A Short, Sweet Cuppa

HIGH Brilliant writing and characterization.

LOW What little gameplay it has tends to get in the way.

WTF “You’re not a crab, you’re a bin chicken!”

These days, it’s an unusual and pleasant surprise to see a game actually end. The landscape of the last few years has been dominated by titles competing to consume a player’s whole existence — content roadmaps, limited-time events, and other ‘service’ qualities turn games into habits, pushing closure behind an ever-distant horizon of constant engagement.

Route 59’s visual novel Necrobarista is all about ends. Our ends, more specifically, and what comes after them is a brief stop for a cuppa at the Terminal — an attractive little coffee shop located in a dingy corner of Melbourne, Australia.

The Terminal is also a stopover point (of sorts) for the newly-deceased, a place to get their bearings, have an espresso, and spend their last twenty-four hours. After that, they move on to whatever comes next. These are the rules in Necrobarista‘s oddball approximation of the immediate afterlife, but Maddy, current owner of the cafe, isn’t so much for rules.

As proprietor of the Terminal and the titular Necrobarista, her job is to ease the newly-passed into their understandably confusing status quo. The latest through the door is Kishan, who appears at the story’s outset.

I’ll refrain from disclosing much about the plot as it would spoil a fundamentally linear game, but as a narrative-centered title, Necrobarista is overflowing with character and style. The writing is witty and disarming, and softens the blow of its heavy themes — loss, attachment, grief, and moving on — with the warm atmosphere and intimacy of one’s favorite hangout.

Maddy’s casual rudeness and sharp wit cement her as the poster girl for the game, but this is an ensemble piece. While Kishan plays a naive character, he’s given more to work with than the norm, endearing himself to the audience as well as his fellow cast members. And after playing, I couldn’t imagine the game without the presence of Chay, Maddy’s mysterious, but welcoming mentor (and the Terminal’s previous owner), Ashley, the overcaffeinated tech-genius child, and even Ned, an interdimensional bureaucrat who seems to be cosplaying Commander Video from the Bit.Trip series. Even side characters who appear only for a single scene are written with verve, giving Necrobarista‘s world a sense of life and detail that extends beyond its limited environs.

It also helps that Necrobarista is a marvel to look at. Rendered in full 3D and sporting a cel-shaded, anime-inspired aesthetic, Necrobarista sets itself apart from most other visual novels with striking art. Interestingly, it’s closer to titles like 428 Shibuya Scramble or Blendo Games’ Thirty Flights of Loving than to more traditional titles like VA-11 Hall A or Coffee Talk. Every frame feels carefully considered and composed to maximize impact and emotion.

Necrobarista‘s visual inspirations are worn on its sleeve, as well. Halfway through one chapter, the game plays an entire anime-style opening to drop a late title card. Words and text flash on the screen like the famous red and black cuts of Bakemonogatari, and short conversations between the cafe’s three helper robots are reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex‘s Tachikoma Days segments.

It’s a good thing that Necrobarista makes as good a first impression as it does, considering it has arguably less gameplay than even many of its peers in the visual novel space.

As mentioned, this is a linear experience. There are no big choices that steer the story, and the only real interaction players get besides clicking or tapping to advance the scene is between chapters, when they can roam the Terminal and unlock text “Memories”. The memories contain short stories or side material that flesh out the characters and world. They’re not essential, but they’re a joy to read and worth seeking out — and if anything, I wish it were easier to do so.

After every major scene, players are confronted with a ‘word cloud’ containing a few terms selected from dialogue in the scene. Clicking on the words converts them into symbols representing topics. For example, a highlighted “Collingwood” would turn into a symbol representing Melbourne. Collect enough of each symbol, and one can use them to unlock memories. While it’s something to do, the need to collect these points in the first place is unnecessary padding, and it only gets in the way of developing a deeper understanding and affection for the characters and setting.

Another minor issue is the relative lack of convenience features. Things like the ability to auto-advance to the next line of dialogue would be much appreciated. Also, and this is a matter of taste, but the quip-heavy style of dialogue (some might describe it as “Whedonesque”) might be grating.

In the end, my gripes are small and Necrobarista is a fascinating experience that I was both sad (and glad!) to see through to its end. It might seem strange to be happy when something great is done with, but many philosophies, from Zen Buddhism to the aboriginal beliefs held in Necrobarista‘s native Australia, acknowledge that transience and eventual passing is a key part of life itself.

Everything moves on, most especially our physical selves. The insistence of staying past one’s time, be it as a spirit living on borrowed time or a game trying to become a part of an overstuffed daily routine, can feel toxic. It’s refreshing to play something that doesn’t want me to stay with it forever, and that’s the kind of passing I raise a nice cuppa to.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Route 59 and published by Playism. It is currently available on PC and iOS. This copy of the game is based on retail build provided by the publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. There is no multiplayer mode. The game was completed.

Parents: At the time of writing, this game is unrated by the ESRB, but if it were rated, it would probably merit an M with descriptors for Drug Reference, Use of Alcohol, Sexual Themes, Strong Language.

Colorblind Modes: The game has no colorblind modes selectable.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is presented with onscreen text (there is no voice acting). Some song lyrics do not have captions. Onscreen text comes with visibility options. There are no audio cues needed for gameplay.

Remappable Controls: This game’s button controls are not remappable.   

Josh Tolentino
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