Transitions are inherently compelling. No matter how many people say they’re okay with change, there’s a tension inherent in it. It’s why people-watching is so much more interesting at an airport. No one’s there to stay. Some are going home, and carry the relief of going back to the familiar. Some are arriving somewhere new, excited to take in everything around them, maybe a little scared to face the unknown. Some are greeted excitedly–others are leaving people behind. Liminal spaces are their own conflict, and can be a fantastic setting for great narratives, but it’s a double-edged sword because with all that emotion comes a tendency for schlock. Luckily, Necrobarista handles perhaps the biggest liminal space of all–the transition between life and death–in a wonderfully intimate, poignant way that I won’t soon forget.
In Necrobarista, you’ll find yourself in a very unique place. Technically, the game takes place in Melbourne, Australia, but more importantly, it takes place in a special stop between life and death. Instead of your traditional purgatory, it’s more of a café at the end of the universe kind of thing. In this case, though, the entirety of the story unfolds at and around one particular place–The Terminal, a hipster coffee house that has a special set of patrons and purveyors.
The deal is as follows in Necrobarista’s world. When you die, you’re given 24 last hours on Earth. That’s an exact number not to be exceeded so as not to upset the natural balance and warrant punishment from the powers that be. When people arrive in this in between place in Melbourne, they’re delivered almost right to the front steps of The Terminal. Since waking up after you die is disorienting, confusing and frightening, it’s natural to seek out the company of others who might be able to help, and thus The Terminal attracts patrons who are living and those who used to be living alike. Luckily, the staff, if somewhat surly, is prepared to help explain why you landed there and what the rules are.
This is exactly how you meet Maddy, a young-looking barista with a lot of opinions and a lot of talents, besides. She’s recently inherited ownership of the cafe from her friend and mentor Chay, and has also inherited the adoration and constant companionship of a girl named Ashley who’s extremely brilliant in engineering but is also a little hellion. Along with the café, though, Maddy’s inherited its problems as well, including a massive time debt. While coffee and even liquor don’t cost at the Terminal, letting someone stay beyond the 24 hours they’re allotted without kicking them out means you owe time. Anyone who stays any length of time past when they should have moved on can accumulate such a debt as well. There’s more to Maddy than even recent cafe ownership though, as she’s the titular necrobarista, and is studying alchemy and necromancy much to the dismay of some of the locals, and delight of others.
Even though Maddy’s somewhat sour grapes, she’s got a great heart, an impeccable sense of humor and a lot of insecurities. Which leads her to more adoptions, as more and more people run into her on their way to the other side. Since Necrobarista is a visual novel in the strictest sense, I don’t want to talk too much more about the story. Necrobarista lives and dies by its story (no pun intended) and luckily for us, it’s a story with great depth, great characters, a tinge of the supernatural and plenty of well handled emotion, as well as a healthy dose of just the sort of sarcastic humor I was raised on. I’d find myself genuinely delighted by the humor and banter between characters and jaw-achingly sad, wiping away tears moments later.
Gameplay wise, there isn’t much, and the narrative doesn’t really allow for branching, either. There is a sort of collectible element though, which unlocks extra story bits here and there. When you’re coming to the end of a chapter, you’ll be asked to pick some words out of a word cloud related to the chapter you’ve just read. Once you’ve picked those words, you can then reveal what part of the narrative they speak to–a character, like Maddy, Chay or Ashley, lore, death, food, or magic.
Once you’ve collected these word points, so to speak, you can spend them around the cafe, where you’ll find glowing bits that tell side stories about other characters, the world, or just add flavor to what you’ve already uncovered. In my casual playthrough I left a lot unrevealed, as I always seemed to tend towards the same types of words and therefore earned the same types of points. I’d like it if there were more opportunity to earn these points, or if you could earn more than one per word, so that I would have been able to unlock more of the side stories.
That in itself says something about Necrobarista. The narrative is rich and deep, and kept me hooked from day one. Even the side stories added to the intrigue, and unlike in a lot of games with any sort of side missions or stories, I found myself compelled to seek them out. I was glad, then, to see that a new chapter, Walking to the Sky, told a completely new and also wonderful tale about some characters that were only featured briefly in the main game.
Artistically, Necrobarista kept me hooked too. It’s simplistic in its way, but also stunningly gorgeous, with careful attention paid to everything from typography to background scenery. On top of that, Necrobarista has a wonderful soundtrack which I often found helped immerse me even more.
If you’re the sort who likes a great story and doesn’t mind a straightforward visual novel, I think you’ll really enjoy Necrobarista. And if you’re not too familiar with the genre, well, Necrobarista could be the one that sells you on it, with its gorgeous art, excellent soundtrack and incredibly charming sense of humor.
Necrobarista is available now for PC via Steam.
A Steam Key was provided to us for the purposes of this review.
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