There’s something wonderfully, refreshingly small about Arietta of Spirits. It’s a pleasant surprise, too: with its clear Legend of Zelda inspiration, vibrant pixel-art depiction of a beautiful world, and premise of venturing between the real world and that of the spirits, it’s easy to assume Arietta would be some sort of grand, globetrotting adventure across a fantasy world, in an effort to save the day from some great, terrifying evil. Instead, it’s something far more intimate and personal.
Arietta of Spirits opens with a family trip to an old cabin on a secluded little island. It’s an annual tradition for Arietta and her family, but this year, things are a bit different: this year is the first time her grandmother isn’t there with them. And, sure, sticking with old family traditions is a good way of keeping her memory alive, but it also puts a bleak air over what would normally be a much happier holiday.
But that’s not the only thing that’s different about this particular trip. An unexpected encounter with a cheerful spirit called Arco sees Arietta granted the power to see and interact with the Spirit Realm, and with it, the opportunity to uncover this island’s mysteries and help trapped, lost souls move safely into the afterlife. Like I said, it’s a setup that you might expect to turn into some grandiose adventure, but Arietta of Spirits never does—and that’s to its credit. Instead, its focus is on telling a much more personal story about life, loss, and holding onto what’s important.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its share of playful twists and dramatic turns. The spirits you meet and help along the way are few, but their rich personalities and complicated histories shine through even in your brief interactions with them, as their seemingly disparate stories come together to paint a tragic picture of the island’s past. And while the nature of Arietta’s tale comes with a pervasive air of solemnity, it’s not without its lighter moments, either—the kind that inevitably arise when you’re dealing with people like an eccentric herbalist who gives off a decidedly witchy impression and a curmudgeonly old hermit carpenter.
With that sort of cast, it’s an adventure that’s overflowing with a charm that’s only enhanced by the game’s vibrant, expressive pixel art. But, at its core, Arieta of Spirits is a story about coping with loss, and learning to treasure what’s most important to you. It’s a poignant journey, and one that’s made all the more impactful for its brevity: there’s no filler or fluff to compromise the story’s pacing, no overplaying hands that are at their most meaningful when they’re short and sharp. In an industry obsessed with the idea that more is always better, that’s a blessing.
It’s also a nifty example of how the Zelda-like format can play out in a shorter form. All told, a typical playthrough will run you just four or five hours, give or take, but Arietta still manages to fit a meaningful sense of progression into that time. Combat is a simple matter of sword swings, dodge rolls, and an energy-consuming shield, but it manages to keep itself interesting with the frequent introduction of new enemies sporting new attacks that build on what came before: foes that simply bum-rush you soon give way to those that do the same but also leave a trail of deadly ooze behind them, before projectiles, teleports, and counterattacks get thrown into the mix, and so on. There’s nothing here you won’t have seen before, especially if you play a lot of this style of 2D action adventure, but the way Arietta of Spirits manages to gradually yet constantly build up complexity despite its short running time is impressive.
It even manages to fit in a couple of small but worthwhile side-quests that see you searching for hidden spirits and tracking down rare objects based on the slightly cryptic descriptions of a ghostly merchant who’s never actually seen them. A light touch of character progression comes in the form of vessels that you can fill with energy from defeated foes to gain extra hit points—nothing groundbreaking, but enough to add a bit of tangible growth to the adventure.
Where it falls short, though, is the sense of exploration—something many would say is the foundation of the genre, even more so than combat. Maps in Arietta tend to be straightfoward, with few opportunities to go off the beaten path and even fewer secrets to find. There’s little in the way of puzzles to solve, and despite the hint of non-linear paths that open up as you collect new tools, that never really amounts to anything more than a handful of blocked routes that open with story progression. There are no hidden heart containers to find, no weapon upgrades to discover.
I can appreciate that the development team wasn’t necessarily trying to create a “Zelda clone” as such, and the more linear style does serve the story well. But at the same time, Arietta of Spirits does a great job of condensing that 2D action-adventure combat to its barest essentials and creating something compelling out of it, so it’s a little disappointing to see the hint of exploration getting the same treatment, but that never really getting there.
But even if it doesn’t always hit that mark, Arietta of Spirits still shows how well a short-form Zelda-like game can work, and with so many games competing for time and attention, that’s an exciting prospect that I’d love to see explored further. More importantly, this is a game that has a poignant story to tell about coping with loss and treasuring what’s dear to you—the kind of intimate tale that benefits from a less-is-more approach, and in daring to go small in a genre you’d normally associate with grand, world-saving adventures, Arietta of Spirits carves a memorable, heartfelt journey.
Arietta of Spirits
Developer: Third Spirit Games
Publisher: Red Art Games
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.