Necrobarista Review – Delight in Melbourne’s Dark Corners

It’s hard to imagine anything more destined for cult following status than Necrobarista. They’ve got the recipe right: unique, oddly relatable characters, a world oozing with style, and a banging theme song accompanying its title sequence. If Scott Pilgrim was set in Melbourne and swapped band practise for necromancy, you’d be pretty close to what Route 59 Games has accomplished.

Necrobarista is many things, but it is not a game like you know it. Falling into the somewhat niche genre of 3D visual novels, don’t expect typical mechanics you may associate with other video games.

But sure, there are hallmarks of other games. Built-in the Unity game engine, the coffee shop is explorable from the first-person perspective between episodes. In these moments, you’ll briefly use WASD on your keyboard, finding tangental stories unlocked using keywords collected from the game’s main plot.

The story is mostly experienced as a visual novel however, clicking through scenes and on-screen dialogue without decision making or interaction with the world. Player agency isn’t what it’s about; the focus is solely on the story Route 59 has sought to tell. They overtly shrug off potentially more profitable game design choices in favour for championing this lesser-known genre, peeking through the fourth wall with the line, “I just feel like everything’s a battle royale these days.”

Ultimately the discussion surrounding its status as a video game is reductive and distracts from the magic contained with Necrobarista. However light it is on gameplay, Necrobarista more than makes up for it with a double shot of emotive storytelling.

With its musings on life, death and letting go, Necrobarista is a heart-wrenching story set within the space between this world and the next. Choosing a back alley coffee shop in the inner-city suburb of Carlton as limbo seems oddly apt. The nihilistic pontification between its characters is indicative of the brunch time conversations you might hear between a gaggle of Melbournites. As a local myself, I was very excited to see a milk crate dragged out as a chair.

Australian references don’t end there. A bro-ey interpretation of the infamous outback outlaw, Ned Kelly, is a central character and slang such as ‘tradies’ and ‘goon’ are frequent. I’d recommend an international audience keep Urban Dictionary close to hand.

But Necrobarista is an example of cultural hybridity at its finest. Blending style and aesthetics inspired by Japanese anime with a generous helping of Australian culture and history, the resulting mixture is something fitting of Melbourne’s multicultural roots.

Despite the supernatural and mysterious Terminal cafe setting, a coffee shop somewhere between this world and the next, the world is strangely believable. If an underground alchemist/necromancy scene does exist within Melbourne, I’d imagine it’d be exactly like this.

The characters and equally convincing and relatable. From the cafe owner and lead necrobarista herself, Maddy Xiao, to the eccentric, knife-wielding teenager, Ashley Capek, I quickly felt a connection with the coffee-obsessed crew. That renders their heartache, as they struggle to deal with the transitory nature of life and an inability to escape consequence, all the more painful.

Necrobarista is exceptionally well-written. Route 59 perfectly capture those pointless conversations you find yourself as you skate around the elephant in the room. But when characters do open up, boy do they tug at your heartstrings.

No amount of caffeine will soften the punch packed into the game’s self-described “heavy” moments. Touching, sometimes all-too-real dialogue punctuates an expertly told, very human story interspersed between moments of typical Melbourne cynicism. Bouts of introspection setup thought-provoking monologues that playfully bounce into witty banter, much of which I’ve captured in a folder of screenshots. There are brilliant lines in there I’d refer back to in my own moments of self-doubt or repurpose as a meme in a group chat.

It’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious at times.

This oscillation between deep personal reflection, one-liners and puns does bear a degree of whiplash, but none too different from that you’d expect to see within an anime or a comic.

It gets away with it thanks to the brilliant score composed by the BAFTA-nominated composer of Florence, Kevin Penkin (who’s making a habit of scoring the Millennial Melbourne existence) and Jeremy Lim, with collaborations from the indie-pop group Soft Science. From the very-anime title sequence to the punchy beat the accompanies the commentary between Ashley’s sentient robots at the end of each story chapter, the music contributes greatly to the game’s mood at any given moment. I’m not typically the type to listen to game soundtracks in my own time – with Hotline Miami‘s the only exception – but I’m glad to see that the tracks already on Spotify.

Sadly, on the topic of sound, Necrobarista is almost entirely reliant on its soundtrack. Sound design is sparse to non-existent. Bar some occasional ambience in the cafe, and the odd sound effect here or there, without a recorded dialogue – which is all told through text – tracks are reused time and time again. The mix from scene to scene isn’t always flash either. If the soundtrack wasn’t as strong as it is, it would’ve bothered me a lot more than it did.

Visually speaking, there’s a lot to commend. The heavily stylised 3D presentation creates a unique, immediately recognisable aesthetic. Equally so, the character and environment design deserve to endure in whatever form Necrobarista next presents itself. It’s low poly and occasionally a little rough looking – with the infrequent bit of clipping – but I was able to mostly overlook minor issues as I became enthralled in the narrative.

It’s still incredibly cinematic too, even with minimal camera movements and very infrequent character animation. I’d like to have seen more movement in the scenes, but clever tricks used with dialogue text and the character’s designs and posing are sufficiently expressive. 

What’s most exciting about Necrobarista though is what is yet to come. And no, I’m not talking about the fan fiction this first tale from the Terminal will inevitably brew.

Necrobarista is destined for more. Battling burnout and the ‘grind’ that was its development – I hope they appreciate that shocker of a pun – Route 59 Games have succeeded in setting up a world Netflix would be lucky to have. You can’t just go throwing about mentions of the Council of Death without creating more questions than you can answer in a tight, five-hour experience well worth the price of admission.

Thankfully, for now, Route 59 Games have more in store. If scenes and characters never realised but teased in the title sequence aren’t enough evidence, their promise in December last year for “post-launch feature updates and significant content additions” has me excited.

Necrobarista tells a beautiful, heart-wrenching story of the human experience expertly told with dialogue that resonates more than once. I was enthralled by the world and enamoured with its characters, despite minor complaints with the polish of an otherwise impressive visual style. In crafting their 3D visual novel, Route 59 has gambled on a niche genre, eschewing more marketable mechanics and pursuing passion over potential profit. With a brew this good, you can be sure I'll be back for more.
Exceptional writing
Beautifully cinematic
Banging soundtrack
Ace characters and setting
Visual polish
Sparse sound design
Room for more mechanics