Coffee Talk is a new(-ish, I’m a little late) game by Indonesian developer and publisher Toge Productions. In the spirit of avoiding inflicting too much agony, I’ll attempt to limit the coffee-related puns to the absolute minimum. To vaguely summarise, you play as a late-night coffee shop owner and barista, serving clients mundane and fantastical in a hybrid modern-fantasy setting. The influence from cyberpunk bartending game VA-11 HALL-A is obvious; in many ways Coffee Talk feels like an iteration on the concept laid out so convincingly in that game, recontextualised into the ‘lo-fi beats to relax/study to’ dimension (with orcs). I’ll issue an apology in advance for what will inevitably be continuous reference to this other game throughout this review. As it turns out, refreshment-industry based visual novel-esque games are quite rare, and VA-11 HALL-A remains the exemplar. Well-produced and charming, with a sharp aesthetic and an endearing cast, this beverage-slinging confessional nevertheless could have benefited from a little extra time to brew (sorry).
You are an unnamed barista, the owner-operator of a nocturnal downtown coffee shop in a modern (or near-future) version of Seattle. The twist that Coffee Talk’s setting applies is that common-or-garden humans aren’t the only denizens of its world – mythological and fantastical humanoids live side-by-side, with attendant inter-species strife. In a humorous (if blunt) reference to reality, Freya (the cafe’s most faithful regular and a sort of secondary main character) is in the process of penning a novel in which only humans exist. In a conceit other characters find ridiculous, the humans of her novel find a way to discriminate against one another based on subdivisions of race instead of species.
The game sets up its unusual world through incidental dialogue from patrons and cut-aways to newspaper headlines in between days. It’s occasionally a little obvious when the characters drift from casual conversation to exposition – case in point, the arguing Romeo and Juliet analogues loudly explaining the finer points of their respective cultures to one another for seemingly nobody’s benefit but the player. It’s a minor sin of fantasy writing, and easily enough forgiven, however. It’s slightly amplified by the lack of a concrete ‘player character’, as the game most of the time seems unwilling to put words in the mouth of the user-named barista. If you’re not tired of me comparing this game to VA-11 HALL-A yet (you will be), it occasionally manages this in a slightly subtler way by having Jill, the bartender, ask questions in-character as a function of her own lack of knowledge on certain subjects. That the newspaper is just a front-page and some headlines is also a missed opportunity; newspapers are expository by nature and slipping in some of the finer details here would have smoothed over the need for explanation by characters.
These characters, when not expositing to camera, are largely very charming. The game takes the concept of modern-day fantasy and applies the tropes in broad strokes to create a varied cast. The writing variably leans into or defies expectations about personality types and backgrounds, either for humour or character development. We meet an orc who does game design; though her initial interactions are a bit terse we learn more about her and her interests in a believable way as she develops alongside another character, a shy mermaid. The first major storyline of the game involves the romance between an elf and a succubus (the aforementioned Shakespeare-like plot). Neither families agree with their offspring’s choices, and drama ensues. I won’t list all of the personalities that appear throughout Coffee Talk, but I liked most of them. A mysterious alien is a particular highlight, and later on the teenage cat-human popstar’s story of family life and a desire for independence strikes familiar but effective emotional notes.
The plotting is (sorry, again!) similar to VA-11 HALL-A, essentially offering the player a glimpse from the sidelines into an inhabited world through the liminal viewpoint of the barista/bartender, in a unique position to observe slices of many other lives. You interact through the types of drinks you choose to serve them, though usually this boils down to matching their preferences or finding the correct, unique hot drink required. Once you reach the ‘end’ of the game’s linear timeline, it gives you the option to skip back and forth between days at will. This is an excellent feature. While I love visual novels, seeing everything and making all the ‘right’ choices can often take an age in this type of game, requiring meticulous save-file management at key decisions and/or a willingness to re-read (translation: hold down the skip text button through) hours of old content. There is a final plot thread/eleventh-hour twist introduced with this system that I don’t particularly care for from a narrative point of view, but the game mostly manages to play to its strengths. The main complaint I have in terms of the narrative is the speed at which it progresses. Though arguably a strength (the game is compact and never overstays its welcome) many characters’ arcs are resolved in a pretty straight-ahead fashion, proceeding from one to the next in short order. During these parts much of the focus is on that character until the dramatic tension is released and their arc resolved – it’s not a game-killer but makes the development of plotlines somewhat predictable and negatively effects the game’s thematic cohesion by breaking itself up into discrete chunks. The exception is the aforementioned excellent extraterrestrial, who pops in and out intermittently.
