In an undisclosed back-alley in the city of Melbourne, there’s a café. From the outside, it looks like any other business. It's a two-story building with plenty of space for tables, where an impressively tall tree stands somehow still confined to the insides of the building. On the second floor, bookshelves from wall to wall, along with a billiard table for those who prefer something that takes a little more hand-eye coordination. To top it off, the place offers an impressive view of the sunset, should you come at the appropriate time. But one glance at the rules will reveal that this is far from an ordinary place. “We serve both Living & Dead,” says the first, and you quickly realize just how special this café is. This is the Terminal, a place where the recently departed have 24 hours to spend on this plane of existence before moving on to the afterlife. Whether it’s to make peace with themselves, mingle with the living one last time, or just enjoy some coffee.
Released by Route 59 earlier this year, Necrobarista is a visual novel of the kinetic variety, meaning that there are no branching paths or multiple endings to achieve. You follow the momentum of the plot to its conclusion, hence the name “kinetic.” But you probably wouldn’t be able to tell from the screenshots alone. Historically, visual novels use sprites, text boxes, and static backgrounds for budgetary reasons. Necrobarista forgoes that tradition in favor of a fully realized 3D world. The whole presentation oozes with a style reminiscent of webcomics and anime from the early 2000s—an inspiration the game wears on its cell-shaded sleeves.
Given the origin of the genre that’s hardly surprising, but thanks to the flexibility afforded by 3D models, reading through it feels less like turning pages in a book and more like following a scene in a movie. You don’t click through lines of dialog as much as you weave through shots. Camera angles keep conversations dynamic, framing actions and expressions just the right way to maximize their impact. The text, free from the tyranny of dialog boxes, flows freely on-screen, demanding your attention as much as the rest of the graphics, with different fonts distinguishing between narration and spoken lines. Functionally, it works just like other VNs, but it hits you completely differently. It’s one thing to read a description of a thousand-yard stare (which don’t get me wrong, can be beautiful in its own right) but seeing it rendered is just something else. The visuals are part of the storytelling, giving these characters and scenarios a sense of place that otherwise, would’ve been left for your imagination to fill. Combine that with the game’s drop-dead (heh) gorgeous art style, and Necrobarista frequently hits you with truly cinematic shots, which is not something I ever expected to say about a VN.
In the visual department, Necrobarista goes above and beyond what’s normal for VNs, and although it’s impressive—seriously, look at the screenshots—I wouldn’t be writing this if that was its only trick. Fortunately, thine ears will also be blessed by the soundtrack composed by Kevin Penkin. If there’s a man that knows how to score an anime, it’s him, being responsible for the music of shows like Made in Abyss, Rising of the Shield Hero, and more recently, Crunchyroll’s adaptation of famous manhwa Tower of God. And he nails it again with Necrobarista. The soundtrack goes all over the mood spectrum: the melancholic, rhythmic piano of the menu theme “Confluence” immediately sets the contemplative tone of the game.
The upbeat jazz of “Banter Of The Highest Level” perfectly captures the more light-hearted comedic moments, while pieces like “Almost Time” and “Chimes of Midnight” drawn you in during its saddest moments, but always with that hint of optimism that everything will be okay in the end. And dear Lord, the opening theme “Nothing” by Soft Science sounds like something Hideo Kojima would’ve picked for Death Stranding, and I mean that as a sincere compliment! It fits and kinda foreshadows the end of the game so perfectly it’s hard to believe it wasn’t composed for it! The whole thing is fantastic, and I implore you to buy it on Bandcamp if you have the cash to spare.
This presentation makes Necrobarista something of an anomaly in its genre. If you chart a family tree, the game would fall closer to Telltale's The Walking Dead than Higurashi or Muv-Luv. After this much praise, you might think there’s a stinky "but" incoming. I’m happy to report that for all of its style, Necrobarista does not sacrifice its substance. All the pretty graphics in the world can’t hide the fact that this is still a visual novel, and as such, it still lives or dies by the quality of its writing, and boy, does Necrobarista lives! The writing is tight and concise, striking a fantastic balance between the light-hearted banter of the main cast, and the more touching heart-to-heart conversations that a game about death will inevitably hit at some point. It pulls you in with its slice-of-life shenanigans, blending its more fantastic elements with mundane day-to-day situations, only to hit you with a tearjerker that (at least for me) feels painfully relatable. It’s extremely well-balanced in tone and excellent in its world-building and by the end of the game, I just wanted more stories set in this fantastic version of Australia.
