Time to say goodbye // horizons are never far // would I have to find them alone?
Can I tell you a secret?
I’ve been holding off on this Necrobarista review.
Not because I procrastinate these things, mind you — normally, when I play a really good game, I’m excited to write about it, my fingers itching to express what I’ve experienced.
Not with Necrobarista. Not in the slightest.
Because… when I write this review, I’ll be done with the game, and it’ll be off to the next one to play, review, repeat.
And I’m not ready to say goodbye to Necrobarista. Not yet.
But since Necrobarista is all about moving on, perhaps it’s time. Even though I don’t feel ready. Even though I want to stay.
Why do I feel this way?
Developed by Australian devs Route 59 and self-published with assistance from Coconut Island Games, Necrobarista describes itself on its Steam page as “a dynamic and diverse cast of characters as they navigate Melbourne’s hipstery coffee culture, the questionable ethics of necromancy, and the process of letting go.” The story follows a colorful cast of characters that inhibit a back-alley Melbourne coffee shop called The Terminal, which caters to both the living and the dead and sends the dearly departed off on the next leg of their journey with a listening ear and a cup of something warm.
As is standard for a visual novel, players mostly interact with Necrobarista by clicking the mouse or hitting “enter” to move the story forward. There are exploratory portions of the game in-between chapters wherein players can wander around The Terminal and discover short stories about the employees and patrons of this mysterious coffee shop by way of WASD and mouse, but the players themselves are never inserted into the story. Like a fly on the wall, players learn about this waypoint between Earth and what lies beyond.
Necrobarista’s storyline starts off with a simple-ish premise — initially focusing on Kishan, who has stumbled into The Terminal after apparently dying, Maddy, the barista-turned-business owner, explains the rules to the newcomer. She certainly goes into more detail than this, but the gist is that he’s dead, he has to accept this, and has 24 hours before he must vacate this plane and move onto the next. If he doesn’t, however many hours he overstays goes on The Terminal’s “tab,” and they’ll owe the Council of Death the difference as a time debt. Luckily, Maddy and Chay, the former owner, aren’t hard-asses when it comes to shooing away the recently passed, and since Ashley, the loitering teenage engineer with a cool robotic hand, has really taken a shine to Kishan, he quickly becomes a friend to The Terminal’s keepers.
Unfortunately, time waits for no man, and Kishan is no exception. As his hours pass, he feels his mind and body beginning to shut down. His memory becomes foggy, his emotions become hard to control, and he feels excruciating waves of pain. While he’s silently losing touch with himself and the concept of being human, Chay’s long-time friend, Ned Kelly (yes, THAT Ned Kelly), drops by to ensure the rules are being enforced. As a member of the Council of Death, it’s Ned’s job to ensure that the balance is kept and that the deceased don’t overstay their time.
As Ned Kelly’s current age would be 164 if he were still alive, that begs the question — if Chay is his supposed long-time friend, just how old is Chay? Turns out he’s hundreds of years old, and, without giving away too much information, that is about to change. As someone who never envisioned himself dying, he also never prepared for death, so he was pretty surprised when it happened rather unexpectedly. Since he and Maddy are both necromancers, Maddy thought she’d be able to buy him some more time, but, as the story unfolds, it’s a lot more complicated than just a reciting a few passages from forbidden books…
I’d rather not divulge much more information about Necrobarista’s story, but what I will say is that I was caught off guard emotionally in a similar way to the ending of Final Fantasy X (my favorite Final Fantasy and all-time favorite game). I wasn’t ready.
I just wasn’t ready.
For one thing, the writing is really. fucking. good. Not just the storyline, but the characters’ personalities and developments were rock solid. Everyone felt as if they were a larger than life version of someone I knew. They were human. They were real. They had real emotions and conveyed them in raw and powerful ways, the realest among them simply being the desire to live and the fear of what what lies ahead. I resonated with so many points brought up by all the characters, connecting with every single one at various stages.
The strong writing goes beyond the characters and carries through to the flavor text found between chapters; I’m specifically referring to a short story simply called “Billiards.” The passages are broken up into three parts scattered throughout the coffee shop and detail a scene between a young, passionate pro billiards player and an older, predictable pro that he idolizes. I’ll not spoil it, but I was left mouth agape at the ending, a twist I didn’t see coming but, upon a second reading, totally should have and LOVED that I didn’t.
