When a game makes a splash in the community, whether big or small, any other release similar to it that comes after is bound to be compared to the original. Hell, just look how often people refer to difficult games as “The Dark Souls of [insert genre here].” It’s practically a meme at this point.
It happens often with games that feel similar to a big release, or borrow a few ideas from one. It’s a bit less avoidable a comparison, though, when a game comes out that feels like a straight-up homage to the original.
The visual novel VA-11 Hall-A (colloquially known as Valhalla, and how I shall refer to it from here on out) offered up a very distinct experience in the genre. An interesting world with a number of problems that mostly becomes background noise, instead bringing the focus to the day-to-day conversations of the people living in it. Putting you in the shoes of a bartender, the game was all about hearing out your patrons and following their stories, mundane as they may be.
Valhalla has a small but dedicated following, and recently seems to have become greatly influential on a number of other indie visual novels. With the like of The Red Strings Club, the upcoming Necrobarista, and even Valhalla‘s forthcoming sequel N1RV Ann-A, I think we’re slowly witnessing a subgenre of visual novel being born – one all about a chill atmosphere and a character focus.
The game we’re looking at today follows along these same lines. So much so that, when we first heard of it, half of the Gamer Escape review staff chimed in, “That sounds almost exactly like Valhalla.” The question is, though, does it do enough to differentiate itself from its obvious source of inspiration?
Developed and published by Toge Productions, Coffee Talk is set for release on January 29th, 2020, on PC and Switch, with PS4 and XB1 versions coming on the 30th. The PC version was played for this review.
Coffee & Cigarettes
Coffee Talk takes place in modern day Seattle, although in an alternate universe – one where all manner of fantasy races live alongside humans. You play as the owner and barista of a cafe known as (of course) Coffee Talk, which only opens in the late evenings.
The game takes you through about two weeks time running the shop, during which you meet a number of customers who come in to order a cup of caffeine and discuss their lives (and occasionally the problems therein). However, you are mostly a passive player in their stories – aside from serving up drinks, most of the time playing is spent listening in on conversation, only occasionally butting in to give advice.
The story here scratches the surface of some surprisingly heavy topics. There’s an interspecies couple dealing with the pressures of families who don’t approve of their relationship. An orc who works as a game developer, slowly burning out due to how intensely her job is overworking her. An alien being pursued by an immigration enforcement agency known as “FIRE.” We see newspaper headlines between each day about immigrants flooding in from the Atlantic ocean and medication for calming werewolves possibly being poisonous.
Toge Productions’ story here obviously draws from some real life analogues, but doesn’t really explore any topic below the surface level…a decision that makes sense in the game’s context. You’re not playing as a miracle problem solver; you’re just a barista. Much like in Valhalla, reality and the struggles of the characters’ everyday lives mostly serve as color for their personalities and jumping-off points for character interactions, rather than driving points of the plot.
And, truly, it’s the characters that are the shining star of the show here. The cast is relatively tight, and every character receives a surprising amount of development throughout the scant five-to-six hour runtime of Coffee Talk. Their interactions have a lot of heart, too. We see budding friendships, building relationships, changing viewpoints, and occasional arguments. Reaching the various good endings available in the plot led to some legitimately heartwarming moments.
The only character that really suffers is, surprisingly, the barista. The character you play as acts, as I’ve mentioned, as mostly a passive earpiece to their customer’s problems. They don’t receive any real characterization throughout most of the story, which I feel is a major missed opportunity.
I have to compare the game to Valhalla again here. In that game, your player character, Jill, has her own history to deal with as well. The story was as much her customers hearing her out as it was her listening to the interactions between customers, and her personality was just as stand-out as the rest of the cast. In Coffee Talk, the barista just kind of…exists.
The Barista Life
Now, you wouldn’t have any customers if you weren’t serving damn fine cups of coffee. A key part of Coffee Talk is crafting and serving customer orders and, occasionally, figuring out what a customer really needs.
During conversation, customers will occasionally turn to you to place an order, prompting your ingredient rack to pop up and prompting you to mix up the drink. Every drink has three ingredients and, depending on what you put in and the order you do so, you’ll wind up with either a generic or specialty drink.
The drink making here is much more flexible than in Valhalla (which I really wish I didn’t have to keep comparing this game to, but it’s so apropos). Any three ingredients will make a drink, with customers occasionally ordering “something warm and bitter” or “something with just a little bit of ginger” rather than naming off specialty drinks.
Of course, you occasionally get those that do want something more specific…and you’re the one who has to figure out how to make it. You do get a recipe book, but it’s mostly empty, only filling out as you happen to stumble on a recipe. Some are simple to figure out if you’re somewhat versed in coffee (figuring out a cappuccino is simple), while others led me to Google to figure out what the heck they were. Luckily most every drink in the game is something that exists in real life, so pulling up a real recipe helped figure out the in-game recipe. Seriously, I’d never hear of “Teh Tarik” before, but it’s a real thing and I was able figure out the recipe by looking up the real thing.
It’s easy enough to get to the end of the game with a few mishaps and wrong drinks served here and there, but if you want to see the true ending, prepare for some detail hunting and a bit of a grind. The base story does not give you every recipe you can brew and, in order to get to the real ending, you have to craft some *very specific* drinks at *very specific* times.
Coffee Talk does offer up an “endless” mode outside of the main story where you can experiment with your ingredients to discover new drinks. In my pursuit of the finale, I spent nearly an hour trying every permutation of every ingredient in order to reveal every recipe, something that nearly killed my enjoyment of the game. Doing so was how I managed to reveal the one recipe that unlocked the final revelations of the story…and I can’t say I’m really sure it was worth it.
For a game that markets itself as cozy and restful, I didn’t expect to have to grind recipes to see the ending. I guess some people find grinding relaxing, but I find it an exercise in frustration.
Coffee House Art
If there’s one thing that Coffee Talk can absolutely stand up alongside its contemporaries with, it’s its visuals. The game is filled with beautiful and detailed pixel art, truly bringing life to the environment and the characters within it. The animations are also excellent, often subtle, but often react to the dialogue spectacularly.
The soundtrack is a perfect fit for the game as well. Again taking a cue from similar titles, the tracks here are mostly laid-back and somewhat jazzy – the kind of thing I can definitely see being played in a real coffee shop (if in somewhat of a stereotypical way).
Beneath the Shadow
As is likely clear at this point, Coffee Talk is such a similar game to Valhalla that it’s impossible not to compare them…and, unfortunately, I think that’s a mark against this game.
If Coffee Talk was standing on its own in a void, I would call this game a must play, no questions asked. The need to grind out recipes to figure out how to unlock the full story is frustrating, a stain on everything else in the package, but by the time I got to this point I had already fallen in love with the characters and aesthetic.
The problem is, everything here has been done before, and better. It does feel like Toge Productions wanted to craft a homage to Valhalla, but doing so puts them right up against a cult classic. I truly think that they should have done more to differentiate themselves, to stand out more in this burgeoning genre.
I do believe that Coffee Talk is a game worth playing, but it doesn’t quite live up to the shadow cast over it.
Review copy provided by Toge Productions for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.