What’s your go-to place to meet up with friends, work colleagues, or family? I’m willing to guess that for many of you there’s probably a local café you’ve been a regular of at some point. Maybe it’s the cosy atmosphere, the brilliant beverages, or even the friendly people who run the establishment that keep you coming back every week. Even videogames fantatise the quaint setting of a café as a place to meet fascinating characters – games like Persona 5 with the Phantom Thieves’ hideout Café LeBlanc, a cosy place to relax in Animal Crossing’s The Roost, or even Café Alps in the Yakuza series if Kiryu wants to take a break from busting skulls.
There’s no doubt that cafes play an integral role for many of us, even if it’s just to get a quick caffeine fix, and that couldn’t be more important than in a particular Australian city known for its café culture: Melbourne. So how about a videogame set in a Melbourne café? That’s exactly the concept of Necrobarista, a narrative-driven indie game from Melbourne-based developers Route 59 Games. This relaxing and classy establishment known as The Terminal is tucked away in the back alleys of Melbourne, beckoning visitors with the enticing scent of a fine coffee blend wafting through the air. The only catch? Most of its customers are dead.
So grab a coffee, take a sip, and enjoy our review for this uniquely Australian visual novel.
This is no normal café, and no normal story either. Necrobarista is a wild ride surrounding a humble café that just so happens to be the hub for those passing onto the afterlife: The Terminal. Patrons who visit The Terminal are living (or dying) on borrowed time, with only 24 hours to come to terms with their deaths before passing onto the afterlife permanently. For some, this brief visit to the café allows them to accept their fate, but for others it’s a harrowing and emotional experience full of grief and denial.
The Terminal has recently changed hands – its previous owner, Chay, now hundreds of years old has passed the rights onto a young woman named Maddy Xiao, whose cheeky attitude is as flavoursome and bold as the coffee she brews. She effortlessly bonds with every new customer that walks through the door, exchanging conversation, friendly banter, and even profound life advice over a satisfying drink.
However, Maddy is not all she seems on the surface, as this budding barista just so happens to be a part-time necromancer, making deals with the dead and manipulating the few hours they have left. This proves to be troublesome for the Council, who oversee the cafe and ensure patrons are not overstaying their welcome to keep the balance. And the council worker assigned to the Terminal? Well, that would be none other than infamous bush-ranger, Ned Kelly. As the story unravels throughout 10 gripping chapters, players will discover there is far more to the Terminal and its patrons than meets the eye.
While the story of Necrobarista takes the spotlight, front and centre, the gameplay aspect is far more subtle, requiring very little interaction from the player and seeking instead to emphasise the narrative. Being a visual novel, gameplay consists almost solely through character interactions, dialogue, and internal monologues; it’s basically like reading through an interactive book. Really all you have to do is press A – it’s as simple as that. Each chapter, of which there are 12 in total, last approximately 20 – 40 minutes, which is just enough to deliver an engaging narrative without ever overstaying its welcome.
Between the chapters, players are free to explore every nook and cranny of The Terminal, which contains numerous secrets and hidden flashbacks. These side stories are as valuable to the player as the main narrative, as they provide deeper insight into each character, their motivations and their quirks. Most are quite light-hearted and comedic, but occasionally the game throws in an emotional interaction and does an incredible job of tugging the heartstrings when it needs to.
Where Necrobarista truly shines is through its writing, characters, and dialogue. Every character interaction is an amalgam of raw human emotion, brilliant comedy, and packed to the rafters with Australian mannerisms and references. Despite being full of dead people, The Terminal is not all doom and gloom, as most characters won’t hesitate to launch into some cheeky banter with each other. There’s no doubt that the writing of Necrobarista will be able to make you smile, laugh, and even have you the verge of tears all within the span of a single chapter.
The best cafes are often stylish and comfortable, with filtered light, welcoming interiors, and plenty of clutter. This is exactly what to expect from Necrobarista as you journey through the Terminal and into the afterlife. Despite being developed in Australia, the game adopts an anime-like cel-shaded appearance in its characters and environments, creating a comfy aesthetic to immerse the player. Though it may not be significantly detailed or graphically impressive, the game manages to deliver a visual style that at times is truly gorgeous, particularly through its use of light and dark.
Most of the game plays out as a series of still frames, with the camera slowly panning to create a sense of movement in each scene. Although animations are few and far between, characters are still highly emotive and exaggerated, keeping each scene entertaining and accompanying the equally-entertaining dialogue.
There are, unfortunately, some drawbacks to playing on Switch. Certain areas run very poorly, with significant drops in framerate, which seem especially jarring when playing through emotive segments. Aside from these occasional scenes, the game looks attractive in both handheld mode and on the big screen.
There’s one thing you’ll immediately notice upon booting up Necrobarista: there’s no voiced dialogue! Well, unless you’re playing in Chinese, that is. This initially took some getting used to, having been spoiled by previous VNs with full voice-acting. Though after a few chapters I found myself growing used to the lack of voices as one would reading a regular book, instead hearing the character’s lines as they appeared on the screen. There’s a saving grace though, as the lack of dialogue means you get to focus on one of the best aspects of the game: its music.
Composed by Kevin Penkin (a rising star among videogame musicians responsible for the music to Florence), the soundtrack of Necrobarista is as stylish as its setting. Many of the tracks are relaxed, slow, and perfectly suited to the pace of the gameplay. Soft piano and synthesiser resonate throughout The Terminal as its patrons discuss the fragility of life and contemplate their inevitable end. It’s a beautiful score that I’ve already listened to by itself on numerous occasions and is worth playing Necrobarista even for this alone. Enjoy one of my favourite tracks from the game below:
Outside of the main 10 chapters, there are a few added bonuses that are certainly worth your time. As mentioned earlier, there are memories scattered throughout the terminal, each of which unlocks concept art that can be viewed at any time. Additionally, two optional side-stories explore the origins and relationships of other customers at the Terminal – an awkward and edgy teen romance, and tense moments between an attractive woman and her devious Yakuza associate. Both of these extra stories should not be skipped and have vastly different tones from the main narrative.
The final bonus is the inclusion of a scene creator, where players can build their own settings and interactions between characters of their choice. While it may seem intriguing, this does not seem optimised for the Switch, as the interface runs very slowly and is prone to crashing (as it did several times as I was attempting to use it). Hopefully this is patched in future updates, as I’d avoid it in its current state.
If you’re looking for the perfect game to play while sitting in your favourite café enjoying that signature blend, look no further. Although its gameplay is minimal, Necrobarista offers up a bold story, served with deep emotions, and memorable characters. Alongside an attractive aesthetic and a perfectly-matched soundtrack, this proves to be a visual novel that is likely to impress most fans of the genre. Those who enjoy engaging narratives will be left satisfied upon leaving the Terminal, especially thanks to the uniquely Australian writing and humour of each of its patrons. This hidden gem nestled in a Melbourne alleyway will certainly have players dying to come back for another drink.
So, why should you play it?
- A creative, engaging, and emotional narrative.
- Entertaining writing and character dialogue.
- Many Australian references will appeal to an Aussie audience.
- Slick and stylish presentation.
- Soundtrack as smooth as its coffee.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
- Complete lack of voiced audio – if you’re not fond of reading, this isn’t for you.
- Some slight performance issues on Switch.
A review code was kindly provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.