Gaming editor Tom Martin samples Necrobarista, a new visual novel about grief, a coffee shop where dead people go, and robot crabs.
Necrobarista is a beautiful, hilarious, and heartfelt story of grief, guilt and the gut-wrenching inevitability of it all.
The story focuses around a small coffee bar, The Terminal, which sits on either the edge or life and death, or between them? Being honest, it was never full apparent to me what the deal was with this, but that was of no consequence. If anything, this ambivalence plays in the story’s favour, adding to the place’s sense of transience.
Kishan, recently deceased and for all intents and purposes our uninitiated voice, finds himself at the door of The Terminal, where they meet Maddy Xiao, an apprentice necromancer (with rad glasses) who has also very recently become the owner of the cafe. Maddy comforts Kishan through the first few moments of their death and explains that they have 24 hours until they must move on to the afterlife… if they want to follow the Council’s rules, that is.
The staff of the Terminal are actually quite relaxed when it comes to crossing to the other side. In fact, they are more than 600 hours “in debt” to this shadowy Council, by letting souls stay as long as they like. It is their mission to restore this balance, and this is set up as the central conflict of Necrobarista’s story.
The first thing which stands out is Necrobarista‘s visual appeal, which is, in a word: sick-as-hell (if it’s hyphenated, it’s one word). A wonderful anime-inspired cel-shaded opulence that even comes with its own rock intro. Toward the end of the game, I had to force myself to stop taking screenshots before I maxed out my hard drive trying to capture every line that made me laugh. This ultimately proved fruitless, as the game’s cinematography only becomes more breathtaking as the story goes on.
With these visuals in mind, however, my first recommendation to any player would be to immediately make use of the game’s “Text Outline” and “Text Shadow” settings. The default setting without either of these sometimes renders text unreadable against the brighter surroundings such as the glowing tree, or Chay’s raggedy garbs.
Aside from the visuals, the game’s soundtrack also has a role to play in setting the tempo of the story. The soundtrack is multifaceted, from a disco number that creates a sense of chilled irreverence, to an electronic powerhouse that turns the intensity to 101 and then effortlessly dropping to a near silence which creates an atmosphere of unfiltered melancholy. Necrobarista’s soundtrack effortlessly worms its way into your ears, the soles of your feet and probably your Spotify playlists too.
The cast of characters is brilliantly diverse in terms of look and personality, with each character explicitly finding themselves as a square on a typical Dungeons and Dragons alignment chart in one scene. Maddy is neutral evil. Chay, her partner in caffeinated crime and the former owner of the Terminal, is chaotic good. Kishan is true neutral. Infamous Australian outlaw come class traitor come Lord Buckethead cosplayer come overall pea and curly straw enthusiast Ned Kelly winds up on the side of lawful neutral.
The alignment chart is a useful tool for helping readers comprehend and understand the core philosophies of each character, and is certainly worth keeping to hand. But, what’s also interesting is the way that Necrobarista freely plays with, and moulds these alignments. “Evil” in this sense does not necessarily mean nefarious: Maddy is simply unwittingly cruel due to desperation and grief, for a reason divulged later in the story; Ned’s “lawful” alignment is a product of his circumstance and not necessarily his true personality.
Each and every character is a joy, and has their own unique place within the story. It is deftly written, effortlessly hilarious in places without feeling forced or unnatural, and devastating in others. By then end I was in ruins, tears and all the like. Though this devastation was never overbearing. Where many games dealing with the subject of grief delight in ripping you to pieces before building you back up again, Necrobarista’s story gently breaks your heart, and leaves the tools for its repair in your own hands.
These tools come in the form of the gameplay, which serves as more than just the typical visual novel function of checking if you, the reader, aren’t just clicking passively through the story. (I can’t say too much more here without treading into spoiler territory.) What I can say is that when you do get your fingers on the WASD buttons, you’re allowed to walk freely through the Terminal, with more rooms opened up as you progress through the story’s eight chapters.
Within each chapter are a certain number of words which “call out to you”; they appear in yellow as you click through, and appear again at the end of the chapter. You choose seven of these words, and the words you choose represent a certain aspect of your memory: Melbourne, the ritual, Maddy, etc.
These “aspects” are then used to unlock various side stories scattered throughout the Terminal. These stories help to expand the world of Necrobarista, allowing us a wider view of the Terminal’s day-to-day with stories about recipes, product reviews and even the knife fight club which Maddy runs in the basement.
Whilst there were a few instances of missing words or odd grammatical structures, these were far and few between and couldn’t even attempt to spoil the story contained within them. (Also, grammar is a social construct designed by rich white dicks to limit the poor or uneducated in service of the status quo, so who gives a shit.)
The system elegantly simulates the way even the most unspecific of words can evoke long held memories. It’s like that scene in Ratatouille with the critic except, instead of a taste eliciting a long lost innocence and a yearning for childhood, it’s the word blowtorch and it reminds you of the twelve year old girl who’s turned a bin chicken into a contestant in a fight club that’s different from the other fight club because this one is for for robot crabs. It’s incredible.
I tried on multiple occasions to aim for specific “aspects” so that I could access specific stories, only for the words to represent something totally different from the notion I’d attributed to them. Although this was frustrating, it added to the Terminal’s feeling of transience, a morose feeling that I wasn’t in control of what I was experiencing, and all I could do was grab at what I could, when I could, for a fear of losing my chance.
But in the end I had to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t see it all. Of course I could play it all again if I wanted (and someday I might indeed), but the journey I undertook with Necrobarista felt so succinct, so sweet and so temporary I feel like it would be an insult to its message for me to go back with the spirit of a completionist. Necrobarista is a blend to be savoured, and that means sometimes your cup is empty sooner than you’d hope and there’s nothing you can do about it. But you’re happy in the end, because you enjoyed the coffee while it was hot.
If you enjoyed this review, you are legally obligated* to read another one, so take your pick:
(*please note you have no legal obligation here but it would be nice if you did)