What is it? A visual novel about ghosts in a cafe where avocado costs four dollars extra.
Expect to pay: $20/£15.50
Developer: Route 59
Publisher: Coconut Island Games
Reviewed on: Windows 10, Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 1060
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
I'd never played a game set in the city where I live until Necrobarista, which takes place in Melbourne. It's not Australian in obvious ways (no kangaroos), but it turns dead outlaw Ned Kelly into a supernatural enforcer in shorts and a Collingwood scarf who menaces a laneway cafe, and expects you to realise that's funny. If a New York show wants me to know bodegas and Tompkins Square Park, a Melbourne game can get away with referencing Collingwood.
Necrobarista is a visual novel about the Terminal cafe, whose customers include ghosts and the living. It's a space between the afterlife and Carlton, where the dead have bodies and a 24-hour-limit before moving on. People overstay that limit, but doing so runs up a debt the Terminal is supposed to pay off. Its owners haven't been, and here comes the conflict.
Unlike visual novels where 2D characters slide past static backgrounds, Necrobarista is 3D. There are brief animations, characters pouring drinks or walking around, but even when there aren't the cinematography is considered. Two characters will be talking, heads close in the wide shot, but then in opposite halves of the screen in close-ups to suggest metaphorical distance. The text sometimes vibrates, swirls, or grows. Everything about the composition is thoughtful.
The story doesn't branch—to be completely clear, it's a visual novel, not a visual novel-like game—and it's just a matter of clicking through (with no auto-read, though you can go back a line with the left arrow key). There's an interactive element to Necrobarista, though. Between chapters, you walk around the Terminal in first-person finding vignettes called Memories. They're optional, giving insights into the staff or customers, and the way you unlock them takes some explaining.
You can click on highlighted words during chapters to see additional text that adds context or explains slang or mysticism. A cloud of those words, called fragments, reappears at the end of the chapter and you're asked to choose seven. Each word connects to a theme, character, or location, sorted after you pick them into categories like "magic" or "lore" that can be tricky to guess. Only after you choose a word do you get told what kind of fragment it is, and things like magic and lore obviously overlap. Each Memory costs three fragments of specific types to unlock. You might need one "Maddy", one "food", and one "death" fragment to unlock a Memory about a character named Maddy that touches on those themes. There's a menu of every Memory you've found so far and what fragments they cost to unlock, so you can always see what you need. I'd find myself staring at a cloud of words thinking, "I need more death and Melbourne."
The rest of Necrobarista is a story about dealing with grief, lightened with regular jokes about people who order overcomplicated coffees. It begins with a newly dead Melbournite named Kishan wandering into the Terminal and being briefed on how things work—our convenient viewpoint character. Meanwhile, necromancer baristas Maddy and Chay struggle to keep their business alive while being distracted by debt collector Ned and bratty teenager Ashley.
Conversations about death and legacy on one hand, and silly stuff like malfunctioning robots on the other, are deliberately contrasted. The deft way it hops from tragic to comic is Necrobarista's greatest strength.
While there's a lot of Australian-isms, the tone is as anime as the big-eyed characters suggest. Ashley is a robotics genius with a cybernetic arm who scratch-builds her own Tachikomas, for instance. Also, the writing sometimes slips into the formalism you get from writers who grew up reading Japanese that's been translated into stilted English, with the occasional typo. Take this description of Collingwood: "Where else can you find an active night life scene amid active factories, shots, and apartments built all during the 1800's?"
Such is life
Occasionally the skeletal remains of another Necrobarista peek through. Halfway in, three characters are introduced and immediately vanish, while a character seen in the intro never appears in the game. The ability to walk around scenes listening to people's thoughts, present in a demo, is no longer here. I can't help but wonder what it could have been with a little more interactivity and a larger cast, which would perhaps be possible if videogame funding were as easy to find in Melbourne as a $3.50 flat white.
What's there remains great, however. It's presented gorgeously, the camera finding interesting angles for every scene, and the story hits all its emotional beats, whether it's dealing with loss or puns. Plus, it made me feel a powerful need for sourdough toast with eggs, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, and beans. Maybe a muffin to go. No, not the poppyseed one.