If you came to me and told me that one game could combine The Wind Waker, Stardew Valley, Ori and the Blind Forest, Night in the Woods, Animal Crossing, and Gris, I would question your motives and why someone would make a game that caters exactly to me.
Have you ever played a game and thought to yourself that it was everything you ever wanted from a game? My guess would be no, nobody will ever get to play a game that feels like it exactly caters to them… right? I would have thought that to be true, that nobody would ever produce my “dream game,” a game that I would literally dream about and wish it were real‒until Spiritfarer. Spiritfarer is a magnificent conglomeration of my favorite elements of my favorite games. If you came up to me and said that a game could exist that combines The Wind Waker, Stardew Valley, Ori and the Blind Forest, Night in the Woods, and Animal Crossing with the artstyle of Gris and gentle profundity of The Good Place, I would say that it wouldn’t be wise to cater a game exactly to me. And yet, Spiritfarer exists, and I didn’t even know that it would be the first game in the “Caden” genre until I had played it. When the game was announced to be released after the August Nintendo Indie World presentation, it was as if it resonated with me on a cosmic level and demanded that I buy it. I barely knew anything about the game, just buying it based on pure instinctual magnetism, making the discovery that it might possibly be the perfect video game for exactly me all the more of a stunning surprise.
What exactly is Spiritfarer? According to Thunder Lotus Games, “Spiritfarer is a cozy management game about dying.” That is one of the most intriguing back-of-the-box quotes I have heard. But according to me? Spiritfarer is as if Stardew Valley's deep interwoven systems took place on The Wind Waker’s great sea, somehow uniting the vibes of Night in the Woods’s surreal moodiness and Animal Crossing’s compassionate charm within a 2D Metroidvania that has a watercolor-esque art style reminiscent of Gris. So that’s what Spiritfarer is. It most strongly resembles the popular Stardew Valley because it lies within the large management sim genre. You play as Stella, guiding spirits (taking the form of animals) through the afterlife while managing a large boat with farming, cooking, finishing, ore refining, and many more systems all expanding on the deck of the boat while caring for the spirits‒until you accompany them to their permanent deaths.
While it sounds as if Spiritfarer could be a jack of all trades, master of none, the game pulls off something that could only be described as miraculous. Essentially everything within Spiritfarer is masterfully executed. This really did shock me, because the game is loaded with so many different systems and mechanics, it would have been more than easy to mess it up. The fishing is engaging, the organizing is a clean, free-flowing Tetris-like, farming and cooking are deceptively simple, the Metroidvania progression is buttery smooth, the ocean faring is seamless, and each of the crafting systems produce an expanding all-you-can-eat buffet of microgames.
For a sim game to be good, it has to nail every gameplay element in order to transcend boringness. Spiritfarer may have perfected the long-established farming game loop. It maintains a steady rate of expansion, slowly unraveling new wrinkles onto the established mechanics, all while uniting the systems with the exploration, the story, and the unique characters. As you explore the ocean, you meet new spirits that teach you about new systems. You use the systems to further explore the ocean, discovering new items. You combine the items with the systems to further progress, unlocking new mechanics, opening up previous areas, revealing more characters, systems, and items. It's simply glorious.
During the entire experience, Spiritfarer implants a mental to-do in the player, engaging them by forcing forward-thinking. It then interrupts this precise thought-juggling act with new surprises constantly, disregarding what the player thought they wanted to do next. It demands the player to constantly switch up their plans, and it does it with an addictive delicacy that is so meticulously designed that it never stops surprising‒even after the credits roll. This is a game that basks in the individually varied difficulty of multitasking and feeds on inevitable imperfection by constantly gratifying the player when it is least expected.
