PC, Switch, PS4, Xbone
There certainly isn’t a shortage of cute, pixelly Zelda-likes at the moment. But the reason Arietta Of Spirits stood out to me is because it’s relatively short. That might sound odd, but actually it’s something I think is really important: capturing that sort of game, but doing it in a tight, controlled space. I dearly wish more RPG-leaning games had the confidence to run for five or so hours, and let that be the complete experience.
Although I think I’d prefer it if Arietta – a decent, busy little game – didn’t fill out a significant chunk of its time with the slowest, most infuriating text I’ve seen in forever.
There is nothing that is outstanding or original about Arietta. There also doesn’t need to be. This by-the-numbers Zelda-me-do finds its way by delivering the formula without any surprises, instead focusing on competence and succinctness.
You play as the titular child, on her annual holiday with her parents on a small island, staying in a hut that until recently belonged to her grandmother. Granny died during the last year, making this the family’s first return to the island since, and as such a bittersweet trip, especially for her grieving mother. However, it’s not long before Arietta bumps into her land grandmother, stood by the docks, explaining that there’s some unfinished business. She’s lost a silver ring, and really wants it found – except that it appears to be guarded by some malevolent forces from another realm.
Arietta is soon paired up with Arco, a spirit-weasel (I think, maybe) who forms a connection with her, affording her the title of “Bound”. It means she can interact with the spirit world, and imbues a wooden sword (she has it to fend off frighteningly large wasps) with blue glowy powers. It means she can wallop the blobby creations of this other realm, in what becomes an island-wide quest to free certain people from their purgatory.
Along the way there are a series of… fair boss fights! I know, clamber back onto your chair. There are a bunch of sidequests to gather hidden collectibles, and you can increase your overall health and spirit orbs as you progress, but beyond that this is very minimal. It’s about going through the motions, but in the most positive reading of that phrase. They’re good motions, they’re fun to go through.
However, there’s also the talking. Oh God, the talking.
It definitely wasn’t a good sign that I was yelling, “OH COME ON!!!” at the screen during its achingly slow lumps of exposition. In the worst JRPG way, it has conversations that take place in plodding text, in windows that appear, then pointlessly disappear before reappearing so the same character can say some more. And then when they finally do, it might well just be some ellipses. And then I scream at the screen.
Honestly, I know this is a perennial issue of JRPGs and their ilk, but I’ve never found it more egregious than here. Characters speak in seven-word sentences, then the UI drops away, then nothing happens, then it pops back up and the same bloody person says another seven-word sentence. It’s infuriating, so glacially delivered, and unfortunately the writing you eventually read is also the weakest part of the game.
The issue is, almost everything is expository. The relationship between Arietta and Arco is just assumed, rather than shown, and as such is never earned. Any moments of communication that are more than dumps of explanatory text are rendered absolutely inert by the agonising pace, emotions muted by tortuously arriving ellipses. By the game’s attempt at an emotional punch at the end, it falls completely flat, with nothing about it being deserved.
Which is a bit of a shame. Not least when the art here is just so lovely, and the core idea – a five-hour (or even two, if you just belted through it knowing what you were doing) Zelda – such a good one. I enjoyed methodically rolypolying through the island’s locations, bopping enemies with learned rhythms, and finding all the hidden extras. I got the lot by the time I was done, which demonstrates my fondness for it, despite its enraging dialogue.
It’s so daft that the few reviews this has had all say, “If only it were longer.” No! That’s what they got the most right here! We’ve already got Zeldas, loads of them, coming out our ears. Bite-size versions of longer games are always enormously welcome. This one comes close to getting it right, and I’m really pleased it tried.