More Espresso = Less Depresso
I experienced a wholly unique feeling when playing Necrobarista. Putting it into words has proven difficult, but the closest, most succinct way goes something like this: after my first few hours I felt as though I needed to put it down—not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but rather because I was enjoying it too much. In the moment, I was able to recognize just how deep of an impression it was making within me, and actively wanted to savour the experience. That feeling persisted throughout, and amplified as its closing scenes drew closer. Now, as I reflect upon the experience holistically, any words I may have to adequately express just how much it resonated with me fall flat. It is, easily, one of the best games of the year.
“Validation. Chocolate. Coffee.”
The game comes from Route 59 Games, an indie effort out of Melbourne, Australia. It has been in active development since 2016, and has gone through many iterations, delays, and reimaginings up until its release in late July 2020. Through the developers’ own admission, the game was delayed for so long because they’d felt as though they needed to choose between either overworking themselves to exhaustion in order to get it out fast, or valuing their mental health, delaying it, and releasing it when it felt “right.” As a developer myself, I must applaud the team’s restraint and maturity in doing so. As a gamer, though the delays were difficult (I was excited for the game ever since the announcement trailer in 2017), I feel as though they absolutely made the correct decision. The product of their journey is a refined, impactful game which showcases the team’s mastery in each of their respective crafts.
It’s difficult to say which part made the strongest impact first, but one of the pieces which blew me away was the music. It consistently stood out as being a suite of high-quality compositions for every character/scenario, each with top tier production values. There were multiple times when the music made me say “yeah” aloud, to the point where I alt-tabbed away from the game to see if I could find a copy of the soundtrack. That quick search revealed all I needed to know—seeing Kevin Penkin’s name as the composer connected all of the dots. For followers of the site, Kevin composed the music to Florence (winner of our 2018 Game of the Year award for Best Music), and we have actively talked about the soundtrack to Made in Abyss multiple times on the podcast. I can’t tell you just how many times the music alone in the game made me smile, and I’d like to take a second to call it out explicitly: Kevin, we love you and your music.
Another aspect which is gripping from the first moments are the visuals, art design & cinematography—I have so many screenshots saved from this game purely because of how stunning it looks. Lighting, camera angles, set design, models, characters’ expressions, text effects, colours, background art—everything about the visuals work seamlessly together. And when I say “seamlessly together” I don’t just mean amongst themselves, but with the experience as a whole. Voice acting isn’t even needed with how effectively the visuals bring the characters to life. The world these characters inhabit feels real, and every scene feels as though it was curated and hand crafted by an expert cinematographer. The marriage of the impeccable visual design, the perfectly tuned music, and story make for a cohesive experience through and through. On that note, the story…
“It Was Always About Time”
While I had saved many screenshots for the visual impact of numerous scenes, I saved even more to capture dialogue and story beats. There are very few games which compare to the standards of writing found in Necrobarista. The only one which feels immediately comparable is Disco Elysium, and it should be noted that we found that game to be especially notable for its writing. The moment-to-moment dialogue in Necrobarista is second-to-none. It can go from uproariously hilarious to soul-crushingly melancholic in just a few mouse clicks. Each character feels distinct and as though they have had months and years of history together. Their lives feel lived, and their interactions feel real. Everything they say feels like we’re seeing the genuine feelings of real human beings (and other creatures), and ultimately, the story they go through has all the more impact because we care about them as people.
While the story itself covers a broad gamut of topics over its playtime, the core of it is ultimately about two things: Death and Failure. They are two very real, very raw human experiences, and it is an extremely difficult feat to convey their true weight in a game. The ways in which these themes appear throughout the story are conveyed with the sensitivity of one who clearly knows their true impact, and for a player who has had ample experience dealing with both, it hits very hard. The reason these parts of the story are so impactful is because, while the setting is somewhat fantastical (a café on the way between life and death), the human experience feels incredibly grounded. While it is a story about these dark, painful topics, it remains optimistic. It is not aiming to tell a story to leave you distraught, distressed, and fearful of these dark shadows, but rather, it offers strength and reassurance.
With all of this glowing praise, are there things to criticise? Sure, absolutely, and the developers themselves have even acknowledged some of the criticisms I would offer by talking about how they’re reworking one of these systems. There are moments here and there where something like a cup will be floating above a counter, or some clothes will be clipping through an object, or a short animation might be a bit janky. I found one or two words in some of the side content which were grammatically off; but, genuinely, none of these criticisms negatively impacted my experience in any way. They didn’t pull me out of it, they didn’t make any scenes less effective, and in some ways, their presence blew me away even more. These moments of imperfection serve as a reminder that this game was indeed created by a small team, and they gave me a deeper appreciation for just how polished and premium the other 99% of the game is.
“I’m Gonna Miss You, Mate”
Necrobarista is a gripping experience, and one which cannot be recommended highly enough. It is a game built with passion—a passion which can be felt across every aspect of every moment. It is one of those games that I wish I could erase from my memory to have the opportunity to experience it again for the first time.
There is beauty to be found in darkness, and Necrobarista shines a gentle, heartfelt light on it.
If you are interested in a spoiler-heavy look at Necrobarista, we recommend checking out our Necrobarista Spoilercast
- Writing leaves a powerful, lasting impression
- A soundtrack to add to your library
- Many visuals worthy of being wallpapers
- Occasional jank
- The end-of-chapter activities