Is there a best way to define the ‘visual novel’ as a genre? I’m not about to do a detailed dissection of my own conception of the genre (tried in an earlier draft, ended up swearing), but suffice to say Necrobarista by Route 59 ticks my main box: most of the gameplay is clicking to reveal more text. It isn’t first-person, really, or even from a consistent perspective, and there’s no narration – text is simply spoken by characters on or off-screen (represented by a cute little icon). There aren’t any decisions to be made that affect the plot, either (though it isn’t the only purely linear visual novel), so maybe by and large Necrobarista would fall into the mechanical neutral-to-rebel end of any VN alignment chart. It is quite anime, though, so if that’s a significant factor in your conception of the genre space it’ll slot neatly in. It even has an opening theme.
If you were ordering a Necrobarista, you’d ask for a visual novel – heavy on the visual, hold back a little on the interactivity, with a heavy sprinkling of rumination on life, death, and letting go. The beans would be very Australian beans, as the game is set in Melbourne. Apologies – I still can’t come up with good coffee metaphors. At any rate, Necrobarista’s focus on its visual elements offers a genuine freshness to the game – it legitimately pushes the envelope in terms of visual artistry, something that the VN genre often neglects.
This isn’t the first time in recent months I’ve found myself reviewing a modern fantasy game set in a coffee shop. That’s really as far as the comparisons go between this game and the (very superficially) similar Coffee Talk. While at first inspection you might think Necrobarista would slot in to the eternally-expanding beverage-based VN scene, it doesn’t have any of the all-important drinks mechanics that unite this two-game behemoth of a subgenre. Necrobarista instead uses the coffee shop as a setting, with a twist; the dead can spend their final 24 hours mingling with the staff and patrons as they see fit before departing. As you’d expect, this means the staff and regulars are a bit peculiar as well. From a firebrand young necromancer to the undead ghost of outlaw Ned Kelly (quite a nice bloke, as it happens), the cast of Necrobarista is memorable.
It’s also quite tightly focused. The game takes place over the course of a few days, and the main chapters spend their narrative time dialed in on the relatively small main cast. The closest thing it has to a protagonist is shop owner and titular necromancer/barista Maddy. Its focus on a specific sequence of events, in opposition to the two members of the BBVN (sorry) genre I’ve looked at before. Coffee Talk and its spiritual predecessor VA-11 HALL-A both opt to take a look at a fairly wide set of characters who wander in and out of the establishments, thereby using the marginal nature of their establishments to examine their societies more widely. Necrobarista’s coffee shop, the Terminal, takes the liminal conception of the coffee shop to its most extreme yet – the threshold between life and death.
I won’t go into too many plot details here, as I think it’s more interesting if you go and play it yourself, but Necrobarista’s café allows the dead to stay on earth for one full day. It also proposes that these final hours are tradable, like currency; the dead can lose time, gain it, or rack up a debt (payable by the proprietor). This system has a bureaucratic underworld apparatus, represented primarily here by the spirit of infamous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, who now walks the earth attempting to keep the balance. His iconic bucket-esque helmet has become a part of his appearance, given an expressive cartoonish look. There’s a main situation set up in the prologue, but the throughline from Chapter 1 is about one particular spirit who appears, and his own struggle with his present undeath.
The game is as strongly themed as you might expect, mixing in the lighter moments of anime-ish fun (Ashley the child genius inventor, robot conversations as intermissions, goofy workplace antics) with long overtones about – obviously – death and attachment, but also passing the torch and the nature of failure. There was one point during the game that I was deeply worried about a potential cop-out about dying, but the storyline performs an impressive feat of twistery that manages to, if anything, do even better than where I thought the plotline was headed. Again, I’ll avoid spoilers, but despite its limited runtime Necrobarista manages to make you feel attached to the characters, especially in its back half.
