Author’s note: In the time since this critique was published, Route 59 Games has addressed a number of the technical issues mentioned.
A coffee shop at the edge of this plane and the next. A new owner that can’t seem to be nice to its customers. The previous owner, who is just trying to help out where he can. A teenager that keeps building robots that are wreaking havoc throughout the shop. An enforcer trying to collect on a debt. A newly dead soul who’s freaking out about being dead.
From the moment that you figuratively step through the doors of The Terminal, Necrobarista’s fictional coffee shop, the characters are entrancing. There’s a certain lifelike quality to them that other narratives often fail to achieve. Part of that is the use of modern dialect, but part of it is simply an overwhelmingly real tone to the dialogue. The characters that are familiar with each other mess with each other in ways that people that are familiar with each other would; the repartee is exceptional until it’s not. The characters that aren’t immediately familiar with each other treat each other as such and don’t necessarily read each other well. When it seems that someone is acting out of character, it’s explained before much time is lost. There’s this pervasive familiarity that lingers throughout the game, as if any given conversation could be something that you might witness in real life.
The dialogue, and the emotions attached to said dialogue, come from such an incredibly real place that I could swear I’ve lived through some of it. At some point in the story, one character discusses how they’ve always been able to naturally pick up basically anything and be good at it—except this one thing. They talk about how that eats at them and how they’re terrified of letting people down at exactly the wrong moment. I have had those exact thoughts and the conversation that ensued could easily have been one that I’ve had with my partner. I didn’t go into the game expecting to have an emotional reaction to it, much less at that part of the game, but the ultimately positive tone that followed was a great reminder that that self-doubt, and perhaps even self-loathing, is something that you can learn to live with.
Similarly, from the outset, the story handles themes surrounding death and dealing with death in a soberingly realistic way. In this world, after you die, you have 24 hours left in the world of the living before you have to move on. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is aware of their situation at first and, once they are, they have issues coming to terms with it. You get to see the progression of the uncertainty of what being dead means and the different ways in which people deal with it, from the perspectives of both the dead people in question and those around them. It asks a lot of philosophical questions about death, likely all of which have been asked before, but it ultimately asks you to accept that death is a part of life and that you can live on in spite of it.
And that’s really what I’d say Necrobarista does best. It takes heavy themes like those of fear of failure, of letting others down, of losing people close to you, of coming to terms with your own mortality, and it finds some way, naturally, to remind you that these are things that you can learn to live with. The game is filled to the brim with heavy topics, but it really does its best to leave you feeling as if you could walk away from each of them in one piece.
Somehow, it manages to masterfully tackle each of these topics while also providing a truly engrossing story. The writers have managed something with Necrobarista’s narrative that is rarely pulled off successfully: the story that you think you’re being told at the beginning of the game is not the story you’re being told. The moment that the twist is revealed is truly revelatory in a way that I rarely get to experience anymore because it doesn’t come from nowhere. In hindsight, it’s so insanely clear what was going on. The clues were all there. I simply didn’t know how to read into them.
Unfortunately, I feel that more could have been done with minor characters. The bulk of the story really, truly revolves around a mere five characters. The average patron of The Terminal is simply represented as a silhouette, so those five characters really stand out. They are the stars of the show because they’re the only characters you see—until the second half, when they introduce three more characters. The problem is that those three characters each get maybe 10 minutes of screentime and then they are never seen again. This might have been okay if, for example, there were one new patron or pair of patrons per chapter that we were introduced to as an example of other people existing in this world, but that’s not the case. These three are all thrown into the mix in the same chapter—in the same scene, even—only to never be seen again.
Necrobarista is also a bit of an odd duck in terms of game design. It’s an incredibly stylish visual novel that’s rendered entirely in 3D—and partially animated—but it’s also a bit of an adventure game. While the majority of the narrative is told in visual novel form, the game also allows you to explore The Terminal in first-person, dropping you into a new room that played a prominent role in the previous chapter each time. Here, you can unlock side stories and other little tidbits about the characters that you meet throughout the game, as well as some you would otherwise never read about. This extra content is represented as text that is superimposed over the environment that you find it in as opposed to proper visual novel-esque scenes.
