The first Studio Ghibli film I ever watched was Spirited Away. I don’t remember much about the circumstances around it – my stepdad wanted to see it, perhaps? It certainly wasn’t driven by my own burgeoning interest in anime; at that age I had barely dabbled and would have never connected in my mind the few episodes of Dragon Ball Z I’d watched with the wholesome beauty of Miyazaki’s work. Whatever circumstances brought about this chance encounter, it would be a significant one – Spirited Away was one of my favorite films growing up, and over the years this and other Ghibli films would prove to be influential on me as a creator. So you can imagine how hearing about a video game with the premise of blending Stardew Valley and Spirited Away would immediately capture my attention.
The game in question was Spirittea, a title currently in development that had a demo as part of Steam’s Next Fest. The premise will be familiar to any fan of the farming sim genre: you move to a rural community from the big city and find that the small town has neglected their bond with the spiritual forces at work. But instead of restoring the land and the town by farming, you need to reopen the community’s bathhouse and provide its services to the currently-malevolent spirits living there. Along the way, you can meet the other folks living in town and spend time with them to form friendships – although this particular feature of the game is not available to you in the demo, you can at least meet the types of characters who will be available to hang out with in the full version.
At the beginning of the game you get to name your village as well as design your up-and-coming bathhouse owner. The customization options in the demo seem a bit limited, or phrased better, it appears that there will be additional options available that are not currently. You can pick between a handful of skin colors and outfit colors, two hairstyles, and two faces. It also seems like in the full version, you may be able to change your character’s job title, though it seems like this won’t have a meaningful impact on the game itself. Once you’re customized you show up in town and get a brief tour from the…mayor?…before getting to spend the night at your new home.
The introduction of the bathhouse happens relatively quickly, as you are guided along by quest prompts to take the necessary steps to unlock it. In the process you’re also tutorialized on basic aspects of the game such as picking up items and adding them to your inventory, running, talking to people, and brewing spirittea. This last step is important as it sets off the chain of events that puts you in control of the bathhouse, and serves as a major mechanic in the game. Drinking spirittea fills up an energy meter that powers your spirit vision, allowing you to see spirits in the real world. Interacting with said spirits unlocks story beats as well as adding them to your bathhouse.
So let’s get to the meat of the game: running the bathhouse. The bathhouse has no set hours – you choose when it opens and closes to spirits by ringing a bell in the main lobby. While the bathhouse is open, spirits will file in to use the facilities; the only limit on how many is how many you can manage at a time as well as the number of resources at your disposal. You start off with only a single bath available and a limited number of bath towels, which are necessary to place spirits in a bath. When a spirit comes in, they take a towel and wait to be escorted to the bath. You walk them over, tell them where to sit, and then when the bath has ended they’ll leave of their own accord. As they go, they deposit their dirty towel and put their payment in the payment jar. Nifty!
Of course, running a bathhouse is more complicated than just showing people where the bath is at. There are a number of tasks to be done in order to keep the place running while guests are present. The hot water in the bath as well as the heater that dries your towels are both powered by a boiler. In order to keep the boiler running you have to chop wood and put the logs into the fire. Now thankfully the bathhouse is intertwined with a magic tree with regenerating roots, so you can do all your chopping right next to the boiler and with an instantly renewable, endless source of wood! Dirty towels left behind by customers need to be both washed and dried before they are usable again, and transferring the clean towels to the main lobby takes time as it is a bit of a walk. So at any given time in the bathhouse you are juggling a whole list of tasks:
- Escorting guests to the bath
- Chopping wood
- Loading the boiler
- Washing towels
- Drying towels
- Transferring clean towels to the lobby
- Transferring dirty towels to the wash basin
- Attending to customers need while they are in the bath
The constant cycle of keeping all of these plates spinning gives you plenty to do when the bathhouse is open. It might seem stressful, but at least the way everything is presented in the demo, the whole process is relatively low stakes. Spirits waiting in line for a long time don’t get mad or cause issues – the line endlessly regenerates so it’s not like you have specific customers with limited timeframes to be served. If you do mess up and make a spirit mad, it just means they’ll pay you a bit less, but nothing more harmful than that. These low stakes help prevent the game from having a more chaotic vibe you might expect from something like Overcooked; it is perhaps more immediately demanding that just planting and watering crops, but I know good and well that if you’re an avid Stardew enthusiast you probably have a much more stressful routine than this meticulously plotted to maximize the performance of your farm.
The experience of running the bathhouse provides a fun taste of what Spirittea has to offer, but unfortunately the demo cuts off as soon as you close the bathhouse for the first time. This leaves a lot to the imagination. How does socializing with other characters work, and to what degree do the relationships extend? Can you marry your favorite townsfolk? What do you with the money you earn at the bathhouse? Are there other activities in town you can busy yourself doing or does everything center around keeping the bathhouse running? There’s enough to make me curious but at the same time enough to make me a bit worried. A couple of the non-bathhouse aspects of the game feel like they could use some quality of life touches – inventory management is complicated by the fact that your items don’t display a name when you hover over them in the menu, for example. It doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact on the bathhouse but if there are a lot of inventory interactions out in town, I could see it leading to some frustration.
Overall, I’m intrigued by Spirittea. Managing the bathhouse is a fun alternative to the typical farming sim experience and so far what I have seen from the town looks promising in terms of fun townsfolk to meet. I would have liked to see more of what’s possible beyond just the first day of running the bathhouse, and I am hoping for some small fixes to the UI that make it clearer what exactly you are interacting with when you put items into your inventory. What’s there is a good base – I’ll be curious to see if the full version of Spirittea can build on that base to make a satisfying variation on this popular genre. If you’re interested in Spirittea yourself, you can read more about it on Steam as well as adding it to your wishlist if you’re all-in.
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