Necrobarista is one of those games that isn’t quite innovative, or even enjoyable, but that -contains enough interesting decisions and everything-but-the-kitchen sink creativity that it might be worth playing anyway.
The game is set in a Melbourne cafe, where the recently dead can come and stay for a day before moving on to the afterlife. We follow Maddy, the titular necrobarista and owner of the cafe, as she attempts to make good on the debt that the cafe has run up by allowing spirits to stay beyond their allotted 24 hours. The other characters include Chaey, Maddy’s mentor and the previous owner of the cafe, Ashley, a caffeine-addicted child engineer, and Ned (Kelly), the hardass bureaucrat trying to collect on the cafe’s debt.
The game plays for the most part like a visual novel, with the player clicking to continue through dialogue as the graphics change to match. However, where traditional visual novels tend to consist of 2d sprites superimposed over a background, with a textbox at the very front, Necrobarista goes for a more cinematic approach. The environment and characters are all modelled in 3d and each scene is played out in the space, your clicking not only moving forward the dialogue, but also changing the angle of the camera, or the blocking of the scene. It’s interesting, and definitely more dynamic than the usual visual novel standard, but the team doesn’t quite have the know-how to pull it off exactly. There’s an overuse of dutch angles, and the perspective of each shot seems to be motivated more by novelty than actual effect.
Other aspects of the game are similarly unmotivated by dramatic function. Between each chapter there’s an interlude of greek chorus-like conversation between three of Ashley’s robots, as well as an exploration section where you explore the cafe and spend tokens you earn in the visual novel sections to get access to vignettes about aspects of the cafe or other past visitors.
One particular omission is the lack of actual barista-ing. With a name like Necrobarista one would expect something like VA-11 HALL-A’s bartending system, or Coffee Talk’s barista minigame, but no. Occasionally you’ll watch a character pour a shot of espresso, or hear the screech of steaming milk, but it’s never something that’s in the player’s hands.
It’s a shame that the game has this lack of focus, because at its heart is a legitimately touching story about relationships, loss, and the necessity of letting go. There’s a compelling throughline throughout the game of people who aren’t ready for the future being forced to meet it anyway, to adapt to the demands of a life that they can’t control or deny.
It’s compellingly millennial in some ways, but at other times that throughline is buried under anime stylings or the exaggerated australianism of the setting. The game constantly catapults itself between an exaggerated anglo-australian vernacular and the quippy banter and outlandish characterisation of an anime, making it hard to gauge the tone of different scenes. The environment outside of the cafe looks like something out of the Monogatari series, all industrial pipes, magic hour and catwalks. At one point a clockwork portal opens in mid air allowing characters to step through it. But the game opens with a quote from Henry Lawson, Australia’s most iconic poet, and features Ned Kelly hanging around asking if other characters want a durry.
The game has pretty clearly been thought out, but none of it meshes in the way that it needs to. Shortly after release Route 59 announced further content centred on some of the side characters, 3 characters that appear for a scene and aren’t heard from again in the main story. This feels like an attempt to complete the story that was planned from the beginning. The game is too scattered, there are too many loose threads left hanging without resolution. It feels like a game that had its scope cut halfway through production, leading to a weird and disjointed experience that nonetheless managed to salvage the main story of the game.
When the game is looking at its central relationships, it manages to tell a compelling story about death, acceptance, and learning to live with the past that does tug at the heartstrings in places. But it does that in spite of the confused and tangential content that never quite manages to tie itself into the larger story. The necro works a lot better than the barista does.