The game makes a big deal about the Melbourne connection. On the Steam blurb it connects itself to Melbourne coffee culture, and the game was partially funded by the State of Victoria. I can’t really comment on the prevalence of necromantic practice in the Melbourne hospitality industry, and I’ve never even been to Australia. However, the vibe is clear throughout the game’s dialogue and references to the world outside; there’s even a memory category specifically for Melbourne. The game’s focus on the aesthetic and musical side of its genre reminds me a bit of Florence, another game made in Melbourne (EDIT: they even share a composer – Kevin Penkin!). I’m not directly saying there’s a shadowy cabal of Australian game developers, but it’s possible. Florence was lovely too, so this game doesn’t suffer from the comparison.
Anyway: speaking of the dialogue, I suppose it would be remiss to review a visual novel without talking about the writing. In general, the dialogue (it is, after all, mostly dialogue) is breezy and believable, managing to bear the weight of the plot’s emotiveness where it counts. There are a few moments of levity where it feels like the game is trying a little too hard to communicate the humour, straining a little in a format with no internal narration to the detriment of the conversational tone. This usually involves a bit of scattershot slang deployment that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but it doesn’t bring the rest of the game down, and as the game progresses it hits its narrative stride.
All of the game’s other elements manage to elevate the rest, especially the music and visuals. Even the game’s user interface has a distinctive flair to it, down to the pause menu. In the traditional visual novel format, the writing has to do an awful lot of heavy lifting; the ‘camera’ is almost always purely text and sprites, with the occasional cutaway to drawn art at important moments. Necrobarista has much more freedom. Being fully 3D, it can compose shots much like a film would, using these to pace, cut away to scenery, artfully block characters for meaningful moments and much more. This addresses something about the ‘traditional’ visual novel (though the more I describe it, the more this game doesn’t seem like one): that character positionings are left completely to the imagination. There’s nothing inherently wrong wrong with that, but Necrobarista uses its additional artistic agency here to full effect.
I wasn’t surprised to see that Necrobarista had a credited Director of Photography as the credits rolled. If anything, there are parts where a firmer guiding hand would have been appreciated; since there’s no indication that the next of many clicks will cause the chapter to fade out, it’s possible to end up cutting off some of the game’s best bits prematurely. This also reminded me a little of Florence, where I ended up cutting off the (great) soundtrack in its prime once or twice.
In between the chapters you get the option to wander around the Terminal at your leisure, spending resources gained after the chapter concludes to unlock Memories (basically little short stories set in the café). These are, all-in-all (excepting some really weird formatting problems in ‘Billiards I’), useful supplementary material to the main game, though they never upstage it. Attempting to target different Memories as you progress through the story and your interest in the characters changes is genuinely interesting, even if the word cloud by which you unlock the resource is sort of flawed, though conceptually strong. I’m particularly fond of the multi-entry ones (‘Fisherman’, ‘Billiards’, etc.), as dipping in and out, weaving them into the plot of the game, felt like different bits related in a clever way to the events of our few days in the Terminal. However, in more than a couple of cases I had to go and sweep them up at the end, unable to deliberately unlock the ones I wanted as I went along – though this may just be because I’m stupid.
Even with reading all of these after the main game concluded, Necrobarista remains a pretty compact experience – all told, I spent about 5 hours. This is a length that feels about right, giving the game plenty of space to breathe. It’s not as turbo-compact as Florence, not as long as Coffee Talk (again, these games aren’t that similar, they’re just set in a coffee shop, but I’m thick), and obviously not as sprawling as many War and Peace-esque visual novels. Necrobarista comfortably avoids overstaying its welcome, and leaves on a convincing high. It’s doubtless a low-interactivity example, but it’s a distinctive, stylish VN(ish) game – and the strength of its character designs, writing and visual composition prove that it’s a game of vision. Necrobarista proves that there’s still a lot of room for bold aesthetic envelope-pushing, and does so without sacrificing its own plotting, themes, or likeable cast. The end may even successfully jerk a few tears.
If you read this and you’re thirsty for more written c o n t e n t, please go ahead and read my recent whine/analysis about 2020’s exciting year in scalping. If you’re feeling literary, also take a look at my review of Aftermath, a 5-year-old Star Wars book, or Nevi’s review of Dan Abnett’s Xenos, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
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