The last I saw of Spiritfarer was at its announcement — a brief teaser shown during the Xbox showcase at E3 2019. It immediately grabbed my attention by being very, very pretty. Then it more-or-less faded to the back of my mind. Lots of games with hand-drawn (or seemingly hand-drawn) 2D art are pretty these days. I think I need something more. And the Spiritfarer demo I received from developer Thunder Lotus at PAX East certainly had more than I expected.
You play as Stella, a cartoon girl with a wizard hat and a magical, shapeshifting orb. The latter transforms into whatever tool you need: saws, pickaxes, a fishing rod, and even a yo-yo. But your needs aren’t really clear. Stella is a silent protagonist, and the developer giving me the demo said her very nature in this fantasy world is a secret to be revealed later in the game. But Stella cares very much about the needs of “spirits” inhabiting various islands in the world you explore.
Said spirits begin as formless, clunky figures under hooded robes without much personality. It’s up to Stella (i.e. the player) to fulfill their needs and help break them out of their respective shells — or get them into a new one, as the case may be. Completing quests for spirits eventually encourages them to join Stella on her roaming home: an evolving ship covered in buildings that you can sail from one island to the next. Once they become comfortable enough to travel with you, the spirits take on animal forms, from humanoid deer, to lions, to frogs, to snakes.
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Theses shapes reflect what the spirits were like in life. Yeah… It’s a bit of a bummer, but all the NPCs you meet in Spiritfarer are dead folks. The minor ones have accepted that fact, and are merely enjoying their stay in the limbo lands where the game takes place, before moving on to the true afterlife. The ones Stella needs to help aren’t yet comfortable moving on. Some of them haven’t even realized where and what they are.
Easing them into death is a gradual process. First you need to gain their trust with minor quests. My demo had one who wanted her own house on my boat — which I was able to complete by gathering wood and crafting. Another wanted us to herd some sheep — which can later be sheared for more materials.
I asked if the spirits were okay with Stella coming to their islands and taking their resources, by the way. Thunder Lotus informed me that the magical tool can only cut or mine specific spots: ones marked specially to regrow almost overnight if you use the device.
The crafting process itself is… pretty tedious in spots. Cutting wood into planks, in particular, required a weird level of precision for what the studio itself calls a mostly “contemplative” game. The devs say they’re still tweaking the crafting mini-games to be more forgiving. But even if you screw up, there’s no penalty but time. You can just try again. In fact, there’s no fail state in Spiritfarer whatsoever. You don’t fight, or die, or run out of things. The only physical interaction I had with another character in the game was thanks to a hug button. (You can hug every spirit in Spiritfarer, but not all of them will let you hug them all of the time.)
That gets into the next stage of the game. Once aboard your ship, the spirits will teach you skills and chat. Sometimes that’s learning how to smelt iron. Other times it’s learning to dance for plants you can grow in a garden, which helps them grow faster.
The process (plus the hugs and sometimes feeding them) helps you grow closer to the spirits, and makes them literally more comfortable in their own skins. They take more advantage of their animal forms: standing taller, hopping around, and moving more naturally over time. The brief demo didn’t show me just how radically different the animations become, but it seems like a very wide metaphor for entering new stages of life, by literally morphing one’s body and becoming happier with it over time.
A Plan Comes Together
Eventually, though, these new friends need to move on — just as they did in the real world. Each of them is inspired by an actual person who passed away, taken from the lives of the developers. An armadillo woman we met during the demo, for instance, was based on someone’s grandmother. I didn’t actually witness any goodbyes in the demo. Though the developer said players will keep the skills the spirits impart to you. It’s another broad metaphor, but I like the way it feeds into helping more and more spirits down the line.
Between it all, Spiritfarer feels like a much bigger and more intricate game than I expected. It uses its gameplay to justify the tale of helping lost souls, rather than as an excuse to tell a story. That’s an important second step for a gorgeous-looking game. If it sands off some of the edges around crafting, and sticks the landing in its emotional center, it’s going to be so much more than just a pretty face.