PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
April 4, 2023
Wings, Persona Theory Games
Persona Theory Games
What is the point of living? Is this all life has to offer? What do I imagine the ideal life to be? These are the questions that Kabaret deals with in its story, and it weaves together a fantastical tale that investigates several themes. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and there are times when the story leans too hard into its fantasy elements. But if you stay the course, you will find a decent story that explores themes such as consequences and order versus chaos.
Kabaret puts you in the shoes of Jebat, a young adult in Malaysia whose life is uneventful. His mother believes he is destined for greatness, but Jebat isn’t seeing that. While he is out being a food delivery driver, he witnesses a robbery and does nothing. This results in a winged demon attacking and putting a curse on him. The curse turns Jebat into a snake-like demon and casts him to a realm of monsters and demons. He’s found by the Caretaker, who brings him to the titular Kabaret and gives him a job as a Tea Master.
While Jebat’s main job is to pour tea for demons in the Kabaret, he also gets involved in the power struggle for its ownership. His life in the Kabaret forces him to confront his past, his views, and the welfare of others. One of Kabaret’s key strengths is that it doesn’t shy away from talking about difficult topics. It deconstructs story tropes such as the loser protagonist and being a knight templar.
“The lack of an obvious right or wrong path allows players to choose the direction they feel is best.”
Depending on your choices, there are also several endings that represent different beliefs of the Kabaret monsters. These choices are similar to a Shin Megami Tensei game, where there’s a clear Law, Chaos, and Neutral path. For Kabaret, these are candidates to be the next head of the titular realm, who will lead the monsters in a path that they envision.
Each path looks equally appealing, as the pros and cons are investigated. Jebat’s uneventful life and his desires are questioned, making it clear that there’s no single best path. The candidates acknowledge their flaws, but see the others as worse. This makes it better for the player to make their own decision, rather than feel there’s only one correct option.
The story pulls no punches, which is its greatest strength. Jebat will make several choices that have consequences for the story, and you see how they play out. It also doesn’t hesitate to dive into a character’s backstory, showing complex factors that lead to their behaviour. You relate to these characters by seeing their struggle through unfiltered lenses, and it makes you reflect on your actions. No character is the paragon of righteousness, but would you have done differently in their shoes? Asking yourself that question is part of the story’s draw, as you wonder if you really would make better decisions.
Another strength is the story’s use of Southeast Asian mythos, shown by the various demons and views present in the Kabaret. The demons have different views on the human condition based on their origins and experience. It helps Jebat and the player learn about their myths, as well as the reasons behind their support for certain causes. This affects how Jebat interacts with them and affects future choices. But the use of mythos is a double-edged sword that hurts the story as well.
The focus on the supernatural towards the end eclipses the human-understanding-demons storyline. Kabaret tries to make the story come back full circle, but it just combines the two storylines in a confusing mess. The story becomes disjointed and you forget what it was initially about. You are less likely to revisit the game or its multiple endings, especially because there is no way to fast-forward or skip scenes.
Kabaret is a visual novel, with branching paths and dialogues depending on your choices. The new owner of the Kabaret depends entirely on Jebat’s choices, shaped by the personality and views he develops after becoming a demon. To break up the monotony of reading a story, there are sections where you can play mini-games or talk with other demons. Unfortunately, these sections don’t add much to the story and feel like unnecessary distractions than proper additions.
A big mini-game is preparing tea, which is Jebat’s role. He will prepare tea for a variety of demons as a form of communication. Tea is influenced by its ingredients, and Jebat will have several ingredients available to him for every demon. You go through the traditional process of preparing tea, which is nice for the first few attempts. After that, it becomes repetitive and confusion quickly sets in.
Each guest you serve tea to will tell you what they want from a cup of tea. This is mentioned just before the tea preparation, and there’s no way to view it during the process. You must remember it or reload the game, waiting until the end of the conversation to find it. You get a different set of ingredients each time, but you can check the effects of each ingredient in your journal. The guest’s requirements aren’t a perfect match with the ingredients list, and you are guessing most of the time during preparation.
Instead of being a soothing and calm activity, preparing tea becomes a tightrope walk. There are no consequences to failing, but it’s frustrating to repeatedly get the recipe wrong and not know why. The story proceeds regardless of your success, which makes the tea preparation feel pointless.
The other activities found in Kabaret are traditional Malaysian games called Guli and Congkak, along with stage performances. They are fun to play, but just like tea preparation, they aren’t significant to the storyline. You must play them to proceed, but winning or losing doesn’t matter much. While there’s nothing wrong with experiencing traditional Southeast Asian culture, it feels like the games were thrown in for an attempt at variety, rather than an actual story purpose.
The game looks and sounds great. The songs in Bahasa Malaya are pleasant to listen to, and the artwork perfectly encapsulates the appearance of Southeast Asian monsters. You are immersed in the world of Kabaret, but once you realise the other aspects of the visual novel don’t matter much, the immersion breaks. Combine this with the confusing narrative towards the end and the overall experience is left wanting.
- Story that doesn't shy away from tough content
- Southeast Asian culture is deftly woven into the experience
- Mini games provide some variety and breaks in the narrative
- The story adds too many mystical elements towards the end
- Your performance in the mini games doesn't matter
- Tea preparation has vague descriptions and is unnecessarily hard
Kabaret has ambition, but that ambition gets in its own way. It asks tough questions and never shies away from the realities of life. Different perspectives are properly explored which provides depth for each viewpoint. It deftly weaves Southeast Asian culture into the story and it immerses you in the culture. But the story becomes too complicated and loses its best messages towards the end. The lack of stakes for the mini-games also makes them less appealing. Preparing tea is unnecessarily hard and vague, becoming a frustrating activity instead of a relaxing one. It’s a good visual novel with stories that don’t shy away from difficult content, but one you’re unlikely to revisit often because it feels like a lot of work.