Necrobarista Review – Dark Roast For A Ghost
I’d gotten used to the visual novel as a basic medium. Static anime characters’ dialogue in the same three or four different pieces of background art. Nothing wrong with that, but I didn’t know the genre could deviate much from the norm. Necrobarista shows that it’s possible to get a lot more creative. Channeling the visual dialogue style of Persona 5 or Deadly Premonition, Necrobarista caught my attention way more than most VNs.
Necrobarista takes place in The Terminal, a small café in Melbourne, Australia. Owned and operated by Maddy, The Terminal is a vibrant hole in the wall. But not only does it serve patrons off the street, it also serves patrons on their way to the next life. This café is one of the few places on earth where the recently deceased can have a break, grab a croissant and espresso, and take in the last sights and sounds of the living world that they will ever see. Each nonliving soul can remain in The Terminal for 24 hours. The living souls, just during regular store hours.
The story of Necrobarista follows two main characters: Maddy, the game’s namesake, and Kishan, one of those recently deceased. Kishan is a soul fresh out of the mortal flesh, who suddenly arrives in The Terminal, understandably disoriented. After hearing the news of his own unfortunate passing, he is informed that his time on this earth is coming to an end. In just 23 hours and 50ish minutes, he must depart. Kishan is more or less the placeholder for the audience. Expositional dialogue is given to him explaining how this world functions. It’s generally pretty smoothe, but for the first ~2/3rds of the game, it’s obvious that his role is to help spoon feed you context.
As for Maddy, the Necrobarista herself, she’s a fairly interesting main character. Managing both a business and the passing through of souls to the other side, Maddy finds herself deep in debt from both. Paying the store’s rent is one problem, but paying back the Council of the Dead for the hours people stay over their allotted 24 is a whole other. And with Chay, her main chef, at around 200(?) years past due, that is a lot of debt to repay. Maddy may look like an ordinary Ramona Flower waify anime type, but there is a lot more depth to her character. She has internal struggles, she gets pissed off, she’s kind and caring, she’s sarcastic and condescending, she has character growth, and that all makes the game way more engaging.
Unfortunately, Maddy is just one character, and one engaging character does not make a whole engaging story. I feel like large amounts of Necrobarista were not properly explored, or scenes were cut, which left some characters feeling misused. The main cast—Chay, the former owner, Ashley, the sugar rush powered genius, Ned Kelly, yes that one, and Kishan, the newly dead—play their parts well enough, but frequently there were scenes that left me wishing there was more explanation or context. Most notably, the necromancy aspect.
That said, vaguery is not necessarily bad, and a story that leaves you wanting more is a sign that the narrative is good. Necrobarista was only around 5ish hours long, and at the end I was certainly wishing it was much longer. Exploration of the greater world of Necrobarista would be a great addition, and perhaps the devs are setting the stage for a second game or downloadable content.
Overall the writing was good. The only real issue with the storytelling in Necrobarista is the frequent cultural references. Having a character describe herself as having a “galaxy brain” may be funny now, but may not be funny in a few years. Borderlands 2 I recall having some memes, and seeing them years later is more exasperating than amusing. Obviously not a deal breaker, but those who play the games in 2023 and are used to consuming the neo post-meta ironically non-ironic memes of the future may not get the same enjoyment of someone today.
The gameplay for Necrobarista is all but nonexistent. While there are some moments between chapters where you may roam about The Terminal, the main game is basically a PowerPoint. Your role is to click through the slides. Each “slide” is a bit of dialogue and sometimes action that seamlessly transitions from one to the text. This certainly isn’t a problem, but players should know that there won’t actually be that much playing. No decision making, no dialogue options, just you witnessing a story.
The inter-chapter exploration sequences of Necrobarista are more than just giving you an idea of what The Terminal looks like. There are certain items throughout the areas that can be interacted with, giving more background to the game. Some of these are really good and some are boring, but ultimately I didn’t get a chance to see them all. These are not just hidden items, they need to be unlocked.
At the end of each Necrobarista chapter, you get the to choose seven keywords or phrases dropped during the dialogue. So if someone says “coffee” and you choose that, you get a “The Terminal” point, or something. Anyways, the intractable items require different points to unlock, so you may need 2 Maddy points and 1 The Terminal point. This I didn’t like, because some of the words have no clue as to what they give you a point for, and it’s hard to keep track of what points you need anyways. It’s an interesting idea, but the game is already a bunch of reading. Just give me the extra exposition and let me be.
So I guess those are my two main gripes with Necrobarista; it’s too short, and the experimental storytelling gameplay is too interesting for someone as impatient as me. Overall that’s not a bad deal. Certainly not perfect and definitely not your average visual novel, but absolutely a game that any VN fans (or aspiring VN readers) would enjoy.