I think death scares everyone. Folks who go on about how they’re not afraid to die, well I think they’re lying a little. Sure, they might not be scared to physically stop living, but something about the concept of death must scare them. Maybe it’s the fear of never really experiencing all they wanted to or the guilt of leaving loved ones behind. Maybe it’s just the possibility that all those years spent alive, ultimately amount to nothing.
We all die in the end, it’s one of the few universal facts of life that applies to everyone. Yet despite that, we don’t really know…anything about death. Sure, we know what it means to be dead in a very medical, dictionary-definition sense but beyond that very sterile classification…the whole thing’s a mystery. Which is pretty scary in and of itself. Even those that have experienced the passing of close friends or family, that’s probably the closest we’re going to get and even then it hardly answers any questions.
I’m not about to give some kind of grand statement regarding Necrobarista and how it “opened my eyes” and “made me understand” something which is inherently impossible to accept, but what I will do is give it a very early recommendation as Necrobarista truly is one of the most heart-breaking and melancholic games I’ve ever played, but it still managed to leave me feeling more at ease than anything else has in a very long time.
Necrobarista is a visual novel style game, one that plays out in two different modes. The first being the more mainline, scripted aspect of the game which focuses on necromancer barista Maddy and her day to day running of The Terminal, a coffee shop that exists as a temporary purgatory between life and death.
The other part of the game allows the player to freely explore The Terminal and observe different memories of the game’s cast and various random patrons by spending tokens (for want of a better word) which can be earned through a rather frustrating system throughout the game’s main campaign.
I’ll expand on the second facet soon, because while it is engaging it definitely drops the ball in its execution. Before that let’s discuss the game’s main narrative. In a word, it’s excellent and something anyone with an appreciation for creative storytelling and sharp, honed writing should experience.
What begins as a charming day-in-the-life story of The Terminal and the crew that runs the establishment very quickly evolves into something far more…sad. Looking at the screenshots of the game, it could be easy to think that Necrobarista is just a visually stunning game selling itself on big-eyed anime characters selling coffee to dead people and yet it’s so much more.
It’s an exploration of letting go of loved ones, of making peace with the reality of life (and not life) and beyond everything else, it’s a heart-breaking story of acceptance. Plenty of stories preach about the importance of people accepting where they are in life, yet this is a story about accepting your inevitable death. Coming to terms with mortality and the grim reality that we all have to go some time. What’s so refreshing about Necrobarista’s take on that theme is that it isn’t…sad. Okay, my words are failing me here because it is sad. I grew so attached to the game’s characters, especially Maddy, Chay, Ned and Kishan, that their stories elicited tears on numerous occasions. Yet I walked away from my time with it not heartbroken or distressed but…warm.
There were two ways the writers of Necrobarista have approached this story: The Russian novel and the Studio Ghibli method. It would have been easy to emulate a Tolstoy and just write some depressing narrative about death yet instead, they took the much more challenging route and crafted a narrative that could have been ripped straight from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki, taking the theme of death and making it relatable. Actually, the Studio Ghibli film analogy feels more accurate than I originally intended because so much of this game feels like it could be some kind of strange re-imagining of Spirited Away. The gorgeous visuals, the incredibly scored soundtrack (which admittedly repeats a little too often for my taste) and the excellent writing…it feels like a game trying to pay homage to works of Miyazaki, a task which is an unattainable goal.
Yet Necrobarista does a damn good job of getting as close as possible.
The only fault I can take with the game is the slightly frustrating implementation of its memory system. Tokens to unlock memories around The Terminal can be earned by highlighting a select batch of important words used in a the chapter you’ve just completed and unless you’re meticulously writing down the context within which they were used, you’re never entirely certain which token the word will align with. Which would be okay with the variety of earnable tokens wasn’t much large than it needed to be, meaning you’ll most likely be forced to skipping entire memories on a single playthrough.
It’s a disservice to the game given how well these excerpts are written and while you could always go back and replay chapters to earn the tokens you needed, it’s a tedious mission to have to click through the story you’ve already seen just for a small nugget of extra information. Some kind of “unlock all” feature included in the game once it was finished would have done wonders in actually making me head back and read through everything that I missed so hopefully it’s something that could be implemented in a future update.
At the end of the day, this industry of hours is so often focused on the brutality and violence around death. I mean, two of the highest-grossing games of the year so far, The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima, focus on brutal, violent actions which take lives. I suppose it was just nice to play a game that treated death in a manner that most people are likely to face it: An omnipotent presence that never quite hits as hard as you expect but just quietly takes people away from us, whether they want it or not. Necrobarista is a deeply contemplative game, one that’s subtle in it’s themes yet bold enough to really sink its teeth into it’s subject matter. It’s an incredibly beautiful game that goes above and beyond to provide a different angle on a theme that video games have never truly done justice.
Last Updated: July 27, 2020