Necrobarista Review – Pour One Out

Death positivity–a movement that encourages people to openly acknowledge and normalize the traditionally taboo topics of dying and grief–is a relatively new subject for video game narratives, though it has been popularized through indie titles like A Mortician’s Tale and What Remains of Edith Finch. Necrobarista joins that conversation but with a more hands-off approach, telling the player a story that revolves around the themes of death as opposed to letting players be a part of the narrative. Ultimately, this is to the game’s detriment, but Necrobarista still manages to deliver a genuinely moving character-driven narrative about coming to terms with death, whether it’s that of a loved one or our own.

As it’s a visual novel, there’s not much in terms of gameplay when it comes to Necrobarista. Your primary means of understanding its world is by reading its story, which is told in a slice-of-life format that provides a quick snippet of the daily goings-on inside a Melbourne-based cafe called Terminal over the course of several days. Terminal exists on an in-between plane (it’s technically a part of the living world but it exists as a potential stopping point before the afterlife), allowing both the living and the dead to wander through its doors. The dead are only permitted to stay 24 hours before Terminal staff must encourage them to move on to the afterlife–whether that’s heaven, hell, or something else entirely is unknown as no one has ever come back from it. The dead who stay longer than 24 hours begin upsetting the balance of the universe, which runs up a tab that the cafe has to then pay off. At the start of Necrobarista, the cafe has recently been passed down from immortal necromancer Chay to his protege, Maddy, along with several centuries’ worth of debt.

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An assertive, sarcastic, and loud-mouthed necromancer with no patience for customers who want extravagant coffee orders, Maddy is the immediate star of Necrobarista’s story. Necrobarista ditches the traditional 2D-style of most visual novels for a 3D cinematic presentation with clear anime aesthetics, allowing the visual novel to instill a great deal of nuance into each character’s movements and facial expressions. Even without any spoken dialogue, you get a good sense of who a person is and how they would sound within seconds of meeting them, and Maddy is the best example–she pulls off a variety of expressions that convey a mixture of snark, disdain, and coy playfulness. This is clearly a young woman who’s very intelligent and driven and doesn’t enjoy suffering some of the idiots she’s forced to serve.

Though Maddy is the clear stand-out, this type of characterization is extended to the other main characters you see in Terminal. Though he no longer owns the cafe, Chay sticks around to continue teaching Maddy as well as take care of 13-year-old Ashley, a gifted robotics genius. There’s also Ned, Chay’s oldest friend and the gruff enforcer tasked with ensuring the Terminal staff ultimately pays its debt. And then there’s Kishan, a recently departed soul who wanders into Terminal at the start of the story–thankfully existing as the clueless newbie who has all the same questions that we do and acts as our voice of confusion whenever Necrobarista starts diving into the nitty-gritty of its world.

Necrobarista doesn’t actually put you into the perspective of any of these characters. Instead, you exist as this passive observer that watches conversations play out. This does keep some of the game’s best reveals a secret until the mic is actually dropped, as you are not privy to any of the internal thoughts or feelings of the characters until they’re spoken out loud. But it does create an unwelcome disconnect in the story. I feel sympathy for Kishan struggling to deal with the realization that he only has 24 hours left before he must move on, for Maddy turning to less-than-legal means in order to overcome the tremendous debt that’s been dropped on her, and for Ned feeling forced to be the bearer of bad news when he’s just a cog in a bureaucratic machine. But I don’t empathize with any of them–these are their plights for me to see, not necessarily care about or act on.

Granted, visual novels traditionally don’t rely on the same unique strengths of other video game genres, but in this case the impartial disconnect is a hindrance to Necrobarista’s story. The game is only five hours long, and that first hour is difficult to get through because there’s nothing drawing you in. You’re just watching strangers talk to one another. But mid-way through chapter three, Necrobarista begins to dive into the existing and developing relationships between these strangers, and it’s in that insight that you can begin to care. I don’t much care that Kishan is struggling with his mortality at first–he’s just some guy–but once he bonds with Ashley and Maddy and I can see how his leaving would affect them, I care. I don’t care for myself–he’s still a stranger–but I can see how important he is to the other characters and even as an observer I can empathize with that feeling. In this way, Necrobarista loses something in its attempts to normalize the concepts of dying and grieving and talking about lost loved ones. I see the characters go through the growth, but their transformation is lost on me and I can’t help but feel left out by the time the credits roll, like I’m missing something important that everyone else understands.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like the story told in Necrobarista. It’s got wonderful comedic timing, which is made all the better through the small cinematics between each line of dialogue–my computer is filled with screenshots of the dozens of moments where I had to stop playing because I was laughing at whatever joke, pun, or deadpan stare was playing out on screen. I can’t actually share many of these with y’all (even though I very much want to) because they’d spoil some of Necrobarista’s best moments. There are some touching moments in the game as well, especially towards the end, and their juxtaposition against the rest of the story’s humorous tone results in a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion. Death and grief aren’t traditionally happy things to talk about, and Necrobarista doesn’t try to change that–it merely puts forward that the people in its story should be okay with talking about their feelings surrounding their mortality and then nails the execution.

