I have had my eye on Necrobarista since my first viewing of it at a PAX a few years ago (where one of the awesome developers recommended Kekkai Sensen, one of the most unique anime I have ever seen). The dark setting of a cafe on the way to the afterlife mixed with striking aesthetics left a strong memory and desire to see more. Now that I have played the full product, I can say that I was not waiting in vain. Necrobarista is one of the most polished visual novels I have seen and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre.
Necrobarista’s gameplay can be broken up into two segments: the story segments and the exploration segments. These two segments exist in separate bubbles, but still manage to feel cohesive. When you finish a story segment, you begin an exploration segment, often from a new location where the story segment ended.
The story segment plays out like most visual novels. Your main action is clicking through dialogue and scenes. Every once in a while, a word will appear in yellow. If you click the yellow word, you can see an extra aside, like a narrator’s notes. These notes, along with the meaning of the word, who said the word, and to whom they said it gives you information needed to figure out the word’s category.
At the end of the story segment, you will have an opportunity to retain seven of the yellow words. Once you have selected all seven, the game will reveal their actual categories, giving you one point in each category corresponding to a found word.
During the exploration segments, you wander around the cafe searching for other memories. Each memory you find is locked with a requirement of three different categories. For instance, one memory require magic, guests, and death. If you found words from those categories in a previous story section, you can spend the points to open up the memory.
All in all, it makes for an interesting and engaging gameplay loop. In the beginning, I had only a few memories I knew I wanted to open, so I would try to memorize which words I thought pertained to each category. By the end of the game, I had an Excel spreadsheet open with a list of categories and my guesses for each word.
While the word hunt sounds like it would detract from the story, it only served to make the story more engaging. This is partially due to some clever design choices. First, the narrator asides are rarely straightforward, causing you to think more about the context of the statements and surrounding dialogue. Second, the game smartly keeps the words out of the more emotional segments, letting you become fully engaged in the story when most important.
And you will get engaged in the story. With a runtime of roughly five hours, Necrobarista is an extremely streamlined experience. There is no filler in the story and every scene feels carefully chosen and scripted. This gives us time to get invested in the characters and their growth without any of them wearing out their welcome.
Necrobarista at its core is a game about death and permanence. The game takes place in the Terminal, a cafe serving both the living and the recently deceased. The dead have 24 hours to come to peace with their death before moving on to the next place. The Terminal is run by Maddy, her mentor Chay, and a precocious youth Ashley. The three characters have wonderful chemistry built on years of familiarity.
The game begins with Kishan, newly deceased, entering the cafe in clear confusion. Through Kishan, we are given a taste of how new spirits react to their death and come to terms with the impermanence of existence. Kishan’s existential freak-out helps ground the story by giving us a more relatable perspective.
Maddy, Chay, and Ashley are a lot more cartoonish by contrast. Being established in a cafe that serves the dead gives them a more casual and flippant attitude. Ashley is the biggest standout of the three, oscillating between building battle robots, throwing knives at people, and downing shots of espresso. She is a joy to watch and all of her interactions are filled with youthful exuberance.
As the story progresses, you will see a lot of familiar tropes. The cafe is in time debt and is in danger of being shut down by the Council of Death, represented by Ned. As the cafe workers deal with keeping the cafe afloat while performing illegal necromancy rituals, Kishan struggles to understand the rules of the afterlife while an invisible clock ticks down to his nonexistence. It’s some heavy stuff.
Despite the interesting gameplay mechanics, deep and enriching story, and vibrant characters, the real standout of Necrobarista is its presentation. Many visual novels give you a static background, a text box, and little cardboard cutouts of characters to show who is talking. While it tends to be functional, it also tends to feel lackluster.
Necrobarista does none of that. Dialogue is accompanied by animation or stills of the restaurant or characters. It plays more like a comic book game than a visual novel. Each time you see a character, it is within the environment of the Terminal. And any time a character performs an action, from making coffee to throwing knives, you watch them perform that action. It sounds like a minor thing, but this means that every shot is purposely selected to build memorable scenes.
And these shots are beautiful and highly stylized. While the animations don’t always look clean, the individual shots and camera movements are generally gorgeous. I could take almost any screenshot from the game and it would look like a panel in a comic book. This is incredibly important as the game features no voice acting. While the absence of voice acting sounds like a hindrance, it works surprisingly well here. It allows you to move through the scenes at your own pace without feeling like you’re interrupting a voice actor or pausing too long between shots.
Additionally, the lack of voice actors means that the game can really ramp up the music. Necrobarista’s soundtrack is wonderful, providing melancholic piano riffs and upbeat techno tracks where most effective. I could leave the music on in the background for hours without getting bored of it.
I do have a few gripes with the game, though. While I enjoyed the word hunting and unlocking new pieces of lore, the rewards started to feel lackluster as=they provide no changes to the game or story.
Additionally, only a few can be unlocked in a single playthrough and the game doesn’t allow you to go back to the Terminal once you have completed the story. So if you had some memories you were waiting to open, you can forget about it. This sucks because I really want to know how the Fisherman’s story ends, but I didn’t find another “guests” word in time and I will probably not play through the story again just to find out.
Overall, Necrobarista delivers a remarkably enjoyable experience. Between the excellent sound design, visual presentation, story, and characters, this is a game I won’t forget about any time soon. I highly recommend this game to fans of visual novels or comic books. If any of the above sounds interesting, you should give Necrobarista a shot.