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Review: Necrobarista

21 Jul 2020

When you think about the places games are created and developed, how soon does Australia come to mind? My wild guess for many is that it wouldn’t quite crack your top five list.

Japan and the United States are usually the first the come to mind. Perhaps France and Canada next, followed up by Germany or another European country. Maybe Poland, what with the notice and fame CD Projekt Red has brought the industry there?

Australia’s gaming industry may not be as large or famous as those other countries, but developers and studios there have put out some titles you’re likely to have heard of. L.A. Noire? Hollow Knight? Hell, I just learned that Bioshock was partially developed in Australia.

The game we’re looking at today comes out of a studio in Melbourne. This title is studio Route 59’s first game, produced with assistance from Film Victoria, a government program that provides help for media production in the Australian state of Victoria.

Developed and published by Route 59, Necrobarista is set for release on July 22nd, 2020, for PC via Steam.

Coffee So Good You’ll Want to Die

Necrobarista takes place entirely in “The Terminal,” a café in Melbourne. The Terminal is known for two things: excellent coffee, and being a stopping place for the newly dead before they “move on.” In this café, the recently deceased have twenty-four hours to continue “living.”

It’s here that the recently deceased Kishan finds himself. During the extra time he is given, he comes to know the staff of The Terminal, learns more about exactly how life and death works in this world, and has to try and come to terms with the fact that he is dead and only has a short time before he must move on.

Unlike most visual novels I’ve read, Necrobarista doesn’t necessarily have a “player character.” Rather, the entire game is told in the third-person. While much of the exploration of the game’s world is done through Kishan, nearly every other character gets time in the spotlight.

Arguably, one could see the main characters of the story as Maddy and Chay, the co-owners and baristas of The Terminal. Much of the core plot revolves around these two and a secret project they’re working on. Hell, the game cold-opens on Maddy activating some kind of machine, and then flashes back and does the whole “how did we get here” kind of thing for the first half of the game.

Thematically, though, I believe the title of “main character” does belong to Kishan. Beneath the humor and mysticism of the game’s world, Necrobarista is a dive into the mental state of a person who is approaching death. How does one come to terms with the fact their life is ending? Do they embrace it or try to fight it?

The game handles these themes well, mostly due to the strength of the cast. Every main character here is surprisingly well-rounded for such a short story (clocking in around five hours to complete). The writing fleshes out each character’s background efficiently; it doesn’t dive fully into any of them, but gives enough tidbits through conversation and interactions to effectively craft strong personalities for each of them.

Plot-wise, the writing deftly weaves between lighthearted moments and more somber ones for the most part. Some chapters would have me laughing out loud constantly, while just a short time later I could find myself in a state of shock. The back half of the game actually managed to wring some tears from me as well.

The reason some moments here shook me so hard is that the game’s characters and setting felt real. This even despite the mystical setting and some over-the-top character traits (such as a young girl named Ashley who builds robots to fight each other and throws knives at people when they surprise her). The way the cast reacts to the story beats just feels…well, human.

That’s not to say the entire experience of Necrobarista is perfect, though. The biggest issue comes in between chapters, where Ashley’s robots come on screen and have weird off-kilter discussions. They’re harmless and occasionally funny at first, but once the plot really gets going and dives into its themes of death, these moments cause some hard whiplash.

There’s also the random introduction of three new characters halfway through the game: a pair of high-school kids and a sultry American woman. An entire chapter is dedicated to introducing these three, setting up their personalities, and establishing a relationship with Maddy. Then, after this chapter…they’re gone, never to return. They aren’t mentioned again, and have absolutely zero impact on the plot. The entire chapter could be excised from the game and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Sitting in the middle-ground are the light “game” aspects of this visual novel. While reading each chapter, random words can be highlighted in the dialogue. Clicking on these usually brings up some kind of witty one-liner. Once a chapter is complete, all of the words that were clicked show up on screen, and the game asks for seven to be selected.

The ones chosen are all related to one of a handful of different symbols, with each word adding a symbol to an inventory. Following this, the game moves into a first-person mode, allowing the player to explore part of The Terminal and interact with some objects. Spending your symbols on certain objects unlocks mini side-stories, which can help to flesh out the characters and setting of Necrobarista even further.

While these side-stories are just as well-written as the core plot, they aren’t exactly necessary to understanding the game. Most of the time I found myself just skipping these and continuing to the next main chapter, circling back to read through a bunch of them as I approached the endgame.

Death’s Design

The visual style of Necrobarista is certainly striking…but it also may be contentious. The Terminal is made up of a number of detailed, beautiful areas, with some truly excellent lighting work that helps elevate the mood of the plot taking place within.

Character design, though, is the opposite. Flat-colored, low-poly, and weirdly shadowed, it’s a style that likely won’t appeal to everyone. Personally, I love the design here. I mean, it was the character design that led me to first trying out the game at PAX West years ago. Admittedly, some odd camera angles and animations can cause a character’s facial expression or pose to seem completely off, but moments like that didn’t happen often.

The overall presentation here feels like reading through a graphic novel. Animations are subtle, and the camera angle changes between nearly every line, almost like moving from one comic panel to another. Dialogue is overlayed in various places on screen, typically near the character that’s speaking.

As far as the soundtrack, I am completely shocked that Route 59 hasn’t been heavily advertising the fact that it’s composed by Kevin Penkin. You know, the composer behind anime series like Made in Abyss and Tower of God? The composer who has collaborated with Nobuo Uematsu on a number of games?

Penkin’s work here in Necrobarista is fantastic, fitting the atmospheric and mystical themes of the plot quite well. Some of the more ethereal piano pieces accompanying major story moments were instrumental in driving home the emotion I felt during them.

Don’t Wanna Move On

Overall, Necrobarista is just a plain wonderful experience. The story is entertaining with powerful moments, the characters feel fleshed out and realistic (or as realistic as the plot allows for), and the presentation is stunning (although the character design may not be attractive to some).

This is a game I had been waiting for for years, after first trying it out at PAX West way back in 2017. Looking back at my experiences with that demo, Necrobarista has come a long way from its initial previews, and definitely surpassed the already heightened expectations I personally had for it.

The only real faults I can find are in the tonal whiplash between chapters and the random introduction of pointless characters. If I would wipe both of those from the game, we’d be looking at a perfect title here.

Even with those few nagging annoyances, though, Necrobarista is an absolute must-play for visual novel and storytelling fans.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by Route 59 for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.