Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One (included in Game Pass), Switch, Stadia

Death has been a part of video games since the earliest days of the medium. Whether by homicidal turtles, ninja stars, alien death rays, or giant enemy crabs, gamers have become largely inured to their own demise. Extra lives are plentiful, checkpoints and respawns are generous, and there’s rarely a significant penalty for being careless with your avatar’s mortality.

That’s not how things work in the real world, of course. We all pass this way but once, and it’s up to each of us to decide how we use the time we have. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, those left behind when someone close passes on know that the true legacy of the departed is the mark they leave on others. Thoughts, memories, and shared experiences will never replace the person who’s gone, but can help those who remain deal with their feelings of loss and grief.

Spiritfarer, the new title from Thunder Lotus Games, aims to explore this aspect of loss and death in the softest way possible. Described as “a cozy management game about dying,” the game begins with your character meeting Charon, the Greek deity responsible for ferrying the souls of the departed across the river Styx into Hades. Charon explains that it’s time for him to move on, and passes the mantle of his responsibility to a young girl named Stella before entering the Everdoor, the bridge between this world and the next. Stella is far more upbeat about her duties than her predecessor, and she sets out to make the souls in her care as comfortable as possible before escorting them to the great beyond.

Spiritfarer’s developers have stated the Miyazaki film Spirited Away was one of the guiding influences behind the game. Their intention is to make you think less about death as an end, and more of a starting point for something new. Stella’s adventures are meant to make the player think about the legacy of the creature who’s moving on, and what they meant to those they left behind.

How can a game about death be fun?

If you think this all seems a little heavy for a game featuring anthropomorphic animals and a dedicated hug button, you’re right. Despite the serious subject matter, Spiritfarer is usually a light-hearted game in which Stella collects crafting materials to upgrade her home base or complete requests from the creatures in her charge. Stella is responsible for easing the change from life to… whatever comes after, for the entire cast of anthropomorphic animals. She does this by feeding, hugging, and managing the living spaces of the souls she’s collected. It’s a bit like a gorgeous, 2D version of Animal Crossing, but when these animals move away you know they’re never coming back.

That’s not to say Spiritfarer is maudlin or gloomy, though. Little touches of humor permeate item descriptions, and Stella is animated in such a way you can tell she has limitless energy and enjoys her work. Charon’s final gift was a magical orb called the Everlight. This handy sphere can transform into any tool Stella needs, from an oar to a pickaxe to an acoustic guitar. Whether she’s using it to fish off the stern of the boat, watering a garden, or bounding through a city’s streets with her cat Daffodil (an optional player 2 who tags along automatically when not controlled by another person) chasing behind her, every frame of Stella’s animation is packed with personality. Her joy is infectious, and some of it can’t help but rub off on the player. It’s impossible to be sad while you’re playing the game, in spite of the somber subject matter.

Gorgeous 2D animation

Spiritfarer’s art style is heavily inspired by the works of Studio Ghibli, and the attention to detail on display is nothing short of breathtaking. I was constantly noticing tiny flourishes in the spectacularly fluid animation, from the surprising way a snake in a bathrobe manages to climb down a ladder, to the panicked look on a sheep’s face when you break out the clippers. Everything is lusciously animated, and no amount of hyperbole can overstate how beautiful the characters are in motion.

The backgrounds deserve their share of praise as well. While not quite as stunning as the character animation, the world reacts to the passing of time no matter where you are, making sumptuous sunrises and sunsets the rule rather than the exception

Spiritfarer gameplay loops

Thunder Lotus is best known for Jotun and Sundered, but the developer’s new title might be their most ambitious yet. Spiritfarer features several interconnected gameplay loops, borrowing ideas from classic Nintendo titles in addition to indie blockbuster Stardew Valley. Spiritfarer is at once a platform game, a farming simulator, and a lifestyle game inspired by Animal Crossing.

The bulk of the game takes place on Stella’s customizable houseboat, which can be rearranged at will to accommodate her guests or just make traversal more convenient. One of the primary gameplay goals is to save enough money to buy ever larger boats with room for more elaborate and specialized buildings. Most of these are used to refine raw materials via various minigames which rely on timing and observation.

What’s more, each character needs their own living space, and these can be customized slightly by collecting raw materials from the various islands surrounding the Everdoor. Stella can stack and restack the modular buildings however she likes, encouraging the player to experiment and come up with a layout which works for them. The Animal Crossing comparisons appear to be deliberate, as a passel of greedy raccoons serve as the game’s merchants.

In addition to providing living quarters, Stella has to keep her charges fed while they prepare to leave the world of the living. Complicating the matter, each animal has its own preferences and favorite foods. Fortunately, the houseboat is large enough to hold a fully functioning farm, including fields and orchards. Later on Stella can even practice some animal husbandry, adding sheep, chickens, and cows to her floating menagerie. There are nearly a hundred recipes to collect and discover, so Stella’s kitchen is quite a valuable piece of real estate.

While it’s less noticeable than the farming and management aspects, the platforming in Spiritfarer is just as solid. New arrivals will occasionally provide Stella with a special coin which can be used to unlock new platforming abilities, such as a double-jump or the ability to glide across long distances. It’s not a huge interconnected world like most Metroid inspired games, but it’s still fun to realize the power you just unlocked grants you access to more of the game.

What lies beyond

Although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time I’ve spent with Spiritfarer, it may not be for everyone. I was a little surprised to see some of the characters swearing, even though it’s infrequent and used for dramatic effect. Those who don’t like crafting or backtracking in platformers probably won’t enjoy themselves. Some of the crafting seems needlessly complicated, and there’s no way to automate the process. Your companion animals will occasionally try to help out, but this is so sporadic and does so little that you’ll really have to do all the crafting, collecting, and refining yourself. The crafting minigames are fun and well-executed, but they start to get repetitive pretty quickly. More automation (or the option to craft a batch of items and take the average result instead of doing everything by hand) would have helped immensely.

I’m not sure that’s worthy of a complaint, though. Even though it’s a game about death, Stella herself cannot die or even take damage, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get yourself into a failure state. The deliberate pace of the game and the repetitive nature of the minigames help make Spiritfarer one of the more relaxing games I’ve played in recent memory. Combined with the ethereal piano soundtrack, you may find yourself drifting off during a late-night session.

Spiritfarer is easily one of the best looking games of 2020, but it’s not just a pretty face. There’s a lot to unpack, and it’s likely different people will have different reactions to the themes and plot points. I found the mole woman’s story uncomfortable because it reminded me of my Grandfather’s deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease. Others may find the mushroom boy’s story disturbing because it heavily implies the death of a child. Although it’s a friendly-looking game, Spiritfarer isn’t afraid to go for an emotional kick to the gut.

And yet, there’s hope at the end of each of their stories. Stella helps each of her wards make peace with their past lives and themselves before their final exit. At the end, that’s probably the best any of us can hope for.