The way that you unlock said content is a bit bizarre. In each chapter of the main story, there are a number of words and terms that are highlighted by way of yellow text. At the end of each chapter, you can pick seven of the words that stuck out to you the most. Each of these words has a certain category association; for example, the word “mystical” is associated with the Magic category. For each word you pick, you are given a token of the associated category. You then use three tokens, each of which is of a different type, to unlock side content. I’m fairly certain that the intention is to be some sort of personality test that then dictates which side content you can unlock at any given time, but it simply felt odd to potentially be locked out of content simply because you didn’t think about which tokens you needed and choose words based on what their probable association was. At the end of the game, I had personally missed quite a bit of side content and had actively chosen not to read one bit of content that I did unlock because it was the third part of a series of side content that I never successfully unlocked the second part of.
This pattern of progression never really feels good. On the contrary, it feels like you’re playing two different games, one where you simply read through the story and another that is almost arbitrarily affected by the first. They never really come together into a cohesive whole and it actually isn’t until the end of the game that the first-person format really begins to feel worth it in any way.
One of the really unfortunate side effects of this system is that each room that you’re dropped into has one piece of content that you’re forced to read through to unlock the door back to the main shop, which is where the tablet that you continue the story from is located. This content is rendered in the same format as the other side content, rather than in visual novel form, meaning that even those that aren’t interested in the side content are forced to read through at least a bit of text that is presented in a less flashy form.
It’s also not particularly clear until the end of the game who it is that you’re supposed to be playing as in the first-person sections. Are you Maddy, the presumed main character? Are you someone else? Are you just a bystander who happens to have access to the majority of the coffee shop? It’s an odd feeling to specifically be allowed to adventure through the world of a visual novel in first-person and not be sure of who it is that you’re supposed to be, one that contributes significantly to the lack of cohesiveness between the two parts of the game.
One of the most glaring flaws, however, is that there are no voice overs. Unlike traditional visual novels, which are far more static, the lack of voice overs is really felt here because things move. Characters react in real-time. Text effects help convey the tone of text, but they aren’t always included when needed and are hardly a replacement for voice overs. This is an insanely stylish game with a very polished visual style and an exacting format that practically begs for voice overs that simply do not exist. The omission is made even more glaringly obvious by the fact that there are quite a few moments that are inexplicably completely silent, as the music, as good as it is, is not always playing.
Necrobarista also suffers from a number of technical issues. Even on my computer, I was experiencing frame loss in a number of areas throughout The Terminal. Movement in first-person zones never really feels fluid. There’s a certain object that represents side content that can be clicked through the stairs of the main room. There seems to be a “…” indicator that helps you identify when you need to click through non-dialogue, but it is wildly inconsistent, often leaving no indication that you should click through, for example, a black screen.
Gamepad support is also lacking. On a gamepad, you can only move in four directions, which feels overly rigid compared to the capabilities of a joystick. The mouse pointer constantly comes up on screen when you interact with objects that represent side content. During dialogue, you can slightly pan the camera with the mouse; this feature is not available to gamepad users.
However, these issues are nothing compared to the issues that I encountered in the text. I encountered missing quotation marks. I encountered typos, such as “thrusting” being written as “trusting.” I encountered incomplete sentences. I encountered sentences that were simply missing words. You name it, it is probably in there somewhere, with the side content being disproportionately filled with errors. There is even one side story that has twice as many quotation marks as it needs, some of which ran off of the line that they were supposed to be on and created paragraphs that consist of nothing but a single set of quotation marks.
Fortunately, while most of these issues are annoying, I did not encounter anything that game breaking. At some point during my playthrough, my gamepad died, forcing me to use my mouse and keyboard and, afterwards, I experienced no further issues with input. Similarly, while the side content is filled with minor errors, the bulk of the main story is unaffected, meaning that the game’s more emotional moments are not undermined by typos and missing words.
Necrobarista is an incredible experience. It sets a new bar for the visual experience of visual novels and offers a soberingly realistic look at several heavy topics through the lens of a series of events at a coffee shop for the dead and living alike. It has some shortcomings as a game experience, but, as a story, it is nothing short of exceptional. It is a story of learning to live with your shortcomings, of dealing with your own mortality, and of learning to let go. The messages within are universal and, refreshingly, the story asks the characters to be okay in spite of what’s going on around them, rather than trying to provide some sort of excuse for why they’ll be okay. It is an intensely emotional experience and undoubtedly the most relatable of the year. Do yourself a favor and play it in spite of its shortcomings.
|Playtime||Did we receive a press copy?||Price||Platform(s)|
|5.7 hours||Yes, from Stride PR||$14.99||Steam, PlayStation 4 (soon), Nintendo Switch (soon)|