As someone with both a deep love for the misunderstood art of necromancy and a couple unfortunate years of barista experience, Necrobarista was a title I couldn’t ignore. The description from the game’s Steam page promised everything I could want: “In a back-alley cafe, the dead are granted one last night to mingle with the living. Necrobarista follows a dynamic and diverse cast of characters as they navigate Melbourne’s hipstery coffee culture, the questionable ethics of necromancy, and the process of letting go.” Awesome, I’m here for it, let’s go.
iOS, PC, Mac
July 22, 2020
Sidequest was provided with a review copy of Necrobarista in exchange for a fair and honest review.
At The Terminal, a coffee shop in Melbourne, Australia, the dead get 24 hours to remain “alive” and come to terms with their demise over coffee, alcohol, and even meals. The services are provided by amateur necromancer Maddy, the café’s new proprietor, and Chay, the former owner. The Terminal is in hot water over Maddy and Chay’s unfortunate habit of letting the dead linger too long, causing them to rack up a “time debt” that the Council of Death wants them to pay, or else The Terminal will be shut down for violating the balance of life and death. The story begins with a new patron, Kishan, wandering into the café and trying to come to terms with his untimely demise.
First of all, Necrobarista is beautiful, with cel-shaded graphics and obvious anime influences. The initial café interior feels cozy, and the farther into the game you get, the more of the café you unlock (including a basement that is actually somehow deep in the ocean), which does a great job of reinforcing that the The Terminal is something more than just a coffee shop.
It’s also more dynamic than most visual novels: although you’ll spend a fair amount of time just clicking through conversations, every chapter has highlighted words to interact with which seem innocuous at first, but become the basis for the unique “memories” that can be found between chapters during first-person exploration of the café.
But—and this is a big but—there are two important components in a visual novel: the visuals and the writing. As beautiful as Necrobarista was, the writing was… not quite there. You know how nonfat milk gets a nice, frothy foam when it’s steamed but then it still tastes like nonfat milk? That’s what playing Necrobarista felt like: a lot of foam with a little substance. The café as a liminal space for the living and the dead to mingle is a concept with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, the fantastic concept and beautiful art direction are not quite enough to make up for some of the missteps: uneven writing and characters whose purpose or motivation I never quite understood—like Ashley, the child genius whose mom lets her hang out at The Terminal for almost four straight days. (I will add the caveat that child genius characters are almost always difficult for me to get invested in, but even more so when their personality traits consist entirely of “I drank too much coffee and now I’m hyper” and “I’m making battle robots”).
The humor more often than not fell flat, with jokes that over-explained themselves, meme references that felt like Fellow Kids™ pandering, witticisms about overcomplicated drink orders every barista has heard from every boomer customer who proudly only drinks their coffee black, and poor timing that took the weight out of some of the more emotionally genuine moments. And the biggest sin in any form of writing: an absolutely absurd amount of sighing. If I’d taken a drink every time a character sighed, I’d have died and been at The Terminal before getting out of the first chapter.
If you can get past the prologue and first chapter, the story picks up in a way that almost makes up for its messy beginning. The poignant moments fall more in line with what I expected from the tagline, and the flashes of unexpected tenderness were a breath of fresh air (right up until they were undercut by whatever joke happened to fall next).
The memories were probably the most intriguing part of an otherwise straightforward visual novel. At the end of each chapter, you choose seven from a series of significant words that were highlighted over the course of the last chapter you played. Each one will give you a point for a category such as Melbourne, Lore, or Guests (among others), which you can spend to unlock vignettes about characters or game lore during the first-person explorations of The Terminal. But, like the dialogue that makes up the bulk of the game, the writing quality… varies.
I clocked in at about six hours doing the main story and only a couple of the optional memories, which may make you wince if you look at the game’s twenty-dollar price tag; however, unlocking all the memories necessitates multiple playthroughs (unless you are absolutely on point with choosing keywords), and the developers have also promised free content updates focusing on characters other than Maddy. There are enough hints of depth in the game and its world’s other inhabitants that I’m tentatively hopeful for Necrobarista’s future.
December Cuccaro (she/her) is an MFA graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno and a member of the 2021 Clarion West cohort. When not rambling about video games, she writes about sapphic werewolves and sad necromancers searching for friendship.