Necrobarista couldn’t have a more perfect name. It juxtaposes necromancy — a fantastical, dark, and complicated concept — with the barista — the ordinary kind of person who belongs in our everyday lives so deeply that they tend to go unremarked despite how widely their presence reaches… One that also uses fantastical, dark, and complicated measures to make delicious drinks.
Necrobarista is both fantastical and dark. In many ways, it’s also focused on the ordinary; in even more ways, it’s the kind of game that shouldn’t fall under your radar. Its name immediately captures its duality and the ease with which it fluctuates between the light and the dark. Necrobarista is energizing and comforting like a cup of coffee. It’s prone to making you laugh and shake your head as you marvel at the cleverness behind so many of its lines. It’s emotionally heavy, bound to tug at your heartstrings and make you shed at least a few tears. It’s not without its flaws. But it’s a technical marvel, and — after over a decade of eagerly consuming hundreds of visual novels — it’ll remain memorable for me for years to come.
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Necrobarista is the story of a group of friends who run a cafe called The Terminal — a shop lying in the realm between the living and the dead. As the deceased confront their new identities as no longer part of the living, they find The Terminal and stay within its walls for 24 hours before being forcibly moved into the afterlife.
Among these friends is the apprentice necromancer Maddy: a barista and The Terminal’s new manager. Even though her role is only to serve drinks and lend an ear to whoever approaches the bar, she practices the dark art of the dead for personal reasons you’ll unravel over the course of a story that spans anywhere from five to 15 hours. She, and her friend Chay — who used to run the cafe — have also accrued a significant amount of debt that catches the attention of The Council. Altogether it puts the cafe’s fate in jeopardy.
It’s immediately evident that this is a visual novel. Yet it’s also unlike any other game in its genre. With one click, it’s not just the dialogue that changes — it’s the entire frame, its animations, the expressions and movements of the characters. Throughout the text, specific words are highlighted for you to then expand for additional lore and characterization. The game will prioritize anything from the word “communism,” humorously stating that the character it’s referring to is a “real Party girl,” to “sins,” alluding to the emotional burden another character carries. It’s a seamless way of developing a diverse cast while retaining focus on the main story, freeing it of unnecessary exposition and baggage.
At the end of each chapter, you’re able to choose seven words out of all the highlighted terms you came across. Each term applies to a different concept and awards points toward it. These can then unlock short stories. That’s once you meet the required amount of points for each one, of course. Though this part of Necrobarista feels redundant, as the short stories are only text-based, contrasted against the more dynamic main story.
Additionally, while they achieve their purpose of providing deeper characterization, most of the shorts focus on the characters who already get the most development throughout the main plot. I would have liked the side stories to center on developing the equally intriguing (but much less developed) characters that get introduced and quickly forgotten: like Samantha, Hannah, and Tuan. Acquiring the points feels meaningless in the first place. It only serves to keep you from unlocking every story and doesn’t lead to a difference in where the main plot ends.
But it’s worth saying that where this story does go is incredibly touching. It had me in tears on several occasions. Its characters are endlessly charming, warm and quirky, yet flawed and full of depth. Each one is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, displaying raw vulnerability as they struggle with what it means to die and let go. Every scene they’re in is accentuated by the game’s impeccable soundtrack. The range of genres and compositions — from rapid and funky electronic beats to contemplative and emotionally-driven piano notes — exemplifies the ranges that this game’s cast gracefully embodies.
As someone with a phobia of death, I’m particularly drawn to stories that explore mortality, as well as humanity’s eagerness to hold onto what we can when our very existence is only temporary. Experiencing those stories makes me feel I’m doing the work I should perform in therapy — without actually feeling like work. But Necrobarista truly does feel like a healing exercise by the end. I kept taking screenshots of witty lines every few minutes; when I wasn’t trying to hold onto the lines that made me laugh, I was busy capturing the ones that made me cry. Its writing is reminiscent of games like Undertale and Night in the Woods. Like those games, Necrobarista appears effortless in its handling of tragedy and joy to an equal degree.
Every person’s life is relatively fleeting in the grand scheme of the universe. That doesn’t stop every person from being more than just a memory and leaving an impact. My time with Necrobarista was similarly fleeting but memorable in a year filled with already great releases. Every year has a standout visual novel. I’d like to think that, unless there are some surprises by the end of the year, the delightful, introspective, and impressive Necrobarista is the one for 2020.