Hotly anticipated viral games have a habit of letting you down. Whether they be huge AAA games marketed so aggressively that they have no chance of ever living up to the hype or indie games that catch the attention of the masses with cute visuals, a gameplay hook, or a gimmick that’s just too cool to ignore. The fact of the matter is that some games that have you step aboard the hype train set you up for failure.
One such game that I allowed to usher me aboard the dreaded hype train, for better or worse, was Spirittea. A game that takes influence from Studio Ghibli movies such as Spirited Away, and games such as Stardew Valley, aiming to offer a paranormal bathhouse simulator dripping in cozy vibes.
It’s a game that has all the composite parts needed to potentially produce one of the finest cozy simulator games of the modern era. However, the question remains: can this debut indie title do enough to wedge itself into the conversation for best cozy game of the year? We find out in Indie Game Culture’s review of Spirittea, conducted on PC.
Give The Cartridge A Blow
We begin with the visuals and overall world design of Spirittea, which, I will say, right off the bat, is a triumph. Having grown up with Studio Ghibli movies, and having retrospectively played the Earthbound series, I can say wholeheartedly that Spirittea captures the essence of both expertly, and combines them to great effect. The nostalgic SNES graphics blend seamlessly with the fantasy Asian setting, offering a pocket-sized world that feels authentic, steeped in magic, yet strangely grounded and believable.
It’s clear that each pixellated asset has been crafted with love and care, acting as a puzzle piece that melds with the rest to create a world that is richer with each addition. Players immediately get a sense of place when dropped into this fictitious town, and it’s nice to see that the area feels like it has a rich history, rather than some games where it feels like without you, there would be no town at all.
The level of detail from an aesthetic point of view is off the charts, and while the game doesn’t set the world alight in terms of fidelity, set pieces, or outlandish animations, the vibes are immaculate nonetheless. From the colorful cast of Spirits who will inhabit your Bathhouse, to the Studio-Ghibli-inspired Bathhouse itself, everything looks the part.
Small Town Ambience
The game looks the part, and it also sounds impeccable as well. It can be hard to create a soundtrack for games of this nature, as these overtures and looping tracks have a danger of becoming repetitive and grating all too quickly. But thankfully for Spirittea, the tunes included within this title fit the setting perfectly while also offering some catchy and uplifting melodies too. They are the kind of tracks you can mindlessly hum along to as you go about your day, and that’s exactly what you want.
The tracks are great, but the auditory standout feature here is the attention to detail that has gone into ambient sound. The developer has clearly worked very hard while trying their hand as a Foley artist, as the game is chocked full of layered ambient sounds that make each walk from your house to the Bathhouse on the Hill feel like an ASMR video.
Whether it be the sound of pouring rain and thunderstorms, the rolling-in and retreating of the waves on the beach, or the caw of crows as they roam the town, the game has an innate ability to soothe and immerse the player in the setting, allowing you to close your eyes and truly feel like you’re standing in this spirit-laden town.
Whether you are referring to visuals or sound, Spirittea is a delight, which is why everything hereafter in this review is so damn disappointing.
While I have all the praise in the world for how this game looks and feels, the simple fact of the matter is that Spirittea very rarely feels fun to play. It can be a little tricky to put your finger on why that is, but as you would expect, I have my theories. We begin with the part of the game that essentially acts as the player’s main way to generate revenue, acting as Spirittea’s answer to growing crops in Stardew Valley, for example.
The player will promptly be thrust into the role of the town’s Bathhouse attendant, acting as the stand-in owner of the business tasked with keeping the town’s resident spirits happy and clean. To do this, you’ll need to show them to their bath, place them near other spirits they vibe with, and use a blend of scrubbing, cooked meals, and Elixirs to secure a nice tip when they dry off.
Initially, I had high hopes for this gameplay loop, as cleaning the Bathhouse, keeping the baths hot by topping up the furnace, and washing towels were enough to showcase to me that this satisfying segment had legs and could grow into something pretty engaging, perhaps in a frantic way in line with the likes of Overcooked which I would have loathed personally but appreciated as a critic. The problem is that it never really expands beyond this initial set of tasks.
To boil it down, there is just way too much standing around waiting for new Spirits; there isn’t really any form of problem-solving or strategy present despite the game ensuring you there is, and when the working day is over, the monetary rewards are underwhelming, meaning you’d need to repeat this boring and lifeless procedure again and again, just to unlock more areas of the bathhouse to do it at scale.
There just aren’t enough intricacies or nuances in the systems present to make this a fun and multifaceted task. Which, in the end, makes the gameplay that the entire game is built upon a mindless and unrewarding grind.
That’s Life, That’s What All The People Say
The core gameplay, despite initial promise, proved to be a bit of a dud, but I remained hopeful that the world outside of the Bathhouse would provide enough substance to warrant simply existing in this world, and reluctantly attending the Bathouse to keep progressing. After all, some of the richest moments in games of this nature tend to be with the town’s residents and engaging with their stories. Well, I hate to bring us all down to earth here again, but it was another swing and a miss.