The people and the world they live in are all communicated to the player in vibrant, pleasing pixel art, in a style that manages to remain mostly cohesive despite the challenge of balancing varied fantasy races and the modern day. It’s not quite so evocative of a particular genre as VA-11 HALL-A is with its anime cyberpunk, but it makes a good account of itself. I’m particularly fond of the interior space of the café, which has a very concrete sense of space for a 2D game, amplified by simple but effective textual descriptions. Considering there are really only three views of the café for the interior and exterior, there is a great visual economy here. Part of this ties in to the game’s strength in gameplay; when I said this game was an iteration on VA-11 HALL-A, I meant it. There are pieces of very ergonomic user interface, which avoid making the mechanical nature of clicking buttons to brew drinks distracting. Somehow this game manages the minor miracle of maintaining the integrity of the scene while basically allowing you to access all the necessary information to make the drink you need at once. You can see the character’s request, the ingredients, and your exhaustive list of recipes all at the same time without needing to flit back and forth in menus. It’s not a make-or-break thing, but it adds a level of smoothness to the bread-and-butter effort of making a drink, eliminating any potential grind.
I can see our star-crossed elf’s order, the ingredients shelf, the recipes, and the coffee machine all at the same time.
Much like in VA-11 HALL-A (unreserved apologies) the player has access to a phone, though in Coffee Talk it’s always available rather than being only available in interludes between shifts. This is also a cool feature, though it sometimes interfaces unusually with the sense of scene, as flipping out the phone is almost always something you do mid-conversation (tremendously rude!). The phone serves a few functions: changing the music, viewing character profiles on social media which fill out as you continue to talk to them, and reading short fiction pieces from Freya (the secondary character of the game and the most common patron of the café). These are written with disarming sincerity, though they can be a little uneven in quality. These often reflect events from the café, in an interestingly layered textual way.
I’ve covered all my bases and filled my quota of irritating comparisons to VA-11 HALL-A. While I don’t think that Coffee Talk quite dethrones that game, it’s a thoughtful, strong addition to the burgeoning beverage-based visual novel subgenre. It markets itself as a chill-out game, and it succeeds in this regard with an effective mixture of relaxed aesthetic, warm characters and an unhurried feel. The game’s plotlines are maybe a little too linear for my tastes, and could have done with some interweaving, but the little stories of these peoples’ lives make for small, effective arcs, wrapped in very pleasing visual presentation. The soundtrack is lovely, too, and can be listened to here, if you’re interested. The game (and its free demo!) are available on Steam, GOG and through the developer’s website, as well as on console. I’d encourage anyone who thinks that this is their sort of thing to take a look and see if Coffee Talk’s laid-back fantasy universe draws them in.
Small note: When I first played this game before release there were quite a number of typos and fluctuations in grammar. I believe most of these have been fixed after release, alongside a large number of additional language options.
If you enjoyed reading this, and you’re hungry for interesting and vaguely VN-ish games, take a look at our review of One Night Stand. If that doesn’t take your fancy, why not take a trip to Tokyo and read about the enduring appeal of the Yakuza series? Alternatively, investigate the creepy truth underneath Ni no Kuni 2‘s friendly exterior.
As always, if you would like to support the site then please use our Amazon Affiliate Link. It doesn’t cost you anything extra and we get a small kickback with every purchase. We also have an Audible link, where you get your first audiobook for free.