Another place where Necrobarista shines is in the aesthetics. While I initially waffled between loving and disliking the style (specifically, something about Ashley’s proportions in her face threw me off), I’m happy to report it grew on me. It’s just so different, and I think this bold style really paid off since everything felt new and refreshing to look at. The Terminal was perhaps the prettiest “character” of the bunch, though — the tree in the center is beautifully lit, its white trunks juxtaposed against the darker wood of the shop. Different rooms in the shop all have their own unique feel, which really helps set the appropriate tone when those story sections take place.
Speaking of the coffee shop, it feels alive, despite Maddy’s protests. She mentions early on that hallways and rooms come and go as they please, and this seems to happen in between chapters as players are given free reign of The Terminal. Doors that were previously closed open up as time passes, and by the end of Necrobarista, your world becomes a little bit bigger, adding to the surreal mysticism of the place.
I’m also extremely in love with how Necrobarista handled story progression. As previously stated, players move story forward with a click or tap of a button. This means that players can control the pace of the story, swiftly moving through some parts or lingering longer on others. As it’s less a visual novel and more a kinetic novel, Necrobarista allowed their characters to keep moving until friction finally took hold, meaning players had the power to up the drama if desired. There were definitely certain moments that deserved pregnant pauses, and I fully took advantage of this feature. It was amazing to watch even the smallest bit of movement become so weighty, like watching someone pat another person’s shoulder or sigh. I loved this ability to dictate pacing, and I really hope this becomes a trend in visual novels.
And the music! Oh, the music. Most of it is lovely, but there’s a particular song I’m absolutely obsessed with. Aptly named Sunrise in Limbo, it so eloquently portrays my emotional experience with Necrobarista — charmingly lighthearted at first as I came to know it, only to be hit with the reality that all good things must come to an end. Both in the song and the game, I found myself recognizing when the ending drew nearer and desperately wanted to hold onto individual moments a little longer despite understanding the inevitable need for progression and that, whether I liked it or not, it would all be over before I was ready.
I think that’s the beauty of Necrobarista.
If I’m being perfectly honest, it didn’t do a great job of explaining the world it occupied. I always felt like I was missing crucial information, and I’m hoping I can just chalk it up to being non-Australian — for example, I had no idea who Ned Kelly was before this game, so that helmet he wore was absolutely lost on me. Maddy mentions something about exorcising the blender on a monthly basis, and I’m not sure if another currency exists besides time or if they’re just giving all their patrons free drinks. The ending threw me through a loop when it came to Chay talking about… ermm… being in two places at once, so to speak, and that’s literally all the information I was given.
But none of that truly mattered. I was so caught up in character dynamics and their feelings that I felt like I had come to know them as my own friends. Like I said, I felt like these were people I already knew, so maybe that helped things, but it was crazy to me how connected I had become after only a few hours of gameplay. I didn’t want the experience to end, and I cried when it did. Not bawl-my-eyes-out crying, but I definitely reached for the tissues. It hurt to say goodbye.
It’s this haziness, I think, that makes Necrobarista so special. Logically, I’m left with a hell of a lot more questions than answers, but emotionally I understand it. Perhaps it’s because the developers tapped into a very real, very human experience — perhaps the idea of being dead doesn’t scare all of us, but the idea of saying goodbye is paralyzing. Not just to those we love, but to ourselves. Everything we’ve built. Everything we’ve cherished. Everything we’ve dreamed of. Gone.
Did it matter?
Am I ready for that day?
Will it hurt?
All of those questions and more practically assaulted me by way of charming characters, stunning visuals, and music to match. In the end, I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye. But, like we learned — whether we’re ready or not, we must move on.
I’ve played a plethora of great games this year — hell, I just played CARRION right before this one — but as it stands, Necrobarista is the experience to beat. In terms of gameplay I’m left wanting a little more (those in-between portions weren’t my favorite), but the stories and emotional connections conveyed are bar-none the strongest I’ve read all year. I’ve heard whiffs of potential further content coming out, and I can honestly say I’m beyond eager for more, as it means I don’t truthfully have to say goodbye to Necrobarista just yet. It’s been a long time since a game has made me feel this way, and I’m grateful I got to know it.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Route 59, Coconut Island Games; Developer: Route 59; Players: 1; Released: July 22, 2020; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a review copy of Necrobarista provided by the publisher.