I have wanted another game like Stardew Valley for a very long time. But it couldn't simply be another Harvest Moon game. Stardew is special because of the immense amount of care in its craftsmanship that makes the experience a string of never-ending gentle surprises. There's just so much stuff and things and gimmicks and fun all hiding beneath the surface, isolated from whatever genre it happens to be in. Spiritfarer is similarly unique and beautifully-loaded with surprises, but it is also unique as a spin on the farming/management sim genre. Way down within its deeply hidden core, Spiritfarer is essentially a farming game, but all the gameplay quirks and choices on top of the systems place it in a middle ground of gameplay between Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, with a Metroidvania structure on top of the sim. It has a day and night cycle, but it doesn't use the stress of night as a deadline to drive the player, it uses that mental checklist that feels like the player's own choice. It doesn't feel stressful, because it isn't. There is no demand anywhere in the game to meet a deadline. A relaxed player might take their time and slowly complete each goal without distractions. But the average player will get themselves slid into the groove that the game suggests and thrive within it, and in case they want to slow down and work slowly into the night, they always have that option seamlessly available.
Half-blind is the way that I experienced Spiritfarer. I vaguely knew about the death and devastation in the game, but I was far from exactly aware of the fate of each animal. Lingering from the start of the experience is simple emotional pain. The characters in this game are painfully lovable, and mildly to deeply disturbed. Each are expertly written, digging their slippery claws deep into your heart, making my slow realization that these friends that I fell in love with, while slowly unraveling their past and connection to Stella, were all on a short voyage to their demise into a darkly euphoric experience. Gwen is the first animal that you meet on the journey and she guides Stella through the early gameplay systems and teaches her how to be, all while implying her connection to Stella before they died and entered their afterlives. Spiritfarer doesn’t suggest that you get attached to Gwen, it forces you with its multitude of subtle choices both in the gameplay and the story. While I doubt that every player cries when it is Gwen’s time to go, it is the first moment of realization of impermanence in this video game world. This person that Stella had gotten the chance to reunite with and go on a minor journey together just becomes gone, not to be seen again.
“Dying” is such a vanilla theme in video games to the point that it has been reduced to simply a mechanic since the beginning of the medium. Deaths don’t matter in games, you die constantly, other characters die constantly, and even story-centered deaths of beloved characters don’t hit that hard. And yet, death in Spiritfarer is nothing short of agonizing. Each animal spirit leaves their mark on Stella’s journey through gameplay, discovery, story, to the point that their deaths feel much more real than any other video game. Of course they don’t hurt you at the level of your real family or friends, but golly does it get closer than a video game has any right to achieve.
It is shocking to me that Spiritfarer is a game about death. Its raw mechanical base quickly became my favorite video game structure on its premise alone. This gameplay makes me incredibly happy, relaxed, and filled with wonder in the same way that all of the games I compared it to did. Thus by caking the world with a sense of dreadful reality, dark narrative themes, and flawed, complex characters, “painfully lovable” is probably the best a description of my experience can get. Don’t get the wrong impression that this game is just a downer. Yeah, it will probably make mostly every player cry. I bawled during this game. One specific spirit’s death hit me so hard that I had to put the game down and cry myself to sleep. But that’s a good thing! Fortunately, the game doesn’t use its darkness to bring you down without purpose; it wraps up its themes and the story it is trying to tell with the utmost elegance. This is a profoundly beautiful game that creates an emotional, euphoric journey between the discovery of bliss and misery, using its stark contrast between gameplay highs and depressive lows to deeply implant its message and art within the player.
Should you play Spiritfarer? Probably, but I don’t really care, this is my game now, and this is absolutely not a review. I'm not afraid to say that this is easily one of my favorite games and I'll even drop the m-word: this is an utter masterpiece, in storytelling, and in gameplay. I found that it does enough innovation in refining and combining genres that it would probably appeal to more players than the average management/farming sim, so I can recommend it on the story, music, writing, gameplay, characters, art, level design, game design, character design, sound design, jumping physics, water reflections, rhythm minigame, mining, ocean faring, exploration, and atmosphere alone. (It's available on Game Pass, by the way along with every other console, Steam, and even Stadia). Oh, and a mild content warning because it swears a lot.