Where do we go when we die? Is there a heaven? A hell? An in-between? In the world of Necrobarista, the in-between is certainly real, allowing the recently departed just 24 hours to wander the Earthly realm before moving on to whatever comes next.
For the freshly dead who happen to call Melbourne, Australia their home, they’ll most likely end up spending this final day on Earth in an unsuspecting little cafe called The Terminal. Known for their damn good beans and their status as an establishment that serves both the living and the dead, this is the sole location you’ll inhabit as you become entangled in the inventive, enlightening, silly, and somber world of Necrobarista.
From the trailers, I had pegged the game as a fast-paced murder mystery sort of story for a couple of key reasons. One was the moody lighting and ominous language about death and time limits that permeated the marketing material. Another, though, was the uniquely kinetic way the game seemed to be presenting its story.
Necrobarista is entirely a visual novel, with no cocktail-mixing or coffee-blending minigames to speak of. Rather than deliver the goods through standard character portraits and dialogue boxes, every moment of Necrobarista plays out like a moment from a fully animated feature. It combines gorgeously framed still-shots within a 3D space and snippets of movement and animation to provide a game-changing visual novel experience. It’s like scrolling through a gallery of scenes from a film with the dialogue superimposed onto the image.
While the entire game takes place in and around The Terminal, the fact that you get to see a different corner and room in each scene rather than spending hours looking at the same handful of background illustrations keeps things constantly fresh. This method of storytelling gets you truly immersed in the world, and helps add a wealth of personality to the characters. There were so many moments of comedically timed close-ups or goosebump-inducing camera angles that simply could not have happened if this were a standard visual novel.
It’s all brought together by the moody and heartwrenching music of the game. I felt like I recognized the sound of the score as I played through the game, and sure enough, the credits revealed that iconic Australian anime composer Kevin Penkin was responsible for the gorgeous, piano-heavy tunes that flow through each scene.
Throughout each of the stylish story chapters, certain words will be highlighted in yellow. At the end of a chapter, you’re presented with a jumble of every highlighted word and prompted to choose seven. Your selected words are converted into thematic “fragments”, like the mention of the word “expiry” becoming a Death fragment or “mythical” becoming a Magic fragment. These can be spent to unlock Memory story passages when you’re exploring The Terminal in first-person between the chapters.
I enjoyed the idea of key words having an importance outside of those scenes, and there was a level of strategy in trying to mine the chapters for words that tied into specific fragments needed to unlock a Memory, but the stakes here were too low. It feels like the kind of system that could be utilized in a more investigative, player-driven visual novel like Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney or Danganronpa. Even so, the way that this fragment mechanic is used fits perfectly for how serene the story is in Necrobarista.
See, for all of the flare and pizazz and sleek stylings of Necrobarista, at the heart of this five-hour game is a sensitive, melancholic story about coping with your own death and embracing the deaths of others. Maddy is a flippant and sarcastic barista who recently took over ownership of The Terminal from Chay, a warm father figure who looks just about thirty despite being hundreds of years old. The two of them are guilty of allowing many of their deceased guests stay far beyond their allotted time in the in-between, racking up a severe time-debt with the Council of Death. As the story plods along, though, what starts out seeming like a race against the clock to pay off their debt slows into the exploration of powerlessness in the face of death, atoning for your past misdeeds and more as the inhabitants of The Terminal come to grips with their personal situations.
Every character in the story is an absolute delight, and the somber narrative wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is if it weren’t for their charm. Maddy has the all-too-realistic snark of a 20-something barista, and she bounces perfectly off the rest of the cast. Characters like Ashley, a robotics-obsessed preteen who likes to get hopped up on coffee and toss knives around, or Kishan, a wandering soul who struggles to find the strength to move on after becoming attached to the crew at The Terminal, are well-rounded and delightful characters who will stick with me for ages.
It’s a shame that not everyone gets to shine. Three characters from the jaw-dropping opening cinematic go on to show up in a single scene together and never crop up again, and a fourth never gets to shows up at all! Perhaps their scenes were cut from the game or are planned to be introduced in future content updates, but to have such a strong cast of named characters alongside a handful of obviously important characters who barely make a single appearance is a bummer.