God, do I miss coffee shops.
The traditional text boxes and flat character sprites of a visual novel can often feel like similarly static affair to the mundanity of sheltering-in-place, but Necrobarista supercharges that formula by fully animating the action. Couple that dynamic presentation with a colorful cast of characters and it offers up an engrossing story set in a supernatural coffee shop.
While that tale is a fantastical tearjerker about the mundanity and melancholy of death, Necrobarista is really about spending five hours with a loveable cast of misfits. There’s the coffee shop’s boss Maddy, her co-worker Chay, a young engineering genius named Ashley, the recently-deceased Kishan, the infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, and a couple of other passers-by, all of whom are as charming as they are funny.
Necrobarista – Screenshots
Maddy and Chay quickly establish themselves as the stars of the show, and their relationship forms the heart of this ghost story. Maddy, who inherits the coffee shop from her pun-loving mentor Chay at the start of the story, begins the game as a curt, quick-witted barista who’s faster with a comeback than your coffee. But as things progress, the tragedy that links Maddy and Chay together becomes readily apparent.
It’s also impressive how quickly Necrobarista can introduce compelling drive-by characters who nearly steal the show. Side stories pop in and out without much warning, like one character’s dream of becoming a battle bot champion. A pair of teens who attempt to steal some liquor from the bar might have the best line in the game: “If you’re not perpetuating teen drinking culture, you’re a loser.”
A Bold New Style
The most immediately noticeable thing that sets Necrobarista apart from the typical visual novel is its presentation. Where other games would just give you a text box, some static character art, and a backdrop, Necrobarista moves like an animated TV show. The 3D graphics are lovely and well animated, even if all you need to do to make them move is press the enter key to progress the dialogue – which Necrobarista presents via speech bubbles rather than a text box.
The art style is clearly anime-inspired, but there’s more than just the character art behind that inspiration. Since it’s animated, there are nice bits of cinematography at work here as well. Scene-specific camera angles that dramatically zoom in on characters and sudden cuts make Necrobarista a more engaging affair than most visual novels.
If I had to pick Necrobarista’s closest animated equivalent, it would be the work of Studio Shaft, creators of shows like Bakemonogatari and Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei. Necrobarista shares Shaft’s penchant for quick cuts to stylized blocks of text and eccentric camera angles that frame its characters from all kinds of obscure positions. That comparison is definitely a compliment, and its camera work helps Necrobarista stand out as an unusually pretty visual novel, not to mention a very screenshot-able one. Trust me, my folder is pretty full.And what a wonderful metaphor a coffee shop is to tackle the kinds of themes developer Route 59 chases during Necrobarista’s fairly short runtime. Like in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which drew parallels between part-time work and a zombie apocalypse (albeit Shaun worked at an electronics store), the coffee shop is a location that uses the drudgery of part-time work as a launchpad to dive into more heady questions about life and death.
The writing is not all that different from the existential voice of millennials raised on social media. That is to say, the characters speak to each other with a very post-2008 Great Recession nihilistic attitude. You’ll surely recognize it when people complain about capitalism and student debt, or make fun of old people. For some, I can imagine the characters will likely come off as insufferably young – although Tik Tok tells me that there are already gamers out there who will find them insufferably old. Fortunately for me, these characters walk and talk like my generation, which makes them incredibly endearing to me, personally. (With apologies to my boomers and zoomers.)
Necrobarista is more interested in living (and dying) in the moment than rushing toward some climactic resolution. That can drag at times as its characters meander and take detours, interact with minor characters, or have off-topic conversations.There are also extra bits of story that can be unlocked by collecting specific tokens at the end of each chapter, though it’s kind of a pain in the ass to do so. Certain words will be highlighted during the main story, and you can then pick seven highlighted words at the end of each chapter to convert into tokens representing a specific character or place.Short interludes between chapters then let you explore the coffee shop freely in first-person perspective and interact with various objects. These objects can unlock stories if you have the right amount of unique tokens, but more often than not I found myself coming up short, which is a shame since some of these asides are quite good.
But that annoying system aside, Necrobarista’s characters kept me coming back, and the more time I spent with them the more I grew to like them. Readers who are drawn to melancholy will likely find a particular joy here, and credit to the creative team for crafting such a bittersweet experience that lingers just the right way once the credit rolls.