The Dark Souls of Podcasts
Death comes for us all, and boy can that be a scary thought! Since the dawn of creative works, humans have tried to cope with this immutable fact in all sorts of ways. Some languish in it, waxing on about the futility of life and the cruelty of it all; others try to laugh their way through their existential dreads. Necrobarista tends to be a lot of the latter, though it still manages to (mostly) work its humor into a heartening and warm experience.
Developed by Melbourne-based developers Route 59, Necrobarista is a visual novel about The Terminal, an everyday cafe that serves not just living customers, but also recently departed ones. The rules for The Terminal are simple: if you’re dead, you have 24 hours to stick around and do whatever you want to, but once those hours are up you have to “go to the other side.” Unfortunately, the owners of the establishment, necromancers Maddy and Chay, have a bit of a bleeding heart problem, letting far too many visitors stay past their anointed hour, racking up a huge debt of time owed to the people in charge of balancing the universe’s books.
While Necrobarista explores a different lead perspective for each of its scenes, much of the early story is told through Kishan, one of those recently departed customers coming to grips with both his death and this new second world he never knew anything about. The first “Part” of the game largely focuses on explaining the basics and bureaucracy of necromancy and what happens in that time spent in between life and death. World-building is always one of my favorite aspects of any game and it can be incredibly fun when done right. Necrobarista has a fun nonchalant way of discussing things like a council of death with the same degree of seriousness as the faux importance of poppyseeds in muffins.
A lot of this worldbuilding is delivered through the occasional appearance of bolded yellow text, which can be clicked on mid-conversation for an aside-quip or genuine explanation. These words are all derived from a group of twelve categories that you can later reexamine at a chapter’s end and spend like a sort of points system on stories about certain characters or things related to that field of thought. These stories help add to the characterization of the main cast, and oftentimes end with either a prevailing philosophical musing or ongoing gag that’s a boon in making those moments between chapters really feel like a casual break.
As a visual novel, Necrobarista takes a more nontraditional and cinematic approach to its scene composition. Whereas most VNs usually work their dialogue into a fixed UI, with the visual aspect being delivered in a fixed location, here the words can end up anywhere on the screen at any time. While scenes are still mostly static like a standard VN, the perspective constantly moves around a 3D environment, making the story feel dynamic and the characters more vibrant. We’ve seen plenty of experimentation in visual novel design over the years, and while I might be more partial to the sleek and simple visuals of Va-11 Hall-A, making a game where every frame aims to be like those once-a-chapter CGs is interesting and well executed.
Many of the scenes in Necrobarista are without sound, with only the occasional clang or magical glimmer interrupting the constant flow of easy-going music. The soundtrack for the game was composed by Kevin Penkin, whose work I recognized from Made in Abyss, which is a great tonal match for the world around The Terminal. Full of moody reflections as well as some jovial gag tracks, though it isn’t particularly large, the tracklist is used effectively for each scene and it definitely left the biggest impact on me out of any other part of the game (in no small part because of the rainy mood effect playing behind most of the heavier songs). It’s because of all these charming and well executed aspects of Necrobarista that I loved, that made me all the more frustrated when it stumbles.
Much of the world-building that I loved to see was locked behind that unlock system I mentioned, which is limited to seven or so points per chapter, which feels like a lot less if you end up accidentally picking the same category over and over again. It can be pretty hard to puzzle out exactly what words lead to which categories as well, which unfortunately led to me finishing the game with only a handful of stories unlocked, and a pretty substantial surplus of points that I couldn’t really do anything with. The only way to unlock the rest of the stories and earn more points is to replay the game, skipping through scenes until you get to the words you can click on so you can pick them at the end and hope that you guessed the right categories you need. I get that part of examining the concept of death can be realizing we might not be able to do everything, but it feels like a waste to walk past these tantalizing stories and then have to while away through the scenes I’ve already seen to try and learn more.
Though I truly do appreciate the visual aspect and experimentation as well, some of the scenes and character models can feel a bit janky at times. Whether it was just unflattering lighting or a few cases of model clipping, oftentimes scenes ended up feeling less composed and more slapped together, which is an unfortunate undermining of the exceptional work that makes up most of the game. It’s clear that plenty of effort went into nailing the feel of quick and fast camerawork, but with so many close-up shots of the individual characters, it becomes hard not to notice the flaws.
Necrobarista is not a long game, and it uses its time well for the most part. Much of the second act is spent building on the foundations and world that’s been established in a more emotionally resonant way that’s unexpected, and I think it nails in presenting a narrative about the thing we all dread in an optimistic and considered way, without removing the reality that we will still always fear it. My only real complaint with the narrative is its overreliance on humor, which is always hit-or-miss by default, but it’s especially frustrating when it teases at becoming something more. The poppy seed story I mentioned earlier is the closest the game gets to playing around with its barista namesake (outside of a few espresso jabs), and it’s only a bummer because I would love to have heard so much more of it instead of a lot of the comic-relief scenes with twelve-year old scientist Ashley which are easily the weakest parts of the game, even when they get serious.
Overall Necrobarista is at the very least a refreshing take on the visual novel genre that doesn’t come off as parodic and instead genuinely inspired. It’s a quick nice story with enjoyable characters that explores a lot of deep concepts, but doesn’t go too deep in the process of talking about them. It’s not some wild revolutionary game that’s out here to blow minds, but it’s still a charming and imaginative story that left me wanting more.