Beginning with the friendship system in this game, it’s about as basic as it gets, with the ability to speak to people to earn a small amount of favor with them, and the ability to take characters out on the town to eat, sing Karaoke, or Bug catching for example, which would net you a little more of a bump on the friendship meter.
The fact that this system is basic isn’t what bothers me. It’s that engaging with it feels like such a chore. The characters in this game feel like exaggerated stereotypes, as is often the case in Farming Sim games, so getting to know these people doesn’t feel all that worthwhile. Plus, outside of decorations for your home, the rewards for doing so are also pretty arbitrary and underwhelming.
This puts a lot of pressure on the minigames to be top-notch, and to be frank, they are far from it. You have the Karaoke mini-game, which is an obnoxiously difficult rhythm game, especially on KBM, the drinking mini-game that is pointless and confusing, or the dinner date mini-game, which is needlessly complex without the benefit of being fun when you get your head around the mechanics. Not one side activity feels well tutorialised, well implemented, or, most importantly, fun.
In situations like this, I love the opportunity to throw my hands up and say, ‘Look, maybe it’s just me.’ But in this instance, I honestly can’t imagine anyone sitting down to play these aspects of the game and thinking to themselves, ‘Hey, I would love to do that again.’
Any Takers On An RPG Maker?
This all raises an important question. Does the gameplay have any redeeming qualities? I’m happy to report that, yes, the game has one recurring aspect of its gameplay that remains engaging throughout. As the player serves more spirits in the Bathhouse, you will gradually raise your Spirituality, which is indicated by a psychedelic little animated cut-scene. This, in turn, then allows the player to head off into town, check the notice board, and there will be a clue on where to find the next Spirit variation.
While I wasn’t exactly overjoyed that I would need to grind through workdays in the Bathhouse to unlock these quests, I found that these quests were easily the most fun and engaging moments I had within Spirittea, whether it was scouring the town for ingredients to make Julian’s Family Recipe for a hungry spirit, or obtaining Ramen Noodles for a Spirit that inexplicably had set up shop in the game’s text boxes. I found that these quests offered the best writing, urged me to get to know the townsfolk and the world, and just had more draw than any recurring gameplay features.
This led me to the conclusion that this game would have worked so much better if it embraced the RPG Maker format made famous by games like Undertale, OneShot, or Omori, which opt to tell a more linear story that really facilitates the janky, varied gameplay mechanics.
Instead, Spirittea locks some of its most interesting content away until you grind through obligatory Bathhouse work, that genuinely feels like work, and because of this, I just can’t recommend that players suffer through the majority of the game for these small pockets of joy.
If you liked the general look, feel, or vibe of Spirittea and want more of the same, then you might like these games listed below:
- Stardew Valley
- Moonstone Island
- Dark Cloud
The Verdict – 5/10
Overall, Spirittea is a game that I guarantee every single player who gives it a go will bend over backward to try to enjoy, because through the nostalgic Earthbound-inspired visuals, the incredible ambient audio design, the intriguing gameplay ideas, and the strong core concept, the game earns a lot of goodwill. So much so, that with each passing hour, I found myself actively trying to make allowances and excuses for the game. However, as the hours turned into tens of hours, and the game was yet to click with me in any meaningful way, the goodwill the game earned was well and truly burnt through.
The game, simply put, just isn’t fun. The life sim features around the town, which have you earn friendship, are as basic as they come, with minigames that range from confusing to just plain bad. Then you have the Bathhouse gameplay, which has the potential to be this game’s saving grace, as at face value, it’s a fun, repetitive system in which to earn money. However, there is too much standing around, no real difficulty involved, and the rewards just don’t justify the time invested, making it a real grind right from the start.
The only time that the game feels somewhat interesting is when players can engage with it akin to an RPG maker game and complete quests to reveal Spirits in the town, but even then, this only serves to facilitate the lackluster Bathhouse gameplay.
In the end, I feel that in the hands of a more experienced developer, or a larger team, this game could have been very special. All the composite parts are there, but it all feels a little underbaked and awkwardly implemented. I drank the Spirittea, but all it revealed to me is that this game isn’t worth your time, sadly.
- Cute and nostalgic visuals, reminiscent of the Earthbound/Mother series
- The ambient audio design and soundtrack are superb
- Spirit Quests provide most of the game’s highlights
- The overall writing is fun and humorous
- The core Bathhouse gameplay is downright boring
- The life sim aspects of the game are pretty basic
- Minigames and UI generally feel very clunky
- The game could really benefit from stronger tutorials and guide rails
Callum played for a total of ten hours, making his way through the majority of Spring, and honestly, he fears he may have done the game a disservice, as it may get better with time invested, but he couldn’t stomach playing through the monotony anymore. Which, if you play the game, you will likely understand.
Question: Where Can I Play Spirittea?
Answer: Spirittea will be available to play on PC, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox Series X/S on November 13th, 2023.
Question: Is Spirittea Like Spirited Away?
Answer: If you are a fan of the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, you will find that this game takes a lot of inspiration from this movie, essentially allowing you to play as a Bathhouse attendant as Chihiro does.
Question: What Does The Tea Do In Spirittea?
Answer: When the player drinks the tea, they then gain the ability to use Spirit Vision, which allows them to see Spirits that are hiding in plain sight.
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