This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Spiritfarer.
It's always nice when a random game really grabs me; it's like hitting it off with an attractive stranger in a bar who doesn't keep an eye on their drink and doesn't question my unmarked van. And I thought it might be educational to list some things it didn't do to grab me, Games Industry: it didn't put out a pre-rendered trailer six years before release showcasing all its crazy characters with magenta-colored partial buzzcuts, it didn't use an aggressive leveling system to increase engagement the way a drug dealer "increases engagement" by cutting the blow with laundry detergent, and it doesn't have Batman in it. No, what it did was, it made me emotionally engage with it.
I play a game like Gears of War where I'm in a constant life-or-death struggle with snarling monsters that want to exterminate humanity, and I'm more emotionally engaged with the cheese and pickle sandwich I'm taking sneaky bites of between reloads; it kills off a main character, I feel more remorse when my wife notices pickle stains on the dog. In contrast, I played Spiritfarer, got to the part where an old hedgehog with dementia remembers who I am in the brief moment before she disappears, and I CRIED. I actually did; fuck you.
I played Spiritfarer at E3, and I remember it did a really fucking shitty job of bringing across what the fuck it was, so let's see if I can do better. We play as Stella, a constantly smiling young girl with a hat slightly larger than she is, and a second player can optionally play as Stella's cat. I'll take "Completely Unnecessary Multiplayer Modes" for $200, Alex! Ooh, what is Mario Odyssey? Stella has been appointed as the new ferryman on the River Styx, possibly as the result of a heavily exaggerated résumé; her job is now to pilot a houseboat around a sea of fantastical places and creatures, giving rides to the spirits of the newly dead in the form of animal people and helping them finish off their last few concerns before taking them to eternal rest, and it seems that an awful lot of people's unresolved issues in life revolve around fetch quests.
We might as well categorize Spiritfarer as an "arty indie game", but for once, we play as a small child in a NOT-scary world - quite a nice world, actually, all hand-drawn in a lovely clean art style that reminds me of Franco-Belgian cartoons - full of light and wonder and melancholy humor, which does rather juxtapose against the underlying knowledge that our job is essentially to take our passengers one by one into the woods and ice them in the back of the head. I'd also group Spiritfarer with GRIS and Sea of Solitude under the subheading of "very metaphorical arty indie games", but here's how it doesn't fuck it up like those two did. 1) It never beats you around the head with its underlying meaning, Sea of Solitude. 2) It has a deeper and more poignant underlying meaning than "main character is a bit sad", GRIS. 3) It treats its gameplay as a way to establish its themes and add greater weight to its emotional moments rather than a bunch of meaningless checkpoint flags to fill the space between the metaphors, GRIS and Sea of Solitude. And 4) Meta, meta-phor.
The main point is, Spiritfarer has both underlying and surface meaning. If you want, you can forget all about the metaphor business; I'm certainly fucking sick of saying the word. If you want, it can just be a story about a little girl on a magical adventure making a bunch of animal friends, hanging out, doing their side-quests, hugging them with the dedicated "Hug" button, then icing them in the woods. And then you feel sad because you're actually sad about never getting to see your friend again, not because there's a huge symbolic statue of the main character telling you to be sad, GRIS, again.
Let's head down to the core gameplay in my magic diving bell. It's a 2D platforming, base-building, exploration, "craft your way up the tech tree" 'em up structurally reminiscent of, say, Subnautica: craft upgrades to explore more of the map to find new resources to craft more upgrades. How it differs from Subnautica is that you carry your base around with you on your ship, and all the sea monsters actually sincerely want to be your friends and aren't just saying that to get you into devouring range. There's also some Stardew Valley in here, since you have to grow crops, cook meals, and feed your passengers the things they like to keep the ungrateful dying bastards happy.
The primary gameplay loop is a workaday routine that your passengers are woven into just enough to get you used to seeing them around, and that's why it's an emotional lurch when it's time to take them behind the woodshed, 'cos when you get back from seeing off Dennis the Slug, for a while, you're not harvesting lettuce anymore; you're harvesting the lettuce Dennis the Slug used to like. You can't do the stud farm minigame without thinking about how Dennis the Slug taught you the optimal method for bringing off a horse. And, of course, that lovely house you built for Dennis the Slug stands empty on your boat for the rest of the game, and by the end, your ship is struggling to stay afloat under the weight of countless two-story tombstones, just as our souls are burdened with the memories of times past both good and bad until the day we let it go. Metaphooooors! <DING!> Whoops, I think I heard the bell! That means it's time to qualify that praise!
Spiritfarer might be a little bit too proud of its hand-drawn animation; a lot of the workaday activities have animations that go on just a bit too long. Endearing as it is to watch Stella boggle in wonder as her magic oven gloves appear, 300 times later, I wish she'd fucking get over it at last so I can just have my fucking cheese sticks. I'm also annoyed by the way the game insists that we go to sleep at night. "Yahtzee, that's when most people go to sleep, genius!" But there's no exhaustion meter or any particular reason to go to sleep, except your boat stubbornly refuses to move when it's dark, and I'd really rather be getting on with shit. The cited reason is that Stella can't navigate when it's dark, but during the day, she seems to manage perfectly well, even when milking in the cowshed, with her head halfway up Daisy's arse.
Also, while the story as brought across by the atmosphere and visuals is very effective, it falls short in the dialogue; it's a bit overwritten. Yes, the final monologue before a character gets iced is usually a bit of a knee in the feely parts, but at other times, there are too many characters whose quirk is that they talk too much; accidentally press "Talk" instead of "Buy" while interacting with the merchant, and you're locked into the Mash "Message Skip" Mambo for thirty seconds. Finally, Spiritfarer fails to sick the landing. Once you've iced enough motherfuckers, you get a sequence that reveals a significant truth about Stella, and it's the high point where the game should've ended; sadly, the nature of the beast means it instead goes, "Right, when you're done finishing off your last few grindy side-quests, come back here to end the game properly." And then Stella's journey inevitably dribbles limping to a conclusion at the point when you get bored and decide to pack it in; all the emotion in the process of resolving your last passenger is lost as you're thinking, "Yeah, just hurry up and have a fucking epiphany, asshole; some of us have places to be."
Nevertheless, I recommend Spiritfarer. In this numb, unsympathetic world, anything that makes me feel something is worth celebrating; that's why I don't take the price tags off my underpants.
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