Visual novels are a genre that used to be such a hard sell to myself, as they’re very much an acquired taste. I can completely understand the notion that reading walls of dialogue can be boring, or that the lack of actual gameplay is a turn-off, but you only need to be bitten by the visual novel love bug once to comprehend why the genre works. Necrobarista isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to visual novels, but it is one of my favourites, perfectly encapsulating what this underappreciated genre is all about. Necrobarista exudes style, with its 3D cel-shaded anime aesthetic, top-tier soundtrack, and superb writing joining to form a quality creation suitable for both visual novel nuts and newbies.
Cool as Hell
Necrobarista takes place at The Terminal, a Melbourne cafe located in the inner-northern suburb of Carlton (go Blues). The Terminal appears as your run-of-the-mill coffeehouse, and in many ways it is, however there is one small difference – the Terminal serves both the living and the dead. In the world of Necrobarista, the dearly departed are granted 24 hours to remain on the cusp of the mortal realm, before passing on to whatever lies beyond. Time can be sold, purchased and exchanged for, however once your time runs out, the time debt you accrue will be chased up by The Council of Death, an organisation that strives to keep the balance of time between realms. The idea of having a council to manage the transition of people from the mortal realm to the afterlife is a really novel idea, as is the concept of having a given amount of time in-between realms that can be bought or sold.
Maddy, the new owner of The Terminal serves as the main character of the story. She’s an outwardly brash and sarcastic person when she wants to be, but she deeply cares for the ones she loves. She’s also a practicing necromancer to boot, learning from former cafe owner and best friend Chay. While Maddy is the main protagonist, she isn’t the only person of importance, as numerous different characters get plenty of time in the spotlight. One such character is Kishan, a young man who stumbles into the cafe completely unaware of his own demise. Throughout the story we see him struggle to come to terms with his mortality, a totally acceptable reaction to death, especially when it’s your own. We even get to meet Ned, an enforcer from the Council of Death who is actually infamous Australian Outlaw Ned Kelly. Feeling guilty for his wrongdoings in his mortal life, Ned seeks to do what he deems as good and help the Council maintain balance.
Commander Video or Ned Kelly?
One of the greatest aspects of the characters of Necrobarista is how multifaceted they are. They all have their own struggles, some show them more than others, and others don’t appear to show them much at all. Ned for example tries to maintain a hard, law-abiding persona, however on the inside he has a soft spot for The Terminal due to his friendship with Chay, and he has moments where he turns a blind eye to their wrongdoings. He also struggles with what he did while alive and strives to right his wrongs. Even a character like Ashley, an erratic thirteen-year-old who is constantly overflowing with energy and happiness has moments where she struggles. Having well written, multilayered characters not only makes them more believable, but far more relatable, leading to an ensemble with arguably no negatives. I found myself in love with every core character in Necrobarista, as each of them is fleshed out enough to the point where they are all likeable.
As you’d expect from a visual novel, most of your time playing through Necrobarista boils down to absorbing the storytelling by incessantly clicking through dialogue. Doing so is made far less boring than it is in many visual novels because of Necrobarista’s brilliant visual aesthetic that accompanies the splendid storytelling. Predominantly, visual novels utilise 2D characters and environments, both which are often still images, alongside a textbox where you read through all the conversations. Necrobarista shakes things up, with 3D semi-animated cutscenes, and clicking through dialogue constantly changes up what you’re seeing on screen, shifting between various camera angles and shots. This all succeeds in making the playthrough far more engaging and interesting than other visual novels, which can often bore with their sedentary presentation. The soundtrack is also one of my favourites in recent memory, with a variety of different tracks that perfectly capture the intended emotion of each scene.
Maddy reeks of unapologetic sass
Time in-between chapters, of which there are ten spread between two acts, is spent navigating your way through The Terminal. In terms of gameplay, there isn’t really anything here to do. In order to gain access to the following chapter you must find the item of interest and read through the dialogue it provides, before getting access to the main area of the cafe to then dive into the next chapter. It’s nice to be able to explore The Terminal, as the cel-shaded art style is remarkably easy on the eyes, but you’re only going to find optional dialogue to read and not much else. The optional dialogue can be located by finding highlighted items strewn about the cafe, and unlocking them requires you to have the required tokens. At the end of each chapter a bunch of keywords spoken throughout will litter the screen, selecting the words that stick out to you will grant you a token based on what category they fall into. For example, if the keyword was referring to a character, you will likely be awarded with a token of that character. Using these tokens to unlock the optional dialogue is all well and good, and the stories they tell are decent and serve to further flesh out The Terminal, however they lack the punch that makes the rest of the game great, as they don’t feature the animated cutscenes and instead resort to dialogue on a still background. The writing is still quality, and they should be read, but they just don’t find themselves as engaging.
I don’t want to fully spoil the narrative, and I’m not going to, but I feel like there were plenty of interesting aspects of the world that could’ve been further explored. The Council of Death does have a role to play throughout Necrobarista, striving to maintain the balance between life and death, yet as the emotional tale reached its conclusion, it stuck out like a sore thumb just how underutilised they were. It would have been cool to see what further consequences there were for staying in the between for more than your allotted hours, as it would’ve been to see the threat from the council more realised, but sadly we never see any of that. Thankfully the narrative is still brilliant, but it would’ve been great to see the lore of the world delve a tad deeper. I also wish there was more to do in The Terminal when granted freedom to explore between chapters, instead of being able to retrieve optional dialogue. Coffee Talk, another great visual novel that sees you play as a barista made use of a coffee minigame to break up the dialogue segments, and I can’t help but wish Necrobarista made use of a similar idea. The game is also slightly too short, clocking in at roughly three hours. I can’t help but feel that there was many more interesting stories this world could’ve told if it were just a couple hours longer.
The optional dialogue is more commendable than it is standout
Necrobarista is as wonderful as your first cup of coffee in the morning. Much like that morning brew, the writing is refreshing and addictive, bringing to life (and death) a lovable cast of characters and an enthralling narrative, while the soundtrack is so delicious that it has since found a home in my Spotify library. Having more to do in the first-person exploration segments of The Terminal would have been an additional sweetener, and it would’ve been awesome to see the storytelling expound more juicy details on the Council of Death and the concept of gambling and selling time to name a few. Regardless of that, Necrobarista is an excellently crafted Aussie indie that manages to combine necromancy, coffee, Aussie slang and death into a near pristine package.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher