An onsen is a place for relaxation and healing, where people go to unwind – but you won’t be the one doing the relaxing in Onsen Master. This madcap customer management sim sees you take the role of an apprentice named Mu as he endeavours to keep his customers happy in the absence of his sensei, mixing ingredients, placing charms, guiding customers, and dealing with tricky yokai.
I’ve been dreaming of an Onsen-themed game since finding myself hypnotised and enchanted by the mock game sections in Wednesday Campanella’s Diablo music video. While Onsen Master isn’t quite the old-school RPG or side-scrolling beat-em-up from said music video, it certainly captures the same magic, keeping me entirely invested in its intricate little world throughout.
The first thing to strike you is the wonderfully cohesive aesthetic and style presented throughout. The music is perfect, boasting traditional vibes that perfectly encapsulate the environment, and the overworld map where you select levels is both charming and elegant, paying homage to gorgeous Japanese ukiyo-e artwork.
This vivid sense of style is carried throughout, with adorable character art in the visual novel style cutscenes, and a selection of beautifully crafted onsens to manage. Though certain sprites look a little rough around the edges in docked mode, the presentation of the game is undeniably well thought-out, and there’s a palpable sense of love in its execution, from the small details of the bathhouses, to the exploration of folklore and legends.
Onsen Master’s story is light and cute, focusing on Mu and his new-found-friend, a one-eyed yokai called Hitotsume, who Mu found hiding in the bathhouse. Hitotsume explains that something’s going on with the yokai, suggesting that they seem a bit odd, and may be sick. In response, Mu and Hitotsume agree to set out on a journey, visiting every Onsen on the island and healing the ailing yokai, as Mu simultaneously searches for his missing sensei.
Mu is an adorable little cinnamon roll, always setting out to do his best, and I truly enjoyed Hitotsume’s company and the exploration of the conflict between the yokai and humans. As mentioned above, the character art for the story sections is extremely charming, oozing personality despite each character only having a few expressions.
The tale of Onsen Master is simple but well-written, successfully setting the scene for the gameplay without overstaying its welcome. If you’re not interested in the story, you can skip it (by pressing the + button on the Switch), but it’s short and very endearing, so I recommend experiencing the story mode and sitting through the dialogue on your first playthrough, at least.
While the gameplay is relatively simple and bears many similarities to Overcooked, Onsen Master’s style and worldbuilding truly make it stand out, along with a great variety of unique challenges that keep things fresh. The mechanics take a hot minute to get used to, with multiple ingredients, messes, and customers to handle.
You need to stay alert, get familiar with your onsen layout, and get into the rhythm of the controls ASAP, as there’s not much time for you to acclimatise. When you do get used to it, the next level is bound to keep you on your toes by introducing a new mechanic to wrap your head around.
There are three levels to each location, with each level boasting its own caveats to overcome, from ‘festive’ customers that hop straight into a bath and demand a specific ingredient, to a bunch of skeletons that enjoy yeeting you around the onsen if you don’t serve them in time.
I particularly enjoyed (and found myself eternally frustrated with) the kitsune that has a penchant for possessing you until you quell it with a bath of the right type. The last level of each location always boasts a boss battle, and these are easily the highlight of the game.
The experience can certainly get tricky at times, especially for a lowly floor-scrubber like me, but it’s possible to three-star all levels on any difficulty with a bit of practice. Plus, there’s co-op mode if you need an extra helping hand, in which you can bring a friend in as an assistant to ensure the smooth running of your onsen. This certainly takes the edge off, making the game much more manageable without sacrificing any of that chaotic, cooperative fun.
Plus, upon completing specific story missions for the first time, you unlock specific models in the arcade mode, which is a nice touch. There’s also a PVP mode, but that’s not really my jam, so I didn’t test it out much personally, though what I played of it was certainly fun.
As much as I’m willing to sing Onsen Master’s praises all day, it isn’t without its shortcomings. Unfortunately, it faces a few collision issues throughout, and it can feel a little clunky when aiming for specific ingredients or customers, especially when they’re stood close together.
The amount of times I’ve accidentally grabbed a fistfull of fruit instead of a customer’s hand is frankly embarrassing, and don’t get me started with how many times I’ve slid off surfaces and been unable to get back to them before my lovely bath mixture has disappeared into thin air.
Despite this, I take great joy in hoisting customers and yokai over my head with both hands in order to throw them into the bath, and found the overall control scheme intuitive and easy to grasp. Additionally, the representation of traditional folklore and magical creatures, including tengu, oni, and more, is treated with a tangible sense of respect to both the culture and source material. It perfectly captures the essence of the mythical onsens of legend, and I’m totally here for it.
Anyone, whether young, old, boy, girl, angel, or demon can ascend to heaven by visiting the bathhouse, and Onsen Master makes it your job to get them there. Regardless of some small hiccups, this game is an enchanting and suitably frustrating experience, and I can see myself visiting this virtual onsen, both alone and with friends, for many years to come.
Onsen Master is an enchanting, mystical experience, with a gorgeous aesthetic and plenty of madcap fun to be had. Though there are some slight fumbles with controls and collision, it offers heaps of fun challenges, along with co-op and PVP modes to keep the gameplay fresh. Visiting the bathhouse has never been so much fun!