When I picture the perfect coffee shop, I don’t think of the minimalist, industrial design that became popular throughout the late 2010s and endured in present times. I think of the dark green walls and warm wooden counters of Saint’s. It was narrow, or perhaps it just felt that way because it was crammed with things: the pastry case filled with tantalizing scones, an ancient floral couch, rickety chairs, and maybe a dozen tiny tables—always full—that were barely big enough for two laptops. I remember it as warmly and dimly lit despite the wide windows that overlooked Beaver Avenue. A seat at the window, should you be lucky enough to snag one, afforded interesting people watching.
Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus & Butterfly
Serenity Forge, Chorus Worldwide Games Limited
PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 & 5, and Xbox One and Series X|S
April 20, 2023
Sidequest was provided with a copy of Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus & Butterfly for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
The coffee shop in Coffee Talk doesn’t really look like Saint’s at all, but they share some spiritual likenesses. Coffee Talk‘s shop is the platonic ideal of a cozy coffee shop, with a narrow counter, exposed brick walls, and tidily arranged shelves rendered in warm-toned pixels. I couldn’t guess how many hours I spent at Saint’s writing and studying during my undergraduate years, nor the amount of money I spent on what remain, to this day, the best dirty chai lattes I have ever had. In the alternate Seattle of Coffee Talk, the shop provides a similar refuge for characters seeking a listening ear or just a change of scenery.
In the first episode of Coffee Talk, which was released in 2020, I found the coziness of the setting at odds with the game’s cavalier tone toward heavy topics, which included racism and other abuses. Though Coffee Talk is set in an alternate Seattle that’s home to humans, vampires, orcs, werewolves, and others alike, its prejudices and world events—referenced in conversation and newspaper headlines—nod at real-world events. The use of fantasy races and fantasy prejudices as a stand-in for real-life racism has always been a deeply flawed metaphor, and Coffee Talk was no exception. If anything, the imperfection of the analogy was compounded by the months of widespread protests for racial justice across the United States that occurred around the time I played the game; Coffee Talk‘s parallels to real life felt at times a little too narrow for comfort.
The first day of Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus & Butterfly (originally showcased in a 2022 demo) made me feel similarly apprehensive about the parallels Coffee Talk was drawing to real life. The game opens with Jorji, a Seattle police officer and returning character from the first episode, telling the Barista (the player character) about his recent investigation into tire slashings in the area. This vandalism is another example of where Coffee Talk‘s fiction superficially coincides with real events, but under the surface, Hibiscus & Butterfly offers a unique blend of characters and full-bodied story with layers of flavor.
Though most of the characters from the first episode return as regulars, Hibiscus & Butterfly also introduces two new main characters: Lucas, a bombastic influencer and satyr, and Riona, a reticent banshee. At the beginning of the game, Lucas is searching for his channel’s new direction as well as a way to break free of satyr stereotypes, while Riona, jaded by years of professional rejection and siren favoritism, has all but given up on her dream of becoming a soprano opera singer. Much of the story follows their creative pursuits and how those pursuits intertwine over time. Though Freya, Coffee Talk‘s original main character, is largely missing from the sequel, Lucas and Riona’s stories feel like fitting spiritual successors.
Alongside new characters, Hibiscus & Butterfly also adds new ingredients in hibiscus tea and blue pea (also known as butterfly pea) flower tea. As with the other base ingredients, these can be used to concoct an array of drinks, from plain teas to artful, otherworldly lattes. Much of the gameplay format has remained the same—the Barista offers customers advice or a listening ear, as well as the occasional comforting, beautifully crafted beverage. One other fun addition to the story is the ability to give characters items, some of which have been left by one character for another, or others which were forgotten. Like the drinks you serve, whether you give characters a certain item at the right time will influence the outcome of their story for the better.
As with the original, the ratio of talking to brewing is heavily weighted toward conversation in both episodes (these games are, after all, primarily visual novels), so I appreciated that Toge Productions once again included two Endless modes—free brew for experimentation and a challenge mode with timed orders—for players who just want to brew drinks and enjoy the chill soundtrack. The ability to easily restart a day and fast forward through conversations you’ve already had is also convenient, making achieving all of the characters’ various endings much more easily attainable.