I’ve seen a few people compare the game to a 2015 anime called Death Parade, and I can see where they’re coming from. Both feature a sort of “purgatory” that serves as an in-between this life and the next, and both take the shape of a place where you go for drinks. But Death Parade has a more sinister premise. Each episode presents two recently deceased competing in a game with their souls on the line: the winner reincarnates, the loser goes to the Shadow Realm. But that’s not what the show is about. The games are a framing device to explore the (often) ugly past of each guest, after which bartender and judge Decim will give his verdict, and send their souls to the appropriate place. Necrobarista is not interested in judging, or even in what lies beyond the light. There’s no attempt on the part of the writers to mention Hell, Heaven, Valhalla, or whatever afterlife tickles your fancy. Even in-universe no one is sure of what awaits on the other side. For them, this “in-between” is just another part of their lives, something as natural and mundane as our regular-ass reality is for you and me. But death is still very much the same inexorable, unknown, and terrifying fate of all things. Something you cannot practice, prepare, or come back from. The end is scary, and that’s a fact the game doesn’t ignore.
For Necrobarista, it’s not the finality of death that matters. Rather than focusing on the event that punctuates every life, the game is much more interested in the way that it inevitably changes things, or sometimes, how they have already changed, and we’re just holding on to the past for dear life. We follow the main cast over four pivotal days as they come to terms with the mortality of those around them—and in the case of a few, their own. And as we do, it becomes increasingly clear that this is also a story about transitioning. Maddy, our protagonist, and barista of the Terminal has recently become the owner of the joint, along with the responsibility for the massive debt they own—the currency of the dead is time on this plane, and as it turns out, they built quite the debt by allowing their patrons to stay a little too long.
Kishan is a recently deceased soul that we meet right at the start of the game, and he’s struggling with the fact he’s not ready to move on. Chay, Maddy’s mentor and the former owner of the café, is a quasi-immortal necromancer that has lived for hundreds of years and as such, he’s had way more goodbyes than anyone else in the cast. Ashley is a 13-year-old girl with a prosthetic arm. She spends most of her time at the Terminal—sometimes helping with the shop, but mostly creating robots of dubious sentience—and one gets the impression that she’s not that used to the many goodbyes that come with the territory. Rounding up the main cast is Ned, an enforcer of supernatural law and order working for the Council of Death, responsible for maintaining the balance. He’s based on the real-life persona of Ned Kelly, a famous criminal in Australian history, and the way the game used his real crimes to characterize his fictional persona is interesting enough that it made me want to learn more about the man.
The main cast is excellent, and they gel together like clockwork. Complementing them are a few secondary characters that exist mainly to show off a side of the main cast (usually Maddy) that we don’t get to see otherwise. Not that they are badly written, but the amount of time they get on screen is so short that you could probably cut them and the plot would still chug along. They mostly appear in the “memoirs” you can unlock in-between chapters—side stories that flesh out the setting or the characters. It works like this: after each chapter, several words are highlighted, and you get to choose seven. Each word is related to a person, place, or concept, and you use these as tokens to unlock side stories. Some are mandatory to continue, but those never require anything to unlock. You then get to explore the Terminal in first-person to continue the main plot, unlock memoirs, or just take a bunch of screenshots.
This is the one thing I think will frustrate people. There’s no way of knowing which words relate to what—some you can easily infer by context, but the majority is left to chance. This can make some side stories harder to unlock. They’re also done purely in text format, a far cry from the rest of the game. The somewhat clunky execution and less striking visuals might turn some away from this content, but personally, I think this was an effective way to make the setting richer without padding out the main story. It’s there if you want it, and the developers are kind enough to give you enough tokens to unlock everything after you finish the main story.
Necrobarista is a game about many things. It’s about a hipster culture of coffee that I can’t possibly connect to. It’s about necromancers running a café for the dead and living alike. Most of all, it’s a character-driven story about letting go. The whole thing will take you about four or five hours, depending on how fast you read. There’s no voice acting, something I think works in the game’s favor. In a story all about moving on, it’s fitting that the pace is entirely up to the player. I’m aware every visual novel works like this, but here it feels...special. Moving on is inevitable, but sometimes, it's okay to linger just for a while longer, and with how gorgeous the whole game is, it’s like it’s begging you to do so. To stretch a second into a minute. Or an hour. And then, when you’re ready, to take the next step.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Necrobarista is like a perfect cup of coffee: warm, bittersweet, short, and extremely satisfying.