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Necrobarista isn’t all reading, though; there is a bit of interactivity, as certain words will be highlighted and clicking on them will reveal some hidden insight into that word. Perhaps the term is in reference to an unspoken detail about the speaker’s backstory, for example, or a piece of jargon that reveals additional insight into the lore of Necrobarista’s world.

At the end of each chapter, all of the highlighted words will appear on screen regardless of whether you clicked on them or not. Without providing context for how the words are used, the game then tasks you with picking seven you wish to highlight to see what each corresponds to. For instance, a word that was used in reference to Necrobarista’s Melbourne setting will provide you a fragment point towards “Melbourne” while one in regards to mortality will award one for “Death.” Between each chapter, you’re allowed to explore the cafe where Necrobarista’s story takes place and interact with certain objects in order to unlock side stories that further flesh out the characters you meet and overall lore. However, to unlock these side stories, you’ll need a certain amount of points in specific categories. Rotten Poppy, for example, requires you have fragment points for Terminal, Maddy, and Chay so you need to remember to pick words related to the cafe and the two characters in order to unlock it.

There’s too much guesswork involved with this, especially if you’re like me and have a poor memory. For a while, I tried notetaking, but the process drew me out of the story every time a highlighted word popped up and I had to stop to write down the context. And even when taking notes, you still need to make an educated guess when it comes to certain words–is a word made in reference to Keshin’s soon-to-be demise alluding to him or to the general concept of death itself? In the end, there’s no feeling of success for picking out the right words to unlock a new side story, it’s about as satisfying as guessing the right answers to a multiple-choice test.

Not every side story is interesting, either. Some, like Rotten Poppy, which recounts the memory of Maddy and Chay arguing over whether poppy seeds are worthless, are hilarious. But there are a few, such as the list of product reviews for cups in Crucible Product Reviews, that are pretty boring. Given that these side stories can be so hit-or-miss, I gave up on trying to unlock them about halfway through the main campaign. If I happened to guess enough of the right words to unlock a new side story, I’d read through it, but I don’t feel compelled to replay any of Necrobarista’s chapters in order to earn the necessary points for unlocking them all. If anything, I’d replay Necrobarista just to experience its wonderful main story again.

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As a final note: I need to talk about how much I love Necrobarista’s aesthetic, which goes a long way towards telling its story. I’ve already mentioned how the 3D cinematic art style helps to both further characterize the cast through movement and detailed facial expressions as well as set up the timing for some of the game’s best jokes, but the music contributes to the game’s overall tone too. With no spoken dialogue and very few sound effects, the game’s soundtrack is pretty much all you hear throughout the entire game, making it just as instrumental (heh) as the visuals to conveying unspoken information. Composer Kevin Penkin sets the stage for Terminal with this soft and yet haunting use of piano in “Confluence,” the main theme that plays in most scenes. It sets this relaxing baseline for the game, so it’s especially noticeable when a dramatic scene sees all music momentarily stop or a more lighthearted one incorporates an energetic composition. And the song played in Necrobarista’s anime-like OP cutscene? Straight banger.

The actual gameplay aspects of Necrobarista aren’t all that satisfying, but the game more than makes up for that by leaning into the “novel” part of the visual novel genre and crafting a bittersweet story about accepting death, learning to grieve, and moving on. That isn’t to say the game slouches on the “visual” part either–its 3D cinematic style adds plenty of unspoken characterization and also better sells the witty writing with some excellent comedic timing. I can’t help but feel like all the characters I fell in love with got to go on an awesome journey while I just had to sit there and watch, but the overall themes and storybeats still hit pretty hard as a passive observer.