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Film critic Roger Ebert once famously wrote that video games aren’t art. Even after people pointed him to Shadow of the Colossus and many other games, he was undeterred — maybe video games could be art, but they weren’t yet and wouldn’t be in any of our lifetimes. Unfortunately, Ebert passed before we could tell him to go play NieR: Automata, but I’m not sure that would have convinced him either.
I think Necrobarista would have. The reason is quite simple: Necrobarista is the most cinematic game I’ve ever played.
When I say cinematic, I don’t mean that it has explosions and over the top set pieces. In fact, Necrobarista has none of that. Instead, it focuses on all the things that make movies great. Careful attention to the composition of every shot. A beautiful and vibrant art style. A subtle story about real issues and real people. Its blend of sound and look and story create a mood that is, indeed, artful, because it manages to communicate relationships and feelings organically. Necrobarista takes the “visual” part of visual novel seriously, making it an essential example of the genre.
I don’t normally start by writing about the visuals of a game so early, but they really are what set Necrobarista apart from others in the genre. The game uses a 3D, anime-inspired style. The bright and colorful character models stand out against the appropriately dark setting which has the perfect splashes of color tossed in. The characters will often move in the shot, but mostly, the camera is the star here, reframing the characters during their conversations and effectively communicating the emotion or mood of the moment. This style of characters moving and interacting in a fully animated world has been attempted before, but never with this level of style and care given to every moment. It is worth noting that I played this game on Apple Arcade, and it ran and looked beautiful on my iPhone 11 Pro. When switching to my fairly robust laptop, I had to throttle the settings down a little, and it caused a few textures to load slowly. That was a little disappointing, but it didn’t deter from the experience in a genuine way.
Regardless of how you play Necrobarista, the score is almost equal to the visuals. It blends pop/synth tracks with lyrical and contemplative piano pieces, effectively underlining the beautifully varied mood of the game. I’d definitely recommend you play with headphones. There’s no voice acting, but that actually works here. Without it, you aren’t distracted from what makes this game work: the score, the writing, and the visuals.
In terms of story, the game takes place in Melbourne in a coffee shop for both the living and the dead. After death, before passing to the other side (no one really knows what lies beyond), you have the opportunity to converse with people in the coffee shop and come to grips with your own passing. The shop is run by Maddy, a sarcastic twenty-something, and Chay, the somewhat mysterious former owner of the café. The dead are only supposed to have 24 hours before they move to the other side, but there are ways to manipulate this rule, and Maddy is usually happy to help.
While this sounds like a narrative that might get wrapped up in its own supernatural premise, it doesn’t. The game is fully grounded in its characters, and they are impeccably written. While the game gets into weighty topics about life, death, and the value of existence, it never teeters over into the morose because the characters are genuine, funny, and they feel fully alive (pun definitely intended). The game takes its time developing these characters beyond our initial impressions, showing us the bonds they have but also selling us on their genuine kindness. Even the characters who have a brief appearance make quite an impression, and luckily, the developers are adding some free DLC to flesh them out, too. It also has some genuine surprises along the way, all building to an ending that made me shed more than a few tears and think about the value we all bring to the world. The developer, Route 59, and their writing team deserve an enormous amount of credit for developing a story that is both heartbreaking and hopeful on their first try.
Necrobarista flaunts the rules of many visual novels. There is no choice. No branching paths. No multiple endings. It is an almost entirely linear story from start to finish. This also works to the story’s benefit. There’s so much craft at work here that any additional endings or paths would be unnecessary and distract from the core of the game, diminishing its emotional power.
There are a few gameplay segments, though, and their poor execution is my own only true criticism of Necrobarista. The game is broken into 10 different chapters, and between each chapter you are asked to select different words, or “memories,” from the previous chapter to use in the upcoming segment. The goal is to pick words based on their use and context in the previous chapter. Each time you select a word it will tell you what it was related to, such as “Maddy” or “Melbourne.” Then you find yourself in a first-person view exploring an area of the café. As you click on different objects, if you have the right category of “memories,” you can unlock different side stories about the characters and setting of the game, told entirely through text.
There are a lot of problems with the gameplay, unfortunately. First of all, the controls are horrendous, especially on a phone, with an overly sensitive camera. It’s already difficult to find the various objects to interact with and navigation challenges do nothing to help this problem. It is a bit better on a computer, and Route 59 added mouse sensitivity to help as well, so that should also improve things. Additionally, unless both your memory and power of association are incredibly strong, you’ll often find yourself short of the necessary memories to unlock the side stories. I often had 6 or 7 memories of one category and none of another. Luckily, these sections can largely be skipped since the stories only serve as nice flavor, and they’re mercifully short. The strengths of the rest of Necrobarista overcome any issues with the gameplay segments. Nonetheless, these segments are an unnecessary distraction that hampered my immersion in the game.
Ultimately, Necrobarista reminded me of another Roger Ebert essay about his thoughts on life and death. In it he wrote, “What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter.” Necrobarista brings all of these things, with incredible style and panache. Like a good movie, I felt a little different after I played it, and to me, that makes it worthy of being called art…whatever that means.