Still, Hibiscus & Butterfly isn’t a perfect game, falling into many of the same traps as its predecessor. The most notable examples are the game’s introductory credits, which set the scene with sweeping statements about the difficulties faced by marginalized beings, and an early reference to the Vindication Act, an in-game treaty written to recognize the sentience of “non-sapient beings.” The game all but abandons these ideas after the first day of gameplay, which works favorably both for the themes it feels like Hibiscus & Butterfly actually wants to pursue and by shifting the focus toward the characters and away from the deeply flawed racial allegory at its center. The change was welcome, as the depth of the worldbuilding never felt all that necessary to understanding the settings or the characters’ perspectives. Because Coffee Talk‘s setting is so closely parallel to the world we live in, much of the worldbuilding can be inferred from the newspaper headlines shown at the start of each day and from the broad struggles each of the characters face. The heart of Coffee Talk has never been in the explanations of why things are the way they are in the game’s world, but the relationships between characters.
The interconnectedness between all of the characters creates a conceivable theme of found family that in turn emphasizes the cozy atmosphere of the coffee shop. The nighttime setting, constant rain, and tranquil beats of Andrew Jeremy’s lo-fi soundtrack don’t hurt, either. I originally played Coffee Talk on the Nintendo Switch, as playing curled up on the couch under a blanket with a handheld console has always felt like the pinnacle of cozy gaming to me. I played the PC version of Hibiscus & Butterfly on my Steam Deck and was delighted to find it equally cozy and well optimized for the Steam Deck’s controls. Prior knowledge of the characters is another of Hibiscus & Butterfly‘s storytelling advantages, as this creates an immediate intimacy with the world. It’s just as engaging to catch up with the returning characters three years after the original game takes place as it is to meet the new ones. All characters are at different points in their lives and careers, but the common thread that unites them all is a desire for some kind of growth or change.
These desires spiral into the larger questions Hibiscus & Butterfly is asking. How does a person make art that is true to themselves? How do we show care for one another? How do we ensure our legacies live on? How do we pursue our dreams while navigating the complex and unjust systems that govern success? How do we reconcile giving up a dream with recognizing that a lifelong ambition has changed? As with Coffee Talk, Hibiscus & Butterfly doesn’t shy away from big questions, even if it doesn’t necessarily have answers for them. But unlike Coffee Talk, whose characters were brought together by happenstance, Hibiscus & Butterfly‘s characters, including the Barista, have made a choice to remain together and care for one another. Everything—all of those disparate questions, characters, themes, even the game’s biggest plot twist—is twined into a theme of care.
It’s evident that Toge Productions’ care extends beyond the pixels on the screen. In late March 2022, Coffee Talk writer and creator Mohammad Fahmi passed away suddenly at age 32. While it’s unclear to me how late in development this occurred, the team’s love and respect for Fahmi is evident in both the overarching themes and the Easter eggs hidden throughout Hibiscus & Butterfly. The plot, particularly those threads centered on creative pursuits, feels even more metatextual in light of Fahmi’s untimely passing.
Overall, it gives the themes a somewhat melancholy, bittersweet mood that I appreciated more than Coffee Talk‘s fiery take on social issues. How do we show care for one another? How do we ensure our legacies live on? I daresay these are questions asked not just by the characters in the game, but the team at Toge Productions throughout the process of creating Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus & Butterfly. Throughout the game, as the characters work through their various joys and griefs, they come to recognize the act of remembrance as an important undertaking at both an individual and a community level.
When I sat down to write this review, I hadn’t thought of Saint’s in quite some time. I was disappointed but not surprised to discover the café as I knew it is long gone, having closed and reopened as a more modern coffee shop owned by a different roastery in 2019. Still, I remember it fondly. To read it now, my writing from my college years is underdeveloped and painfully earnest, but in retrospect those hours at those little tables were the first time I ever consciously thought of myself as a writer. In the intervening years, my goals have changed as I have, but the sense of passion and possibility I felt sitting in front of a blank document hasn’t wavered.
In Hibiscus & Butterfly, Toge Productions has created a piece of art that will ensure Fahmi’s legacy lives on; players, too, are invited to participate in the game’s message in a very real way. Maybe you have a Saint’s of your own that will make you appreciate what Toge Productions is trying to say, or maybe you really will just enjoy the endlessly tranquil energy of the Free Brew modes. Regardless, while Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus & Butterfly asks a lot of questions that it does answer and even more that it does not, it’s worth playing to discover the answers yourself.
Madison Butler is Sidequest’s self-proclaimed jock editor. She co-founded the blog Critsumption and once got really into powerlifting via Fitness Boxing for the Nintendo Switch. She tweets at @_maddilo.