I was really hoping for a relaxing game. I needed one. Spirittea was promising that experience. Unfortunately, it’s a clear demonstration that there’s a fine line between relaxation and boredom.
Mashing up my favorite Spirited Away and Stardew Valley and featuring my favorite pastimes of taking baths and drinking tea, it had everything going for it. Heck, the protagonist is a writer who travels to the countryside to work on their latest book. I’m a writer. At least, I sometimes claim to be.
But after nearly 20 hours, I was a season and a half into the game. I’d befriended a handful of spirits and villagers. The bathhouse was coming along. But it was crawling. Forget relaxing; going back to Spirittea was beginning to just add to my misery. Something went wrong here.
I’ve given some of the synopsis already, but to reiterate, you’re a writer who has retreated to the countryside to remove distractions and focus on your next opus. However, soon after drinking tea from a magic teapot, you gain the ability to see spirits. Well, a spirit. However, this maneki neko tells you that all the other spirits of the village have become lost as the residents have stopped worshipping them. You’re tasked with helping them find themselves, then, uh, bathing them.
Yeah, there’s a bathhouse at the top of the mountain, and it’s a great way to make money because my old college professors were right: writing doesn’t pay the bills. Any spirit you help out becomes a customer at the bathhouse, and so do all their identical siblings.
You then spin off the money you make to expand the bathhouse, allowing you to douse more minor Gods. And this is exactly where everything starts going wrong. The bathhouse is the focal point of all of Spirittea’s problems. And that’s mainly because the whole business, the whole central task that you do in order to progress through all the game’s systems, is as dull as bathwater.
To complete your book, you need to find spirits. This is because you don’t have a single creative thought in your head, so the only hope you have is to experience the spirit world. In order to find more spirits, you need to run the bathhouse. You have a few options to make money, but the only significant one is the bathhouse. In order to level up and make money faster, you need to find more spirits.
Yet, it doesn’t matter how many spirits you find; the task of bathing them never becomes fun to do. You take them, plunk them in the grid overlaying the bathwater, and try to make them as happy as possible. There’s not really much you can do to make their experience better aside from scrubbing the spirit with a broom. You just have to avoid plopping them beside other spirits that they hate. Each spirit corresponds to one of the four seasons, and they sit best with spirits of the opposite season.
But you can’t easily discern what season the spirit belongs to. In order to find out, you have to dig up a tome that has information about the spirit. To dig up tomes, you need maps. Expensive maps. And no matter how many maps I’ve collected, I can’t discern a single damned one of them. I got some tomes simply by spotting patches of grass that discolor under the spirit vision, but rarely would the tome tell me about a spirit that actually visited my bathhouse.
Your other option is to use trial and error to deduce their season and keep meticulous notes, and I thought we were trying to relax here.
Beyond trying to make the spirits happy, you need to maintain the fires that heat the bath, and keep a supply of clean towels. Honestly, even though those are two obvious chores, they would make the whole task of putting spirits in bathwater a lot more interesting if you had to juggle them. But you don’t. As I said, once you have the spirit in the water, there’s not much else to do with them. You just let them soak. So, I spent a lot of time waiting for the bin to get filled with dirty towels, just so I had something to do while standing around.
There’s also cooking. I fixed up the kitchen pretty early to find that the whole system is a mess. Each spirit has a favorite meal, and to find it, you need the corresponding tome for the spirit. Then you need all the ingredients, and you have to have them in the kitchen, which doesn’t initially have its own storage. You need to buy that separately.
But even when I had a spirit’s favorite food, I couldn’t figure out how to feed it to them. So, I gave up.
It wasn’t the only time that I felt like a bathhouse upgrade was a waste of money that I earned with my blood, sweat, and boredom. Learn from my mistakes; your first priority should be repairing the baths that you can reach. I made the mistake of fixing the stairs because I wondered what Spirittea was hiding up there. Spoiler: it’s a broken bath. A very expensive broken bath.
I guess I didn’t learn my lesson because, soon after, I repaired the hall to the west wing. I figured there was something neat there because there was an obvious loading barrier. However, guess what I found there? A broken bath.
Maybe I should have learned my lesson, but I have to wonder why Spirittea is making me pay for a repair just to reach another thing for me to repair. This whole process would work better if Spirittea would offer some guidance as to what would benefit you most at that moment. Instead, it lets you tie your own noose.
I got a job making money for the man
The bathhouse doesn’t pay well, either. In order to unlock the bridge to the hot springs, you need to pay 15,000 of the game’s currency. In the 20 hours I played of Spirittea, the range of profit I would make from one full day working the bathhouse was between 2,000 and 5,500. That’s three boring days of squeezing the bathhouse for all its worth, and I don’t even know what’s up there. It’s probably another broken bathtub. I thought that if I kept throwing money at bathhouse repairs the central gameplay concept would become somewhat interesting, but it never happened.
In fact, it got worse. As you could in Stardew Valley, you can make friends with the townsfolk. Dialogue is one option, but typically you’ll get one or two statements from them before they tell you to screw off. If you happen to catch them at the right time of day, they might allow you to take them bug hunting or fishing. Both of those can help you buff up your friendship a lot faster than small talk. You might also find yourself making teppanyaki with them or playing an awful rhythm minigame that represents karaoke. What I don’t understand is why Spirittea’s general soundtrack is enjoyable, but when you’re stuck playing karaoke, it sounds like a musical greeting card.
If you manage to cap out your relationship with a character, you then tell them about how spirits are real. Rather than have an existential crisis when they’re forced to recognize that small Gods walk amongst them, they take your word for it and help out at the bathhouse. This involves washing towels, running dirty towels to the back room, scrubbing the spirits, and feeding the boiler. You know, all those actual activities you need to do while the spirits are soaking.
So, if you make four friends, you’re left just plopping spirits into the water. Just to twist the knife, the spirits trickle in at a slow pace, meaning that after you dunk a ghost, you have nothing to do but wait for the next one to show up.
Honeymoon by the ocean
I have many, many more complaints (the controls are inexplicably butt), but I feel like I’m mostly just venting frustration. I gave Spirittea so many chances to show me one reason to keep playing, and it never arose. Despite this, I had to keep diving in for the purposes of this review, and the annoyances just kept piling on. This is not what I had in mind.
At some points, I wondered if the developer intends Spirittea to have the same post-launch support that Stardew Valley did, where a number of appreciable upgrades are added over time. However, if that’s the case, the foundation should have been a lot stronger. At this point, entire activities will need to be pulled out, overhauled, and slotted back in. That’s very hard to do in an already living game.
I think the developer, Cheesemaster Games, had the passion and the vision to make Spirittea something special. And, to be fair, one person’s boredom is another’s relaxation. However, all the parts should have been better planned out before they were assembled. Instead of a bunch of complementary systems that build into a satisfying, captivating, and relaxing game, it’s just an inescapable tub of annoyances. After that experience, I really need to take it easy for a bit.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]