Necrobarista – Review
13 Aug, 2020
In Necrobarista, we visit a coffee shop for both the living and the dead. How many espresso shots has it got in it? Here’s what we think.
You’re dead. As if that shock isn’t enough, you also learn that you have only 24 hours to stick around on the mortal plane before having to pass on to whatever’s beyond. What do you do with these precious hours? This is the question Necrobarista asks you, and it’s serving up your coffee order while at it.
Necrobarista invites you to The Terminal, a mysterious coffee shop in Melbourne that serves both the living and the dead. There’s a slate full of rules outside the door, but the gist is that you can’t ask who’s alive and who’s dead, and the dead only have 24 hours to stay before they move on.
Within the first chapter of the game, you’re introduced to a colourful cast of main characters: Kishan, a newly-departed man who wanders into the Terminal; Maddy, the maverick new owner of The Terminal; her chill mentor Chay; and the excitable prodigy Ashley, who hangs out at the cafe and builds killer robots for fun.
Oh, and yeah, there’s also the 19th century Australian outlaw and bushranger Ned Kelly. His head’s a garbage bin, for some reason.
Necrobarista is unabashedly a visual novel at heart. The bulk of your experience consists of advancing text and reading the charming, bittersweet story as it plays out. Developer Route 59 aims higher than your usual visual novel, though.
The game draws inspiration not only from anime for its visual style, but also for its presentation. Making use of unconventional camera angles and keeping your eyes busy with the visuals is just part of how Necrobarista holds your attention.
The game is written with style and sarcasm, wasting few words and using its visuals to complement its words. From Ashley’s shit-eating grin to Maddy’s withering looks, the game gives equal weightage to both the ‘visual’ and the ‘novel’ bits of its chosen genre.
Divided in two acts, Necrobarista’s story is doggedly linear and refuses to give you any conversation choice or story routes. This may be either a pro or a con to you, but it could also be both at different times.
For the first half of the game, I found myself wishing for more control—some agency to do things. During this act, characters get introduced, exposition is served (without being too distracting), concepts are explained, and as you try to make sense of it all, it feels as if the game is lacking an emotional anchor.
This changes dramatically in the second half. By then, you’ve settled into the game’s structure, grown familiar with the supernatural environs of the Terminal, and most importantly, the characters have grown endearing. As the story builds its emotional crescendo, it manages to tie together its characters and concepts in firm knots.
The result is a powerful tale about death, life, relationships, and human nature. It’s a story with characters who want—both for themselves and for others—who care and want to be cared, who are doing their best to give and take to survive in a world stacked against them. It’s a story I’m glad I got to experience.
If Necrobarista didn’t have writing that could knock the ball off the planet, it would certainly not have earned its score. Its starkly-lit visuals don’t inspire the same kind of charm that its writing does. The darks are too dark, the highlights are too bright, and blurry textures are plastered ill-fittingly across the coffee-drenched environment.
When the game lets you explore the coffee shop between chapters, you might marvel at wider scenes, but if you walk up close to anything, you’re in for a rough-looking, cardboard world.
Thankfully, the game’s music was engaging enough to keep me engrossed in the game’s atmosphere. It’s emotionally charged, going from calm to exciting to curious to jumpy. Like the game itself, it spans all moods, even if its default mode is a caffeinated melancholy.
Also worth mentioning are the game’s short stories, which are accessed in a creative way.
During chapters, certain words of dialogue are highlighted in yellow, inviting you to click on them and learn more about how that character sees the meaning of that particular word. Often, the snippet is witty or funny, making the highlight worth it, but this system also discourages you from speeding through text and it’s a great way to keep your attention without necessarily forcing you to slow down.
At the end of a chapter, all the highlights you clicked on are presented in a pool, out of which you have to select seven to proceed. Once you make your picks, the keywords are converted into tokens: Maddy, Ashley, Chay, Death, The Terminal, Lore, Guests, and so on. You can use three different tokens to unlock the each of the stories strewn around the Terminal in the first-person exploration sections.
It’s a fun system, if only because I enjoyed picking words I thought were impactful; but the game also encourages multiple runs this way. You’ll have to play chapters several times to collect the tokens you need to unlock all of the short stories. I unlocked perhaps half of them in a single playthrough, and I enjoyed all of the ones I read.
Necrobarista as a game embodies many of the qualities you find in the game’s characters. It’s brash, it’s snappy and clever, it’s also more than a little sly, but it’s got an unbreakable emotional core that you can’t forget. If this is the future of visual novels, then pour me another one.
Developer: Route 59
Country of Origin: Australia
Publisher: Route 59, Coconut Island Games, Playism
Release Date: 17th July 2020 (Apple Arcade), 22nd July 2020 (PC), TBA 2021 (PS4, Switch)
This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the developer. The PC version of the game was played for this review of Necrobarista.
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WHAT DID Into Indie Games THINK?
FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS
Necrobarista as a game embodies many of the qualities you find in the game’s characters. It’s brash, it’s snappy and clever, it’s also more than a little sly, but it’s got an unbreakable emotional core that you can’t forget.