Indie game of the month – Necrobarista is a game about death, photography, and coffee

Heading into the spookiest month of the year, I wanted to highlight a game that at least somewhat has to do with the overall aesthetic of October, which is what landed me on Necrobarista, a game about the finality of death and hipster coffee shops. You can decide for yourself which one of those is more terrifying.

Necrobarista is, for the most part, a visual novel. The draw is in the story here and most of the gameplay is contained to making choices, choosing which story you want to view next, and doing a bit of very rudimentary puzzle solving.

So how does the story hold up? In my opinion, pretty well. It’s quirky and feels somewhere between anime, manga, and webcomic. Actually (and this is getting pretty niche here), you know those Korean manhwa’s that tend to be written around a central gimmick and let the plot flesh out around it? For example, how God of High School was completely written around the premise of a martial arts tournament with high school students who have literal godly powers, or how Tower of God was completely written around the idea of a tower that grants wishes and a whole society that has formed within? That’s exactly what this plot is like.

So let’s get to the gimmick. Necrobarista centers around the Terminal, a quaint little coffee shop with decent prices and an amazing atmosphere which just so happens to be the midway point between the world of the living and the afterlife. Once you die, you can chill at the Terminal for about 24 hours for a small break before you have to head on to whatever awaits you in the great beyond. The main characters are the Terminal’s staff which are constantly dealing with management problems from budgetary complaints to hitches in necromantic rituals to the fact that the coffee machines are now robots and attained sentience.

It’s quirky like that. In fact, every second line or so is a snarky pun, which once again brings this well in line with the sort of Korean webtoon manhwas that it seems to take inspiration from. You might think that this would get grating after a while, but it really doesn’t. You see, the real draw in the story is the setting. Finding out more about the characters who pass through the terminal, the council that keeps the balance between the world of the living and the dead, and what daily life is like working in what is ostensibly a Starbucks filling the role of the grim reaper is really what draws you in.

The other thing that draws you in is the art style which is relatively brilliant. While the game is rendered in full 3D, its scenes are mostly still-life pictures. Now, if you’ve ever played visual novels before, you know that they mostly use hand-drawn images against hand-drawn backgrounds to express what is happening. However, the pool of assets is always limited, swapping between a series of stock emotions and reactions.

Necrobarista, however, frames every single scene, every single shot of a character talking, as a photograph. Maybe this scene shows a character looking off into the sunset as they contemplate their last moments before the afterlife. Maybe it’s a goofy scene of two staff members ducking behind a bar. Maybe it’s just a long hold on a character's face as they avert their eyes, unable to meet the gaze of someone they wronged. Every single scene is unique, framed against a unique background with a unique lighting scheme.

This works BECAUSE the game uses 3D polygonal models instead of 2D art. The process of drawing brand new assets for every scene is hugely labor intense. But once the developers had the models for the characters and the maps for the settings, all they had to do was move then around and adjust the lighting for each pose, and boom, every frame a painting, or rather every frame a photograph.

There are a couple of other small perks this unique graphical style has. Every so often, a scene or a transition between scenes will be animated, and this always sticks out since every other scene is still. Between chapters you get to wander around the Terminal in first-person, uncovering secrets and learning more about the characters there. This could only be done because the map of the Terminal had to be made to frame each and every still shot. It makes all of the characters and locations feel more real, so much so that perhaps this shouldn’t be called a visual novel at all? Maybe a playable comic? A still-life video game? Who knows? The point is, it’s different, and it works.

One other thing that makes Necrobarista stand out, is that it is fully aware of itself. It doesn’t break the fourth wall, but it makes tons of tongue-in-cheek references to other games, both through text and through the framing of its shots. Does the juxtaposition of a dimly lit brownish-red background with a brightly lit character in a blue outfit as smooth jazz plays in the background feel very Persona to you? That’s on purpose.

The biggest flaw of Necrobarista is its memory system. As you make choices in the game you collect points that reflect those choices and define your character. You can then use these points to learn more about the characters in the game, with different points unlocking different stories. The sad part is, this whole system is optional. You can play through the whole game and never interact with it, making this a visual novel in the strictest sense of the word. There really isn’t any gameplay beyond pressing a button and watching the text forward, which is a shame because these memories could have made for a stellar puzzle system.

But as long as you are OK with the type of game that is really only meant to allow you to sit back and drink in a well-told story, then Necrobarista is one of the best. It is absolutely worth every penny of its budget price, and it’s well worth checking out this October.