"What is it that you find precious?" That's one of the only pieces of tutorialization in Route 59's visual novel adventure Necrobarista. Mechanically, it's teaching you that after every chapter of the story, you can select key phrases to grasp onto and carry forward as tokens to be redeemed for bonus lore.
But it's also asking what you're carrying with you, and by choosing, what you're willing to leave behind. When someone can only carry so much at a time, what becomes most precious to hold onto? And, maybe most importantly, when will you ever let go?
Despite being deep into the summer months of gaming and surrounded by a flood of announcements, July's docket of new video game releases was pretty solid. Nadia Oxford enjoyed Paper Mario: The Origami King and the new Trackmania has some of the series' best driving, even if the user interface left a lot to be desired. Don't worry Ghost of Tsushima fans, Mike Williams went to the plate for y'all, and even I will admit that its clever innovations on open-world mechanics are pretty neat.
Amid all of that, there was a game that's been a long time coming: Necrobarista. It's a stylish visual novel that caught our eye a while back, and despite a few delays, it finally hit Steam this last month with a PS4 and Switch version set for sometime in 2021.
On its face, Necrobarista is about a café between the world of the living and the dead. After passing away, places like The Terminal offer the departed one last respite before journeying on to the ever-after. Amateur necromancer Maddy tends bar and manages The Terminal with a snarky demeanor, alongside previous owner and mentor Chay and a vagrant teen inventor named Ashley. They work hard, but their lenient demeanor towards torpid spirits draws the ire of the Council of Death and one of its arbiters, Ned Kelly. (Yes, that Ned Kelly.)
Entering The Terminal alongside the freshly deceased Kishan, the player drifts through different vignettes taking place around the café over the course of several pivotal days. It's easy to think from the outset what this story will be about: death. And that's pretty much what it is, even if it's not precisely about the act of dying.
If anything, Necrobarista is concerned with living, and what we carry with us when we transition between phases of our lives. Maddy is bullheaded and ambitious, which masks her greater insecurities. The metric tonnage of guilt and responsibility Maddy hefts on herself seems to constantly weigh on her, even in lighter moments. Chay often has a wistful air about him, like someone who's thinking of moments too far in the past to ever elicit regret or nostalgia. Ashley's frenzied genius belies her personal terror of ever letting someone down.
When Necorbarista begins unveiling the truths behind its story and its characters start digging into their individual problems, it hits hard. It's hard to think it would have the same impact without Route 59's sheer commitment to style. The way the perspective shifts around scenes, zooming in for dramatic close-ups and out for moody framing is unlike most other visual novels out there, which usually adhere to some level of uniform interface and framing.
Necrobarista's style is worn prominently on its sleeve, with some cuts seemingly paying homage to the work of anime studios like Shaft. It means that even scenes with no voice acting or few motions can still stand out due to how Route 59 frames the moment. Very few games in recent memory had me hitting the screenshot button like I did here.
Once its short runtime is over, Necrobarista thankfully ends on a warm, if not slightly somber, farewell. It's parting comes in the form of a pun; one of the few times I'll gladly allow one of those, because it feels extremely earned. Necrobarista seems like a game about passing into the afterlife, but I walked away reflecting on so much more.
Throughout its story, it reminds you that everyone takes pieces of every person and every thing with them and carries them in some way; but over the years, what will you grasp onto, and what should you let go of? Necrobarista is a reflective, wonderful experience made so much better for how crafted and determined it is to be what it wants to be, on its own terms, and in its own unique mannerisms. It's one of the more memorable visual novels I've played this year, if not ever, and certainly an experience I think everyone should try.