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Spiritfarer [Game Review]

Described as a "cozy management game about dying" by the Thunderlotus Games, Spiritfarer doesn't sound like it is going to be your typical game. If I had just read that description I would have done a quick online search for it and then would have stumbled upon its trailer.... which is where it all started for me. I was dazzled by the character designs, sumptuous colours, and the fluid joyous acrobatic character animation. Then it hit me with the words "Learn to say goodbye" and once I had recovered from the emotional hit I went to the Nintendo e-shop and bought what has become one of my favourite games of all time.

In Spiritfarer you play as Stella. In a cut-scene that sets a standard for what is to come, you along with Daffodil (your cat), become the new ferrymaster to the deceased (replacing Charon who looks like you would expect). You are given the Everlight, a mystical multi-tool, and directed to a shipyard where a suitable sea-faring vessel is waiting to be repurposed. You chart voyages and sail between islands meeting spirits some of whom come aboard your vessel. These guests have needs and desires which you attend to whilst mining, farming, fishing, crafting and cooking until the time comes when they are ready to be taken to the Everdoor where you have the hard moment of saying goodbye.

My first reaction was that the world that Spiritfarer is set is just beautiful to look at, whether that be sailing the seas with the reflections in the water surface and watching the scenery go by or running, jumping, bouncing, gliding or conducting high-wire acrobatics in towns or villages or islands. The colours really pop and as each day progresses the sky changes and the feel of each location morphs. Dusk on some islands feels so tranquil, night in town has a slight edge to it. For some of the more rural settings (and the opening cut-scene), I felt like I was exploring a ukiyo-e woodblock print ... and I love that style and the whole compressed and flattened perspective. Having played the game a lot I *still* am knocked back by how good the game looks.

Given that this is a site dedicated to animation I cannot go any further into Spiritfarer without talking about that. The way that Stella is animated is utterly charming and on more occasions that I care to count I was more interested (in that moment) in watching her balletic acrobatics as she dashed across rooftops, bounced and pirouetted to hard-to-reach locations and flitted between zip-lines (you can see what I mean in the trailer at the end). The transitions between these states is utterly seamless and there is a real sense of weight and physics behind her motions.

The animation of Stella is also remarkable for her more human, smaller actions. When she stands idle the Everlight becomes a yo-you for her to do tricks or a ball to play with - it has such an air of innocence and playfulness that it feels very real to watch. Similarly, there are moments where her facial expression changes during conversations with guests and other inhabitants of the game world - it reflects *exactly* what you are thinking.

Each of the passengers on the ship are treated with equal affection and respect. Yes, they all designed differently but each of them moves in their own way that reflects their personality and I suspect an element of who they were before becoming a spirit. Gwen walks with grace, poise and elegance. Atul is full of energy bounding about and doing DIY whenever he gets the chance. Giovanni has the swagger of someone up to something. These are just three examples and it is so much fun to watch them and their expressions. This is especially true when they are hugged.

Spiritfarer is a game where hugging is an action and each character has their own ways of responding to it in the animated behaviours and the words on the screen. The way some of them just ... relax into it or bound up and jump into your arms feels almost too real at times. 

Outside of the glorious visuals and fluid character animation, what is actually going on in Spiritfarer? With Stella and her ship, you sail and explore the world. The boat is home to Stella and also the different spirits and characters that she picks up. As it is a home you build accommodation and provide food. To do this you need to grow crops, saw wood, weave fabrics and even smelt metals which in turn lets you upgrade your boat, craft other useful items and satisfy quests, errands and "shenanigans". Your passengers (and random people you meet) provide an impetus to travel and explore the map further and invest time in "day to day" life. This also helps to progress the story.

Each guest brings or unlocks a new mini-game with them. These games, of course, bring you some benefit whether it be access to strange materials like comet rock or bright jelly or to play music to your crops to improve their growth. As you chart different courses on the map your journey brings you in contact with these events. My favourite was the comet shower - it played so well and looked so pretty. All of the actions and games are quite simple and as a result a lot of fun and engaging. Chasing after ghostly cats or chasing lightning bolts was a lot of fun!

All the actions and mini-games are driven by the Everlight - a kind of multi-tool for all your needs. For mining, it morphs into a pickaxe, a hammer for metalwork, a scythe for field crops, a fishing rod and many more. To watch the circle of light morph into something and for it to be shown in use with a sense of weight was just remarkable. At times it can feel like there is a lot to do in Spiritfarer (like all management games) there is so much to look at that it almost rewards you to play it at a more gentle pace. This gives you a bit of time to breathe, soak up the atmosphere of the game and get to know your guests.

And what about Daffodil your trusty companion? A playful companion for Stella and partner for some of the day to day chores, Daffodil is always there or rushing to get back to Stella's side. As you would imagine the animation of this feline is sublime - capturing the playful elements of a cat without any of the getting under your feet. Watching a silhouette of Daffodil play with the Everlight is also the progress bar!

Finally, we come to perhaps the element of the trailer which hooked me the most, the hardest bit, saying goodbye to your guests. After meeting their needs, finding their likes and dislikes and getting to know them, in a way befitting each character you are asked to take them to the Everdoor. The Everdoor is where it all starts for you as a player and I found each trip to it in the game ... conflicting. It is difficult to find a word that reflects what I was feeling each time I went. You know it is coming eventually and I found the mixture of visuals, music and the on-screen dialogue really emotionally charged - some hit me much harder than others. 

The on-screen dialogue felt so real, like you were experiencing an actual goodbye, or perhaps one you wished you had been able to have with a friend or loved one. They definitely felt like they were based on lived experiences. I saw elements of my own thoughts or views reflected in these moments. It could have been a passing phrase or maybe even something I wanted to hear again. On every visit to the Everdoor, I had to take some time to almost work through what I had just experienced - a strange and complex mix of sadness, release and satisfaction.  That it was able to have such an impact is a real testament to the creators and developers of Spiritfarer. 

I don't think I was quite prepared for how much I have got into Spiritfarer. It is an utter joy to look at on the screen. The colours of the landscape and scenery throughout the day, the reflection of the boat in the water, the look and visual quirks of the guests you accompany and the visual animated flourishes of the characters' motion mean there is always something to look at. I found the individual stories engaging and that final moment at the Everdoor was always touching, never manipulative and some characters were harder to say goodbye to than others. It is a game that both needs and rewards you taking your time with daily tasks and quests. If I had to sum it up in a sentence I would go with "a visually stunning and emotional cozy management game about saying goodbye". However you want to describe it, Spiritfarer is a triumph.