I love Melbourne. I take it for granted sometimes, but it’s a really incredible city. I love the eccentric blend of old and new architecture. I love Melbourne’s art scene, even the really weird shit that I don’t understand. I love that the good cafes are hidden away in laneways, because finding somewhere good feels like a reward for exploring somewhere new. I even like Melbourne’s weather, because it keeps things interesting. This is all a long-winded way to say that Necrobarista encapsulates everything I love about Melbourne, and everything I love about indie development. It’s quirky, it’s sarcastic, it’s a little indulgent and a lot meta. It hides a surprising warmth behind a cynical exterior. It’s got a soundtrack to die for (I promise, that’s the only death joke I’ll make) and it looks absolutely bloody gorgeous.
Necrobarista is a visual novel set in The Terminal, a Melbourne cafe that caters to both the living and the dead. The dead have 24 hours to do what they need to before they are shunted off to the next plane. This, of course, puts the hard-working staff of The Terminal in the awkward position of having to guide poor confused dead people through the transition. The story isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s certainly interesting and I really like Route 59’s take on death and what it means. Necrobarista spends a lot of time just considering its own questions, so it feels like you’re thinking it through with the characters. The story’s bell tolls (okay, I lied) with a vague sense of inevitability, a sense that you already know what’s going to happen, which seems very fitting for a story that is ultimately about death.
The writing is full of wordplay and a very dry sense of humour which are both delightful, but that’s not what makes Necrobarista’s tale worth reading. The story’s real strength lies in its characters, who are all endearing in their own way, and even pulls off the absolute tightrope walk of writing a “precocious young genius” who doesn’t cross the line into being an obnoxious little brat like so many do. Ashley, the genius in question, is chaotically adorable and matched in likability only by every other character in the game. Even the Greek chorus, made up of three robots, is full of more character and charm than most people I know in real life. The only minor gripe I had was that some characters would appear, win me over with their chemistry, and then not appear again.
Necrobarista’s other strength is in its world, which is fleshed out through “optional” side stories that you can unlock through a unique little storytelling tool: you’ll find a number of keywords strewn throughout each chapter, choose a couple of them that particularly resonate with you, and the game will give you points in different categories — a form of currency that you can then spend on unlocking different side stories. It’s a neat idea, and the stories are vibrant; “optional” is in quotation marks only because I doubt anyone could cross Necrobarista off their bucket list before reading through every storyline at least once.
On a technical level, Necrobarista is an absolute dream. Even beyond the aforementioned killer soundtrack, the sound design is just gorgeous. It sucks you into the cafe environment, to the point where just like a real cafe, the sudden sound of a glass breaking can bring you out of a cafe you didn’t realise you were so thoroughly entranced in. You know the sound of rain when you’re warm inside? Necrobarista captures this, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Visually, the game is drop dead gorgeous. I can’t begin to do it justice through words, but I guess that’s my job so here I go… Every scene is a renaissance painting, and the design is meticulous. Necrobarista is deliberate in what it’s showing you, so I encourage you to look closely and soak it in. In wide shots of the cafe, you can often watch silhouettes of patrons fade in and out as they pass on; even that is beautiful to watch.
In between sections of the story, Necrobarista gives you the opportunity to roam around The Terminal freely. Please believe that I don’t say this lightly, but it just might be in my top three Melbourne cafes, only missing out on the top spot because it’s fictional and so I can’t get any kind of actual caffeine fix from it.
The best way I can highlight just what an amazing job the team at Route 59 has done is by explaining that on several occasions, I was torn between going onto a better place with the story that I was captivated by, or sitting down and breathing in a beautiful panorama with the music behind it. A particular scene with rain falling on The Terminal held me for 15 minutes before I remembered that I actually had a review to write. I have since used it as my computer background and gotten distracted by gazing at it three times.
Remember how I said Necrobarista encapsulated Melbourne at the start of this review? Well, Melbourne’s surface appeal might be in the coffee and the laneways but I always feel like this city’s true beauty is deeper than that. When you first arrive in Melbourne, it’s easy to feel like you don’t fit in, like you don’t quite “get it.” You have no idea where the good places to go are, and it feels like Melbourne wasn’t made for you. It’s incredibly isolating and the people on the main street are overwhelming, so you sneak down a street to hide away for a bit.
That’s when you find a gorgeous little cafe with warm lighting, good coffee and other people hiding away from the world, and it makes everything okay for just a bit, so you go there more often. A year later, when the barista there knows your name and regular order, you realise that Melbourne always had space for you; you just weren’t confident enough to see it.
Necrobarista encapsulates that too. On a surface level, it might seem like it’s only for people who like visual novels, or coffee, or raising the dead. I promise you, though: if you give it a double shot, Necrobarista will welcome you with a raised eyebrow, a dry comment and a reminder that there is no situation that a friend and a good espresso won’t immediately improve.
There is very little in this world that’s better than a good story that’s told well, and Necrobarista is a beautiful story told perfectly. Its cast of charming characters, great audio and visual design and the very Melbourne aesthetic all weave together to make something you shouldn’t miss.
Cai reviewed Necrobarista using a retail Steam code provided by Route 59 Games.