Let’s take a moment to talk about death. I know, you’ve probably heard enough on the subject, especially this year: since early March, we’ve been inundated with headlines and online posts tracking the impact of a deadly, contagious virus. Even when we shut off our phones and head out into the world, we put on face masks to protect one another, hoping we’ll hold onto what limited time we have on this planet. The realities of a worldwide pandemic are forcing us to face head-on what we usually keep at the back of our minds – death is real, and it is terrifying.
There’s no pandemic in Necrobarista, a visual novel from indie developer Route 59, but for the beleaguered employees at The Terminal, death is still a daily concern. As it turns out, the pathway to the afterlife runs along an unremarkable street in Melbourne, Australia, with a pleasant two-story café acting as one of the few landmarks along the way. Here, the dead can freely converse with the living until they decide it’s time to move on. That isn’t to say there aren’t limits – the deceased have 24 hours before some rather unpleasant symptoms kick in – but it’s still a convenient rest stop, a place to collect your thoughts before moving on for real, as long as you don’t get too preoccupied with what little time you have left.
For Maddy, the titular Necrobarista, time is just as much of a concern as it is for her deceased customers. As the newest owner of The Terminal, she’s pushing herself hard to keep the place running smoothly, in addition to acting as an unofficial guardian for Ashley, a caffeinated child-genius with a penchant for building knife-wielding robots. By taking over the café, she’s also burdened with staggering time debt (if the dead stay too long on your property, you’ll start owing hours to the powers that be), and the collectors won’t give her much breathing room. If that weren’t enough, she’s still eager to make good on her necromancy abilities, stealing away into the basement in the hopes of setting up a rather important ritual. She’s a sassy, goth young adult who does it all, but you can’t help but worry that she’s taken on too much at once.
The game itself is a relatively straightforward visual novel, following the lives of The Terminal’s employees and visitors as they tackle the topic of death in their own way. The story is presented in a novel way: rather than giving us a handful of sprites for each character, Necrobarista is a fully 3D game, with the models and camera shifting in each screen. Watching the cast soundlessly cut between different stances feels jarring at first, but the style grew on me before long. It helps that each character is rendered beautifully, with an anime-inspired art style that allows for a wide range of expressions.
It also presented with some of the boldest pacing that I’ve ever seen in a visual novel. In any given scene, Route 59 isn’t afraid to open with a goof about homicidal robots and suddenly interrupt it with Ashley despairing over her lack of self-worth. In anyone else’s hands, it’s easy to see how these tonal shifts would feel jarring, but they’re so well-written and fit with who these people are. Even Ned Kelly, Australia’s infamous outlaw-turned-pushy afterlife debt collector who sips drinks through a curly straw, is given a staggering amount of pathos in a short span of time. With only 4+ hours of runway, this game’s writing gave its characters more love than I’ve seen others manage with 20.
When it comes to death, Necrobarista doesn’t have concrete answers. As it turns out, even the people who work with it for a living are scared: after all, who wouldn’t be at least a little bit afraid of the unknown? Like Maddy’s coffee shop, the game acts as a place to rest, listening to others sound out their thoughts on death as you scrutinize your own, before moving on with your life. And during this period of time, where death is seemingly all around us, it was exactly what I needed.
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