A sailing work trip
Base building and resource management games are a dime a dozen these days, especially in the world of mobile gaming and Early Access. There's an inherent addictive element to let players gather raw materials manually, slowly build up, become more efficient, and continuously expand their scope. However, not all games of this nature need to be so industrial – enter Spiritfarer, a game that attempts to integrate those mechanics into a more relaxed and heartwarming setting.
This 2D adventure follows a young girl named Stella, who finds herself in a mysterious world that seems to be situated between the living and the dead. She meets an old spirit who says that he is ready to pass on the torch to her; as she watches him fade away, Stella now becomes the captain of a small vessel, and takes on the title of Spiritfarer. As she sets sail, she quickly meets other spirits, who take the form of various animals, from a frog to a snake to a bobcat, and many others. These are representations of people's spirits, who inhabit this world for one reason or another. As Stella meets them, they join her on the boat, convinced that she will be able to help with their problems and allow them to eventually move on. Some of them seem to be related to Stella, though the connections aren't always clear.
While the narrative setup certainly appears like it would be a great fit for some episodic emotional storytelling, as you discover more about each spirit, the end result is decidedly flat. All of the characters you meet try to be diverse, but fall into typical character structures – an old grandmother who eventually suffers memory loss, a tough guy in a tiny body of a bird, a nature-loving lady who has drug problems in her past. But perhaps the biggest reason that the game lacks much emotional impact is due to these characters having so little to say. Stella herself doesn't speak, and all of the dialog is presented in text bubbles. The writing can be hit or miss, and there's just not enough of it. Hearing a couple of brief life anecdotes doesn't make you relate or grow attached to these characters. They spend days, weeks on your ship, but unless you progress their quests, they have nothing new to say, and don't interact with each other in any way.
Spiritfarer is also another example of the game where the intended narrative falls flat due to the gameplay. This is a resource management game, first and foremost, with some elements of light platforming, and metroidvania exploration. To progress the story, you'll need to complete various wishes of the spirits – but their desires further suck any emotional attachment out of the experience. They will demand highly material things – a personal home, air conditioning, luxury items and rare foods. It's hard to feel sad or relate to their previous lives when they seem most concerned about being fed and treated like this is a luxury cruise. Stella has no choice but to oblige, and when the spirits feel arbitrarily ready, they try to hit you with some brief emotional dialog, as you deliver them to the Celestial Gate where they vanish. In these moments, because the characters are so thin and have so little to say over the hours you spend with them, you don't feel sorrow. You don’t feel much beyond another box being checked – another quest line completed, and one less mouth to feed.
Fulfilling the quests of your ship passengers comprises the core of the game that gives all the resource management some purpose. Your ship is like a floating base, on which you gradually build up structures as the adventure rolls along. With enough materials, you purchase new building blueprints, and expand the construction area on the boat. You also unlock craftable upgrades that let you pass into the corners of the map that were blocked by rocks, ice, or mist. In theory, it's decent design, but the game runs for an overlong 25 hours, so these unlocks come extremely slowly. The same goes for platforming; it's very basic, but you do unlock some abilities such as double jump and riding on wires. But while in most games it would take an hour or two to unlock, in Spiritfarer it takes over halfway through game to get them all.
The materials themselves come from a bunch of different sources – there are a few types of trees to cut down, metals to mine, crops to grow, and so on. Unlike most management games, you don't really make much progress in your abilities, so there's not a lot of satisfaction. The mechanics change slightly, but you'll be doing the same activities during the first hour, and the last hour. It makes a game with glacial pacing that much more mundane. All of the materials have repetitive minigames attached to them – timed button presses to strike the ore, sliding the saw side-to-side to cut trees, running around your ship collecting floating fireflies or catching lighting, doing a platforming sequence on top of a serpent at sea. It's interesting the first few times, but grows dull later on. Still, at least you'll never be lost as to where to get what you need, as the map displays where to trigger these minigames, and which islands have the resources.
