When I play a video game on the precedent that coffee will be involved, I look for three things—menu, style, and gameplay. I find that it’s rare for a game to develop the narrative with the same level of passion as the artistic style or vice versa. And centered around coffee? That’s a big ask. Don’t get me wrong; I love cafe builders. They’re fantastic in their own right. But the stuff I really yearn for is intentional graphics coupled with a brilliant story and a killer soundtrack (I’m asking for a lot, I know).
Enter Necrobarista. The creators at Studio 59 heard my pleading cries, and have created a game that satisfies my digital coffee cravings at last.
With inspiration from cel-shaded anime, Necrobarista is a cinematic visual novel set in Carlton, a neighborhood of Melbourne, Australia. Visual novels have never been much of an interest to me, as many feel very static. So when Necrobarista Final Pour was re-released on the Nintendo Switch this summer, I was hooked after seeing its trailer.
You find yourself at the Terminal, a cafe that welcomes all—including the living and dead. There are only a few rules here: both breathing and recently departed souls may enter, don’t ask who’s alive, and the dead have 24 hours before they must move on. The joint is run by the wonderfully snarky Maddy Xiāo, the newly appointed owner and (here’s the twist) a necromancer. She greets all souls with “they say our coffee is to die for.” Maddy’s two passions often get her into trouble with her former boss Chay Wu, and Ned Kelly, the appointed rep from the Death Council, as she’s racked up a lot of debt. Not of the financial kind, but the worldly balance kind. Maddy has extended souls’ hours—totaling 600 hours of lent time—leading her to gamble to pay down the cafe’s debt.
Unlike your typical visual novel, Necrobarista is more of a motion manga than the 2D background and flat characters commonly seen in story-based games. Camera panning and melodical movements that sync with the music, breathe new life into the genre. Every turn, head tilt, and espresso pull feel purposeful and add to the immersive feeling of experiencing the story yourself—much like what a good book will do!
The game is broken up into episodes that play out like a short story. There’s not a whole lot to do as your only action is to press A to progress text or the ZR button to examine keywords, but it’s this part of the game I love the most. The meticulous attention to detail from the development team isn’t wasted. It’s a well-crafted story with characters you grow attached to. Through conversations with Maddy and the others, you will begin to piece together each character’s reason for coming to the Terminal. The format of conversating over a cup of coffee feels relaxing and authentic and allows you to focus on the story unfolding right in front of you. If you’re the type who seeks high-action battles or quests, you may find visual novels difficult to sit through. That’s exactly why I used to avoid visual novels, but Necrobarista’s high-octane cinematography and exceptional script hooked me in during the prologue.
At its core, Necrobarista explores the five stages of grief, and beautifully so. Each character is dealing with their own struggle, whether it be coming to terms with their own passing, learning to let go, or taking a leap of faith. Through every conversation, you get a better glimpse into each character’s personal journey with grief. At times it’s shocking and painful, and others just the right amount of silly for comedic relief.
I would have been satisfied enough with the visual novel aspect, but to be given a first-person exploration mode, additional side stories, and doodle and studio modes, we are truly spoiled rotten. Necrobarista understood the assignment. After finishing an episode, you are encouraged to explore open areas of the Terminal. Played in a first-person perspective, you need to look over each nook and cranny to find short stories that recount past customer experiences and conversations from the main characters. While not necessary for the playthrough, each side story and spinoff episode provide additional backstory. Episodes should be savored and appreciated by taking your time to soak up each line and the moody environments. I found myself clicking continue over and over to find out what happens next for it to be the end. If only I could get one more line, but alas, it was time to move on, much like the theme of the narrative.
When necromancy and coffee mix, you get Necrobarista: Final Pour. Creating a unique atmosphere in which we can experience raw human emotions, Necrobarista absolutely delivers–in its aesthetic, narrative, and earworm of a soundtrack. It jam packs everything I crave in a game and then some. In terms of coffee video games, this one comes highly recommended.
Brianna Fox-Priest is a freelance journalist in Oklahoma City covering coffee and video games, and the co-host of Bits & Pixels. Read more Brianna Fox-Priest on Sprudge.