The Terminal is a higgledy-piggledy, formerly-industrial coffee shop somewhere in Melbourne, Australia. The ground floor has space at the bar to chat, and there are bookcases and a billiards table on the upper floor. A ghostly white tree stretches towards the sun through the glass windows. The menu offers a range of dishes and sweet treats, as well as caffeinated concoctions, and it is frequented by those on their way from this world to the next.
Maddy Xiao, an apprentice necromancer, helms the coffee shop with help from her mentor, Chay Wu, and the robot-obsessed ruffian Ashley. Together, they welcome the living and the dead with irreverence and warmth, while juggling the responsibilities of running a purgatorial pit stop. The thing is, the souls who enter The Terminal only have twenty-four hours here before they must move on. Kishan, who stumbles into the shop at the start of the story, discovers that this rule is strictly* enforced*, and his time with Maddy, Chay, and Ashley is limited*.
*Or, it would be, if the trio were following the regulations of the Council. This unseen and otherworldly organisation is not very happy with The Terminal, because it is racking up a monumental debt. A debt of hours. All the time that Maddy has afforded these souls that drift into the coffee house has affected the balance. However, she’s never been a stickler for the rules, and she sure isn’t going to start now that Ned Kelly—an enforcer for the powers that be—has come to collect. Over the course of three days, the story follows Maddy’s schemes, Chay’s mediations, Ashley’s inventions, and Kishan’s knowledge, as they attempt to circumnavigate the Council’s attention.
Necrobarista is an episodic visual novel, drawing from conventions in anime, theatre, and cinema and filtering them through high-contrast and stylised visuals. The effect is delightful. The text hangs in the space of The Terminal like a friendly ghost, with the character oozing animation and personality despite being stood stock still. Maddy’s acerbic jokes balance precariously above her pointed fingers, and Chay’s quieter comments rest on the wood grain of the bar. Ned Kelly’s exasperated questions cozy up next to his helmet, the white text matching the glow where his eyes would have been.
The sharp contrast between these freeze frames lets the story breathe, ensuring that it isn’t lost in the mixture of these bold and brash elements. In addition, at the end of each of the episodes, three of Ashley’s robots—the souls of dead animals, fused with miscellaneous rubbish and waving copper-red appendages—offer their take on the events. Their asides were one of the highlights of the game, and their accompanying theme tune absolutely banged.
Well, all of the songs banged. Composed by Kevin Penkin, the score of Necrobarista swirled between the realms of jazzy and esoteric jives, reflective and melancholy dirges, and lo-fi beats to grind beans to. With the player clicking through the story, the transition between songs occasionally gave me whiplash, but I suppose it’s difficult to judge when a player (who is reading at their own pace) will reach certain parts of the scene. Also, I would recommend adding a border and drop shadow to the text in the options menu. Otherwise, it gets lost in the glow of the café lights, or against the characters’ light-coloured clothes. These, plus a tiny number of spelling errors or omissions, are my only gripes with Necrobarista.
That the spelling errors were so rare is a testament to the passion and the dedication of the developers. In each episode (of which there are eight, all roughly 40 minutes long), there are highlighted words (the universal video game signal of “remember this, because it’s going to be important in a bit.”) At the end of each episode, these words return in a cloud, and the player selects seven of them. Each word relates to a symbol, or token. “Microwave” would be revealed to be a food token, and “curmudgeon” would be a Ned token, but not all of them are so straightforward. Then, these seven tokens are used to unlock other sections of story, littered about the café in free-roam sections of the game.
These other sections are not compulsory, but they offer insight to the staff and patrons of The Terminal. One such segment detailed reviews of crucibles used for brewing magical coffee; another detailed a discussion between Maddy and newly-departed fisherman Brad; while another detailed Chay’s attempts to rationalise the myth of Icarus to the frighteningly, yet admirably, ambitious Ashley. As there’s no way of knowing which words correspond to which tokens, I wasn’t able to unlock all of the memories available, which I’ve made my peace with. The lingering mystery of this coffee-shop-that-might-be-here-or-there-or-both and the countless spirits who pass through it only heightened the themes of its story.
I appreciate that I’ve danced around actually telling you what happens in Necrobarista. The jazzy sounds, sarcastic humour, and overstated art style, underline and undermine its exploration of grief and the politics of death. It would have been easy to use these ingredients to make a game about fulfilling coffee orders for otherworldly patrons. But it’s obvious, even from its early moments, that the beating heart of Necrobarista lies guarded by the developer. As the hours tick by, these protective layers peel back and fade away, and the real conflict corrupting The Terminal becomes clear. Its characters, silly and cruel, good-natured and detached, flirtatious and depressed, are enlivened by the presentation and the enchanting writing. You understand why Maddy got herself into this pickle in the first place. You don’t want to say goodbye.