Necrobarista – An Entertaining Cup of Caffeinated Death
Necrobarista is a visual novel like no other. In eschewing conventions of the niche genre, adopting a hyper-stylised cinematic presentation, Necrobarista stands out from a crowded market. This supernatural ode to Melbourne is a touching story of friendship, moving on, and artisanal beverages.
Originating as the experimental Project Ven back in 2015, Necrobarista is Melbourne studio Route 59 Games’ evolution of the visual novel genre. Set in The Terminal, a fictional cafe located in Melbourne suburb Carlton, paranormal activities are a regular occurrence. Patrons of The Terminal include the living and the newly deceased. For the dead, The Terminal offers a final comfort stop before stepping into whatever awaits them in the afterlife. However, time spent in limbo must be kept in check, lest the Council of Death come to collect their debt.
As is standard fare for the genre, Necrobarista is largely hands-off from a gameplay perspective. Its story consists of episodes where your only required input is to simply tap ‘enter’ to progress. In between episodes, you can freely roam The Terminal from a first-person perspective, learning more about its inhabitants along the way. However, Necrobarista is not a game you play to show off your skill; it’s a game you sit back and appreciate at a leisurely pace, like your favourite brew.
Necrobarista’s immediate drawcard is its phenomenally dazzling art direction and cinematography. Whereas many visual novels rely on predominantly static imagery and text to convey stories, this ain’t one of them. In taking graphical inspiration from games such as Guilty Gear Xrd, Breath of the Wild, and the Persona series, Necrobarista’s eternally charming characters and environments positively crackle with personality. Additionally, every inch of screen real estate is delicately considered to create stunning compositions.
While Necrobarista retains the text-based nature of visual novels, the way in which it uses motion to inject life into every scene is nothing short of mesmerising necromancy. What feels like nearly every line of dialogue is accompanied by a new camera angle to great effect, highlighting character nuances and adding dramatic flair to the scene. Each shot is lovingly framed with the text occupying negative space effectively to convey subtext, alongside other stylistic flourishes. Likewise, various camera zooms and pans draw your attention to subtle details and punctuate dramatic moments or punchlines. Most shots allow you to slightly shift the camera’s perspective, too, in a neat extra touch to explore Necrobarista’s 3D space. Beyond routinely hitting my screenshot key, I would often leave lines of dialogue to sit on the screen well after reading, just to be led by a slow tracking shot, let Kevin Penkin’s piano soundtrack wash over me, and soak in the gorgeous mise en scène.
Naturally, a visual novel is only as good as its writing, an area Necrobarista shines in. Here, the writing is witty, poignant and often deeply relatable. Without being overbearing, Necrobarista nails its Australian caricatures, with natural uses of mate, casual slang – plus the correct spelling of ‘arse’. Although there is an overarching narrative, this is primarily a game about character, where heartfelt moments can swiftly pivot to taking the piss out of each other, and then quirky pop culture references in the same breath. Thankfully in regards to the latter, the references are naturally woven in as to not bludgeon you over the head with them, desperate for you to acknowledge the joke. What’s refreshing about Necrobarista’s narrative is how it isn’t solely about drama – or even necromancy, for that matter. It’s simply about being; offering plenty of thought-provoking themes to meditate on what it means to be alive, how you choose to spend your time, and how you treat yourself and others.
Each of Necrobarista’s characters goes through interesting progressions and display a strong sense of personality. Scenes featuring The Terminal’s proprietor, Maddy, and the cargo shorts-wearing larrikin version of Ned Kelly are particular highlights due to the friction between the duo. However, I sometimes noticed each of the characters conversed in similar voices, evident in their shared cadence and vocabulary. This stood out especially during a scene where kid genius Ashley shared an astonishing level of introspection for a 13-year-old. Conversely, Necrobarista’s writing flows and entertains so deftly, I didn’t really mind that everyone was depicted as an eloquent cafe philosopher.
In fact, Necrobarista’s Memories system is the only aspect that didn’t completely hit the mark. While playing, some words appear highlighted yellow, where selecting it will conjure a related footnote. These footnotes range from slang definitions, add further context, or deliver amusing punchlines. At each episode’s conclusion, each of these words appear on-screen in a jumble, where you can select a handful before progressing. Afterwards, these selected words reveal connections and award points towards specific topics, such as ‘Melbourne’, ‘death’, or ‘Maddy’. When in the free-roam sections, these points unlock short stories to further expand The Terminal’s lore.
While the short stories continue Necrobarista’s strong writing, they don’t tangibly add to the core narrative, despite the nagging feeling they lead to something more. It’s best to treat the keywords as a fun little Rorschach Test and pick what stands out most to you. Within the context of how Necrobarista plays, unlocking Memories feels somewhat arbitrary, especially considering you don’t need multiple playthroughs to see everything. Perhaps it may have made more sense for Memories to automatically reveal in between episodes, instead of requiring an otherwise inconsequential currency to unlock.
One thing’s for certain: Necrobarista sets a new standard in production value for visual novels to follow. Also to be commended is that while there’s plenty of anime and visual novel influences on display, none of the worn tropes are. There’s no questionable fan service, no overwrought exposition, but plenty of the anime sense of style. Necrobarista’s cinematic presentation leaves a legacy for others to emulate, elevating the genre as a whole.
More of Maddy’s capers, please.