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Game Review: Onsen Master

Hot water, herbs, and clean floors are simple ingredients that attract crowds to an onsen, or a hot spring. Lines can form to get customers to soak their aching bodies. But just having those ingredients will not make a hot spring run smoothly. It will take attention, timing, and planning to get the customers in and out as fast as possible. However, that just covers the normal customers. What happens when yokai and a few unruly guests need a bath? It will take a master to keep the customers happy in Onsen Master.

Developed by Waking Oni Games and published by Whitethorn Games, Onsen Master is an arcade-style bathhouse management sim, set in a fantasy version of feudal Japan. Players step into the role of a bathhouse attendant that has to handle customers, scrub tubs and ensure customer satisfaction, even if some of those customers are supernaturally stubborn. The main plot follows Mu, a young apprentice to an onsen master that has gone away. But Mu can’t worry about the master when waves of customers have arrived at the onsen looking for a good soak. The demands for onsen visits have been rising due to a strange mystery causing more restless activity in the village. Even demons have begun to show up for a bath. Luckily, a friendly yokai named Hitotsume arrives to lend a hand to Mu. The pair set off on an adventure to run the onsens around the village and find the source of all these bathing problems.

Onsen Master‘s gameplay has players juggling the management customers, bathtubs, and a few obstacles that appear. The goal of Onsen is to score enough customer satisfaction points before the end of a game limit, either in the form of a timer or a customer counter. At the start of a round, customers arrive at the onsen with the type of herb they wish to be soaked in. Each herb has to be fetched and ground down before dropping it into the hot hub. However, customers also need to be fetched also and brought to the hot tub. The player can grab a customer and gently lead them, or lift them up over their head and haul them to their destination. The player can also grab two customers to multitask but sadly can’t power lift them together. Getting a customer into a hot tub earns a small number of points, and getting them the right herb and letting them completely rest in the water will net a bigger point reward. However, customers also will not tolerate a long wait time or dirty floors. Customers that get ignored or have a bad bathing experience will quickly leave, delaying the opportunity to earn points.

Each hot tub can handle four customer baths before the tub becomes too dirty to use. The player has to hop into the tub to start scrubbing. On certain later levels, there is a special protection charm that needs to be placed on the hot tubs for customers that request it. The charm can be preemptively set and stacked up on the tub. Every time a customer leaves a hot tub, a small mess of water spills out that makes it harder to walk around. This can be mopped up to make customers happy, but later levels don’t focus on this mechanic too much and can just be ignored to focus on quickly getting the customers into the tub.

Every level has chaotic hazards to throw a few complications in the way. From rowdy partygoers, smelly wanders, sneaky fox spirits, and frustrated skeletons, there will be unwanted guests getting in the way. It takes some timing and luck to catch these rude intruders that can easily delay customers from enjoying their baths. Most of these types of guests will drop into a random hot tub, disturbing whatever customer was sitting there.

Story mode follows the Mu and Hitotsume adventure to six different onsens. This mode can be played in solo or co-op, with each player controlling Mu or Hitotsume. Each level has usually three sections that must be cleared in order to move to the next area. At the end of every level, there is a boss battle where Mu and Hitotsume have to take care of an irritated yokai that sulks around the level while trying to tend to other customers trying to get their own bath time in. Some bosses need to be tricked into a hot hub while other bosses need multiple items for their bath.

There is also an arcade mode that lets players try out the levels freely and play them in solo, co-operate, or competitive mode. The gameplay changes slightly by selecting either to have the game’s challenge to race against a time limit, a stock count of bad customer service, or an endless mode. These levels mix up different customer types and hazards to make it stand out from story mode a bit.

While the premise of Onsen Master is creative and jovial, there needs to be more polish on some of the game mechanics. The floaty physics of customers and items can cause them to not go to the right places when dropped, causing minor delays that add up while racing against the timer. This is a major headache in the fifth level Okudorkoru, where there are platforms involved and sometimes the characters don’t clear the ledge enough. The wet floor mechanic only is an issue in tightly spaced levels and doesn’t play a role in later levels that have big spaces to avoid, plus I found it easy to just hop over them half the time. I also feel like there is too much random chance with the special intruders which makes it frustrating to manage the hot tubs. It remotes a small degree of control from the player, with no real way to avoid these random hazards besides hoping they don’t make too much of a mess with previously occupied hot tubs. It feels like there needs to be a counter mechanic that gives the ability to rearrange customers or block these hazards.

Onsen Master has a few rough edges that hold back the fun mechanics from shining, but there is potential for many gamers to enjoy their time with the game. It’s a short title that takes 2 hours to play thru the story mode, but the ambitious boss battles and varied levels are fun. The character designs are charming and the musical score perfectly captures the fast pace mood. At the time of this review, Onsen Master works best for families to play together, with a few game-breaking issues being overlooked with two players balancing out the management. Onsen Master was released on September 4 and is now available for PC, Xbox One/X/S, and Nintendo Switch. 

*Review copy provided by the publisher.

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