As you sail around, revealing the map, points of interest are marked for you. These are mostly resource spawning locations, but can also be a few different islands. These islands are small patches of land where generic spirits hang out, and will tell you some amusing lines of dialog if you speak to them. There's also a trader who mostly has seeds for planting, as a starting point for your food production. The islands vary between urban and wilderness areas, and you can find platforms everywhere to jump around on and do some slight exploration. Even so, the islands take at most a few minutes to explore top to bottom, so they serve mostly as a means to diversify the endless sailing.
Once the raw materials are gathered, you will place various industry buildings on your ship – smelter, a garden, a tree orchard, and others. In those buildings, you play more minigames to convert the raw materials into threads, ingots, cloths, and so on. Blueprints clearly outline what materials you need, and the interface for placing and upgrading structures on your ship is easy to use. Growing food and cooking are the tasks you'll be returning to most frequently, which includes planting seeds, watering them, and harvesting. With cooking, a simple system lets you put two ingredients together, and a recipe book stores the results for reference.
There's nothing complex about Spiritfarer's resource systems, but they feel quite one-off. As mentioned, things don't change much as you progress deeper into the game. It does continuously introduce new stuff – like Nebula thread or bottled ectoplasm – but each one is just a new raw resource that needs the same handing as all the other things you've already sewn and smelted. There's little sense of progress in the crafting chain. If you see a new resource, it just means you have to wait until the game allows you to discover it in the next area; it's not something you learn through crafting with the tools at your disposal.
The game suffers from very slow pacing. At over 20 hours, with no story to carry it and gameplay mechanics that are very simple and repetitive, you may find yourself simply bored. The quests are all the same – the spirits want "stuff," whether that's food or items, and then they go away to "reflect," so you spend more days meandering about, and then finally they choose to move on. You may see a bunch of different quests available, but the game is deceptively linear, blocking off your progress in numerous ways – mostly by tight resource control and having to free spirits. You can keep your passengers happy by hugging and feeding them a food they like - but the gameplay benefits are marginal, in the form of occasional extra resources. The plants need watering daily, everyone needs to be fed (and of course they have things they refuse to eat, and you also can't repeat the foods back to back). Cooking takes ages, and sailing is slow – even with a few fast travel spots around the world map. It's just a slow burn of a game that has very little emotional or gameplay payoff. Simple adjustments would have improved things - like the traditional way to pin a construction project, or some sort of notification when you have all materials needed for a quest, instead of having to run back and forth to the crafting table.
With so much time that you'll be spending on this ship and in this world, at least it looks quite nice. The colorful and pleasing art style makes the game look accessible and inviting, and the gameplay mostly matches that attitude – a few pointless, out of place curse words notwithstanding. The soundtrack is pretty limited, but it tries to match the atmosphere of leisurely sailing. Things get a bit more intense as you pass through thunderstorms or trigger certain events.
On the technical side though, we ran into a couple of issues – Stella getting stuck, spirits not responding to dialog, and a few visual hiccups. One continuous issue caused the game to crash whenever Stella tried to skip the night phase (when you arbitrarily cannot sail, by the way); it certainly didn’t help the pacing of the game.
If you want to speed things up a tiny bit, the game does have local co-op play, with the second player taking control of the cat Daffodil (who otherwise just follows Stella in solo play). The cat can help out with a few tasks, but not talk to other spirits. Playing with someone else will definitely help the slow pace of the game feel a little less grueling.
Spiritfarer has a promising idea in a unique setting, but doesn't execute on it. It presents itself as a game 'about dying,' but it's hardly that at all. The supposedly emotional stories of the spirits get lost between hours and hours of fetch quests for their very material desires. Their brief personal life stories don't really connect with Stella, or indeed the player, considering how much mundane work you have to put in to hear something new. Resource management and crafting feels unrewarding, as the systems don’t change, you just need different types of materials all the time. It's a nice looking game that only has a couple of technical hiccups. So with all said and done, it's probably only fans of relaxing and slow-paced resource management titles that may get something out of this.