PC, iOS, Nintendo Switch
July 23, 2020
Coconut Island Games, AGM PLAYISM
It’s not very often that Melbournians are treated to a video game set in their own city. We’re used to settings all over the world, but I guess nobody thinks of Australia’s urban centres as a good backdrop to a story. So it stands to reason that the job fell to local developer Route 59 (presumably a reference to the tram route that runs from Airport West to Flinders Street Station) to tell a more local tale. That’s how Necrobarista came to be. It’s an emotional character-driven visual novel that takes places in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, set within – what else? – a café. It’s a unique idea full of interesting characters and backed up by flashy, dramatic visuals.
The Terminal is a café in the Melbournian suburb of Carlton. It’s great to see an Australian location so lovingly rendered, even if it’s only the interior of a single café. The Terminal is certainly a picture of the cafés you can find in the real-life suburb, even if it is triple the size. The industrial-looking building with brick walls and wooden furniture is instantly familiar, as are the types of cakes and drinks printed on the menu board. The cast is suitably diverse too: three out of the five main characters are people of colour, and although the story isn’t about romance, there is some mention of characters being in same-sex relationships. It’s always encouraging to see, and makes identifying with the characters all the easier.
The café, and therefore its owner, Maddy, is in debt – but not with money. What she owes is time. Through the art of necromancy, she and her mentor Chay keep The Terminal open to both the living and the dead, allowing the recently-passed to spend up to 24 hours processing their fate the best possible way: with their drink of choice. The problem is, they have a habit of letting them outstay their 24 hours, resulting in quite the hefty tab with the Council of Death. The story seems to begin with the arrival of a council member, Ned Kelly (yes, that one), who announces that their tab is due. The story that follows is spread across many characters and tackles feelings of grief, loss, and acceptance.
Necrobarista has been in development for quite a long time, and has been a frequent feature at PAX events. Long-time followers will know that the look of the game has been revamped a number of times, and boy are those redesigns well worth it. There’s no understating how great this game looks. Its anime-inspired cell-shaded style paired with dramatic lighting makes everything come to life, even with minimal animation.
As with many visual novels, the dialogue is displayed line by line. But rather than being delivered by a static image of the speaking character, the camera shifts constantly to show dynamic shots of the scene, creating the feeling of reading a really cool comic book or graphic novel.
“… anime-inspired cell-shaded style
paired with dramatic lighting
makes everything come to life.”
Most popular visual novels these days are actually hybrids – they’ll combine the visual novel genre with other gameplay elements such as puzzles or branching paths. You’ll want to be aware that Necrobarista doesn’t really do this. The only gameplay that isn’t clicking the ‘next’ button is selecting the occasional highlighted keyword in dialogue that when clicked provides a bit of background context to a concept or character. These keywords will be useful later during the break between chapters, in which you’re free to explore The Terminal in first-person view. There are many optional stories available to peruse that provide more insight on the café’s owners and patrons. There is some great writing contained within these stories, but it is a lot of reading without the flashy graphics. Playing this game in smaller sessions may be needed to fully digest all these without going cross-eyed… or you can simply move on to the next chapter.
“The meat and potatoes of every visual
novel is the story, and therein lies
the unfortunate flipside.”
There are only so many props Necrobarista can get for great graphics. The meat and potatoes of every visual novel is the story, and therein lies the unfortunate flipside to the game.
The initially fascinating premise of having a time-debt to the Council of Death sets a dramatic stage for a story of hardship, struggle and loss, but the game seems to allow this potential to go to waste. It instead focuses much more on short, separate scenes between a few of the characters that don’t seem to contribute much to the overall story. A game driven by its characters rather than a fast-moving plot needn’t be a bad thing, but the characters need to actually service the story for this to be effective. The problem is that too many of these scenes don’t contribute enough to the resolution.
To the game’s credit, there are scenes that serve to both further the plot and reveal some insight into character motivations and actions. These scenes are great and well-written, but there are just as many scenes that don’t move anything forward at all. There are several unique characters that are introduced for just one scene, never to be heard from again. These are characters that appear in the opening cinematic, leading one to believe they serve an actual role in the story, but they don’t. The best that can be said is that they serve as an exploration of the many types of patrons that visit The Terminal, but in practice, they just take focus away from the main story. And for all of these character-oriented scenes, we’re still left with a lot of questions. While the story does follow the characters in their different ways of processing the grief of loss, the most interesting aspects of this setting is left by the wayside. Not even the café’s time-debt is resolved in a satisfying way: it’s solved offscreen so suddenly and conveniently that it seems like a Deus Ex Machina, leaving me wondering exactly what protagonist Maddy was meant to have learnt from the whole affair.
In a strange way, Necrobarista seems like the first episode of an ongoing series: the stage has been set and the main characters have been introduced, but their character arcs have only just begun. If this were the beginning of an episodic adventure, what we’ve been given so far would be incredibly promising and ensure my purchase of the sequels to come. But as a standalone, it seems somewhat unfulfilled.
- Amazing anime-style look
- Generally good character writing
- A lot of sequel potential
- A tad rough around the edges
- Doesn't feel like a full story
For all of my criticisms, I can’t stress enough how much potential I see in Necrobarista. From its fascinating supernatural setting to its amazing and dynamic art style, a sequel to this game would be an instant buy from me. If it’s going to stay as a standalone though, it needs more substance. Either way, I am excited to see more of Route 59’s work. They’ve created an incredible world and an even more incredible visual novel style.