One for the road
In any type of media, my favourite worlds are the completely unique ones that don’t unravel all of their secrets by the end. Ones where things are left a little mysterious, giving me a lot to think about later on. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wished I could pause these movies or games and take a deeper look around to find out what’s really been going on around the action, to learn about the side characters, or the events that are only mentioned in passing. Necrobarista allowed me to quench this impulse, and followed it up with a deliciously warm and pensive story about life, friendships, and most importantly: letting go.
Necrobarista is a cell-shaded visual novel about a café where the dead and the living can both have a cup of coffee and take a load off. And though I might not be the most familiar with the genre, I have to say the way it plays is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Instead of conversations over static backgrounds, the game plays out more like a self-paced movie. You’ll press a button to advance lines of dialogue at your own speed, as the scenes play out in a mix of still frames, small motions, and animated shots. The variety of the sequences and use of dialogue styling through size, speed, and movement gives it a decidedly comic book feel, while leveraging its fully-rendered 3D world to give every scene depth and perspective.
I loved the feeling of getting to set the pace: speeding through exciting scenes as fast as I could read them, then pausing for minutes to take in the deeper and more pensive moments. This let me bask in the world in the way I wanted to, without ever harming how the story was told. This unusual format is further used to their advantage by letting you pull up more info about certain words or phrases mid-conversation, highlighting the special flair afforded to a story when you’re not confined to an entirely linear format. I did have a couple instances where the text was a bit hard to read on some of the brighter scenes, but a little fiddling with the shadow and outline options had me sorted out without too much fuss. Overall, I loved the format and felt like this additional control in what would otherwise be a straightforward story was an incredible way to let me take in the ideas and themes in the way that I wanted to.
And boy, was there a lot to take in. Before I began playing, I had assumed this would be a sort of light-hearted game where you’d speak with the living and the dead in your cosy café, maybe with some dialogue choices along the way. What I was instead met with was a deeply intimate story about death, relationships, and acceptance. The main story follows Maddy: necromancy enthusiast and recently appointed owner of the Terminal, the café where recently departed souls can spend their last 24 hours on earth. As you might imagine, that’s a pretty heavy burden to shoulder. But instead of wallowing in its dark subject matter, Necrobarista injects a lot of life and levity into what is ultimately a story about learning to let go.
Even beyond a great story, what drew me so deeply into the world is the way you’re able to interact with the physical space of the Terminal. Between chapters, you enter a first-person mode where you can explore the café while everything is frozen in time. Many of the items you stumble across have a memory attached, sometimes about the characters from the main story, sometimes about those who’ve been there before. Instead of playing out like movie scenes, these read like short stories. Between email exchanges and complete novellas, each story added something special to the world and to my understanding of the people in it.
A lot of the smaller stories you find revolve around friendships that are only for a certain period of time. Like the kids that played on your 4th grade soccer team, or co-workers you had at a summer job. The game delves into the special intensity and earnestness given when you know you only have so much time together. The larger point here being every relationship, in reality, only has so much time allocated to it. Making the most of the time you have, whether it’s a few hours in a café at the end of the line or a few decades of supportive and loving friendship, they deserve the same level of enthusiasm and energy, because you never truly know how much time you have left. Eventually, you will need to let go. This same lesson is reflected in the main plot, told in an impactful and emotionally intelligent way that never felt overbearing – just human.
I loved the story, the characters, and every minute I spent poking around corners looking for more stories about the people who had been through the Terminal. The format of storytelling did take some getting used to as it throws you right in the deep end, but I found the rhythm quickly enough to sink right into Necrobarista like an old favourite book, worn and comforting in my hands. The newly added side stories are a great addition to the overall plot and I welcomed getting to spend a few extra minutes with the characters. The game’s frank and personal look at death was eased by excellent storytelling and great humour that kept my spirits high even when I needed a moment to wipe away tears. Necrobarista is an experience I won’t forget, and one I think everyone should take a look at.