Here's your first clue that Spiritfarer is an indie darling: You can hug almost everything. See that giant mystical frog over there? You can hug him. The snake in a robe? Her, too. Your cat, Daffodil, who trots happily behind you as you skip across the giant boat-village these characters call home? Well, obviously. And these are good hugs, too – lavishly animated and completely unique to each NPC.
This is pure feelgood indie, in other words. Spiritfarer – revealed during Microsoft's Xbox E3 2019 conference, and from Thunder Lotus, creator of accomplished Metroidvania Sundered – plays like a cross between Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, and is hand-drawn and animated in a manner that resembles the '70s Disney movies. You're put in charge of building and maintaining a town atop a boat as it sails from port to port, chatting to its fantastical animal residents, furnishing houses, growing all manner of crops in neat little garden spaces, mining ore, and fishing off the back of the boat.
So far, so cutesy life sim. Or, rather, death sim. The twist is that Spiritfarer has its roots in Greek mythology: your boat is, essentially, a cosier version of the ferry that crosses the river Styx. Player character Stella is Charon with better taste in headwear, then, and her role is to help departed souls move from the world of the living to the land of the dead.
Welcome to the land of the dead
It's a sweet reimagining of a popular myth, and some fabulous PR for the underworld. Honestly, if this is what a job as Hades' ferry master is like, I'm quite tempted to pack in video game journalism altogether. (Seriously, Hades, hit me up on LinkedIn.) Stella can use her magical orb of light to conjure up a watering can or a fishing rod – a dynamic weather system means you'll be able to catch different types of fish when it's raining, and the minigame's UI is smart stuff, the glowing rod turning from yellow to orange to red and letting you know when to wind your reel or let out a little more line. I'm briefly introduced to some fun but frantic 2D platforming as I race to collect lightning strikes, although its not quite clear to what end in my short demo. A brief dip in the ocean reveals you can dive down into the water to dredge up crafting materials, although your cat companion (who also functions as a second player character for co-op play with a friend) isn't so keen. There are also recipes to cook, and furniture sets to collect.
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Gifts of furniture are one way in which you'll form relationships with your ever-growing number of spirit passengers. As you move from port to port, you'll meet and befriend new characters: I had a good chuckle at a hyper-animated raccoon merchant in the beautiful lamplit Hummingberg, a clear reference to Animal Crossing's Tom Nook (be nice, Nintendo). You'll also meet more lost souls in search of closure, and invite them aboard. Each has their own special story to uncover, with you guiding them through their own process of acceptance of their death. Many are even based on the devs' late relatives and friends, creative director and triple-A veteran Nicolas Guerin – who most recently directed level design for Watch Dogs 2 and Assassin's Creed: Origins – tells me. Spiritfarer includes tributes to his grandparents, and a dear friend of his who passed at just eighteen years old.
This is a deeply personal project for the creators at Thunder Lotus, then, and quite a departure from their usual combat-heavy fare. They're keen to explore new, more mature themes, they tell me, and the success of Sundered means they're now in a position to do just that with Spiritfarer. I can already see myself sinking hours into building up my teetering town (the main route is about 30 hours, I'm told, but it'll take you close to 100 to see everything it has to offer), therapizing its charming spirit residents and sending them off to their final rest with a warm hug when Spiritfarer comes to PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2020.
For more games like Spiritfarer, read out list of the best indie games that we've seen at E3 2019