Grief, no matter how great or small, is an unfortunate, necessary part of life – defy anyone who would tell you otherwise. Third Spirit Games centers Arietta of Spirits around this fact, and that the only way to move past grief is to face it and deal with it. They share their message with a faithful Zelda-like full of challenge, beauty, and heart, and leave players with a memorable, if brief, experience.
Most people generally have fond memories of summer vacation when they were kids, having two glorious months of freedom to get into all kinds of adventures. For Arietta and her family, summer vacation means time away on the island at grandma’s cottage. Except this year is going to be a little different – it’s the first year visiting grandma’s cottage since the family matriarch passed away, leaving a very obvious gap in everyone’s heart. Despite the pall, Arietta, her mom (grandma’s daughter), and her dad are determined to have another wonderful summer. However, grandma’s passing isn’t the only thing different about this year’s vacation.
The first night there, Arietta’s dreams are troubled by vengeful souls, and she narrowly escapes with the help of Arlo, a spirit who turns out to be more than just a dream. Together they learn more about what plagues the island: soul-sucking Roamers are growing in numbers, feeding on the souls of those departed, and threatening to upset the balance between the spirit realm and reality. Though only 13, Arietta accepts the heavy burden laid out upon her, joining Arlo and becoming a Bound to battle the Roamers and the malcontent they represent.
Arietta of Spirits invites us into an interesting, wondrous world that lightly blends fantasy with modern reality. The titular hero is suitably shocked by spirits and Roamers, though barely bats an eyelash at fighting dog-sized wasps mere moments after exiting her family’s SUV. It’s reminiscent of the world created in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, of a world of spirits existing parallel to our own that people can coexist with should they believe to. The whole story and its setting are grounded enough to strike those core emotional moments of loss, while allowing enough whimsy in between for breaks from the catharsis throughout the lightly dramatic tale. You’ll feel lured in by those more whimsical moments until the curtain drops, and you genuinely fret for Arietta’s well-being. What’s perhaps most impressive about the game is that it’s honest in recognizing the stress and strain that the 13-year-old hero is expected to take on. She should never have been expected to deal with these traumatic, life-threatening events, but she is anyways.
At its core, Arietta of Spirits displays its Zelda-inspired gameplay with pride and aplomb. The telltale hearts measure hit points, and you spend much of the game maneuvering about the island via rolling and swinging your sword at oncoming foes. Thankfully, the Third Spirit team has built upon this familiar foundation, making certain elements their own. After defeating your first Roamer boss you earn a Roamer core, which is crucial for expanding Arietta’s health. You collect gems dropped by Roamers, much like experience, until you fill the core and unlock another heart. As you progress, Arlo also learns to channel his power into a protective spell that has a few additional applications beyond shielding you from harm. Finally, our young hero doesn’t quite have the stamina to roll infinitely, and she will tire and slow if you try to barrel your way through the winding maps of the island.
The game otherwise offers fare similar to its inspiration. You roam about battling a variety of enemies with your spirit-infused sword. From the run-of-the-mill Roamers to the increasingly challenging bosses, you’ll need to employ a variety of strategies to overcome your foes. Even on Easy, a few too many slipups can see Arietta’s adventure end. There are quirky and interesting characters to connect with all over the island. Every step of the way exposes more about each of them and their link to the history of the island’s spirits. Then there are the engaging pair of sidequests for you to pursue, encouraging thorough exploration of the island. Finally, the game would feel incomplete without various dungeons to explore, complete with secret tunnels to uncover behind hidden walls. The wending paths generally offer the illusion of choice in your directions, but ultimately lead to the same places. Plus, the further you progress, the more shortcuts you uncover, making it easier for Arietta to navigate with each day of her quest. While the puzzles aren’t nearly as elaborate as they could be, the exploration of the island’s deepest recesses still offers enough thrill to egg you along.
Thankfully, there are minimal issues that hold the game back. But Arietta of Spirits‘ controls do tend to trip up an otherwise smooth experience when in combat. The controls are largely responsive whether on a keyboard or with (the better option) a gamepad as you explore the beautifully detailed landscape, and Arietta moves fairly free in eight directions. So, when in battle, it feels frustrating that you can only attack in the four cardinal ones. Because of this, you often whiff on hitting an enemy next to you, leaving you vulnerable to counterstrikes. With a game where pattern recognition and response time are vital to survival, this small blight becomes trying at times, leading to a few too many accidental deaths (especially when you play on extreme difficulty with one-hit deaths). Thankfully, it likely won’t disrupt the overall joy you’ll experience throughout this humble, delightful adventure, because wandering the winding paths of the forests and caverns dotting the island is a treat for the eye.
Third Spirit has crafted a rich, pixelated world that evokes your sense of wonder. The lush, vibrant greens of the forests are dotted with pops of color from the various flora and fauna, friend and foe alike. The caves are eerie and dark, lit by bioluminescence and Arlo’s spiritual light source. Even the few domiciles from grandma’s cabin to the witch’s hut boast the coziest of aesthetics and are full of personality. From the natural to the spirit world, the expertly crafted assets portray a world parallel to our own, but with enough whimsy to capture your attention.
The unique designs of the characters and monsters you encounter further embellish the game’s design. Each person you speak with has expressive portraits, invigorating each interaction and bringing their stories to life. Even without the portraits, there are plenty of little unique sprite animations that make each person seem more alive than your average pixel. Boss battles offer a chance for the team to truly flex their monster design. They portray wonderfully created beasts, great and small, that strike and dodge with fluid, graceful movements full of threat – so don’t let yourself be lulled!
Arietta of Spirit‘s soundtrack captures its summer adventure vibe perfectly. Though the digital instrumentation lacks the breadth and impact of a full orchestra, it’s a suitable companion to the retro-inspired visuals. Samuli Siimestö pulls forth a dynamic soundtrack that sets the stage as plucky and fun, ideal for the seemingly picturesque summer ahead. However, the true tone is established by the somber notes of the “Main Theme” playing on the menu, suitably reverent towards the lost spirits central to the game’s story. So, while your exploration begins with lighter fare, many of the tracks become suitably mysterious and ominous, keeping you on your toes with each step into the island’s depths. And a decent battle theme does the job of heightening the tension, especially during Arietta’s final confrontation. Coupled with a lush library of sounds to make the island thrive with birdsong and gentle breezes; add vim and vigor to each attack in battle; and increase the drama of the game’s big set-piece scenes, the audio engineering is well-crafted from moment to moment throughout.
In the end, long-time fans of The Legend of Zelda franchise will feel right at home adventuring with Arietta, as the game does an excellent job of taking a classic framework and telling a lovely little tale with it. In an age of open-world epics racking up the hours in playtime, the short-lived journey of Arietta is a nice side story to pursue that won’t tax you. Even with the eye-catching design work and the broad soundtrack, which are both more than enough to draw players into the wondrous world, were Arietta of Spirits any longer in its storytelling, it would have worn its welcome. Ultimately, this compact, contained adventure does its job. In the end, the right, satisfying, speculative questions come to mind, not from plot holes, but by leaving players wanting to see more of this world so like our own, yet different. While it feels like Third Spirit Games may have played it a little safe with their first foray into the industry, Arietta of Spirits has put the developer on solid ground. We can only hope that there are more untold tales to share of the Bound, their Spirit Guides, and of the souls they save along the way.