore than crossing town does in other simulation games.
Your boat only has so many resources and facilities available. For tasks like shopping, chopping trees, mining ore, or meeting with new spirits, you have to visit islands scattered through the spirit world. Islands can generally be separated into two broad categories: towns where you primarily interact with NPCs or natural environments rife with resources to harvest. That said, sometimes a town might have a berry bush or a tree and an otherwise abandoned island could have an important spirit to talk to. You discover islands in a variety of ways – spirits on your boat could tell you about them which adds them to your map as quest markers, you could find coordinates on a map and sail to those coordinates specifically, or you could discover a new island when your field of vision on the map expands after clearing a nearby island. Sailing off into the blue on your own is certainly possible but generally you’ll get a lot more success out of discovering islands through the other methods I have described here. Until you visit an island you may only have a vague idea of what is there, but once you have been there you’ll be able to see the types of resources available there by hovering over the island on your map screen. This is really handy for figuring out, say, which island to sail to when you need to replenish your supply of a specific type of wood, but it also helps you identify when you missed a treasure chest or which islands had spirits that you weren’t able to recruit just yet the first time you arrived.
Whether exploring an island for resources or for NPC interactions, every island has opportunities to flex your platforming skills. Hopping across rooftops in the city or jumping your way through mineshafts makes getting what you need a lot more interesting, and your options for interacting with the world expand as you play the game. Certain islands have shrines which grant you new movement abilities that you can utilize both during exploration and on your boat. You’ll start with only a single jump and no ability for special interactions with the environment but over time will learn to double jump, glide, bounce, and a few other things that help to give you speed, height, or distance when moving. It’s pretty normal to encounter an island where you won’t have all the movement skills you need to find all the secrets there the first time you show up; returning to an island later with a new ability could give something as simple as a treasure to sell, but in some cases it unlocks a whole new section of the map and helps you to find brand new resources or spirits you could not reach before. New movement powers also unlock new devices for your boat which you can use at home to make moving between facilities both faster and more entertaining. As your boat gets both taller and wider, the ability to traverse it in dynamic ways becomes a blessing.
Progression in Spiritfarer is meaningfully tied to Stella’s core purpose – ferrying spirits to the afterlife. Spirits who join your boat pay in the form of obols which serve as the currency for unlocking movement powers, meaning that in order to fully expand your options in the field you need to engage with the social mechanic of recruiting spirits. Each spirit in the game is also tied mechanically to a minigame that is needed for gathering a specific resource. These minigames are some of the most dynamic platforming segments in the game and they will put your mastery of the movement skills you have learned to the test. Most of them involve jumping and climbing the buildings on your ship to catch moving objects or creatures in order to gather esoteric resources that are not available elsewhere, resources which are then used to progress a specific character’s quests or to upgrade your boat and facilities. In this way the platforming ties back into the simulation elements of the game, both the crafting and social mechanics. Making friends grants you new platforming abilities which allows you to gather resources which help you cement those friendships and complete their requests. Each system ties together and enhances the other, an excellent design that pushes you to engage with every aspect of the game.
Spiritfarer is a strong title as a simulation. There are lots of material and ingredient types to collect and they can be combined in various ways to further all sorts of crafting projects on your boat. Arranging and upgrading the buildings on your ship as well as making sure your boat has the space and the tools in order to fully explore the seas of the spirit world gives plenty of opportunity for customization. But what really takes this experience from being comparable to Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing and makes it stand out as unique is the way in which movement plays so prominently into the experience. The platforming elements supplement and enhance Spiritfarer in a meaningful way that keep the gameplay fresh and exciting. Crafting and gathering resources is more than just menuing, making it more active and exciting than in other titles where you are technically doing the same activities. Platforming is skillfully integrated with the other mechanics in a way that creates a satisfying gameplay loop – recruiting spirits unlocks new possibilities both for movement and crafting that can be used to help those spirits depart, and departing spirits leave behind resources needed to expand the movement capabilities of your boat and thus unlock opportunities to recruit new spirits and begin the cycle anew.
I think the category of simulation – life sim, social sim, farming sim, whatever you want to call it – is still ultimately the most appropriate classification for Spiritfarer. But to ignore the ways in which the game effectively uses platforming to amplify the simulation gameplay is to do Spiritfarer a disservice. The bold mechanical choices set the game apart and for me, made it a much more engaging experience than titles which technically fall into the same genre. If you, like me, have heard lots of good things about the story and characters but weren’t sure how the gameplay held up – or what the gameplay was even like – I hope this article is helpful in communicating this important part of what makes Spiritfarer shine.