Something about the concept of visual novel-leaning video games has always been of interest. Perhaps an atavistic nod to my own, now long-buried, history with creative writing, there’s something about the idea of being entirely captivated by people shooting the shit that always spoke to me, which makes sense for someone who was enthralled with the works of Kevin Smith and slacker indie comedies as an impressionable teenager. Topped off with the simple game mechanic of also having to mix and provide drinks to customers (I’m something of an amateur mixologist myself—at least that’s what I tell myself when I’m four Rum and Cokes deep on a weeknight), the increased amount of time on my hands considering extenuating circumstances, and the reasonable price tag, COFFEE TALK seemed like it had the potential to be a match made in Heaven. While perhaps falling just a bit short of that title, COFFEE TALK is still a soothing balm for the weary soul, a heartwarming, light outing with engaging characters, a striking art style, and a compassionately human touch.
You play as the proprietor of the Coffee Talk coffee shop in Seattle (I decided to name my avatar Bustopher after a certain cat in white spats), known to be of some unspecified wealth and status, electing to run the joint due to your love for the regular patrons, not any sort of self-motivated business sense. Armed with a trusty arsenal of 10 ingredients, a wide variety of colorful personalities filter through your door on each of the nights you play, from your most trusted customer, the aspiring journalist Freya, to the werewolf nurse Galahad, looking to find a drink that can mitigate the damage of his lycanthropy, to Neil, a spacesuit-outfitted alien who has been sent to Earth to study the species and hopefully find a mate to breed with. Oh yeah—this version of Seattle is one where all of the mythical species and races peacefully cohabitate after a series of historical wars, a Seattle where orcs are game developers and vampires are fashion models. While events from the outside world are reported on via the glimpse at the paper we’re allowed before serving up drinks, the story is carried by the customers of Coffee Talk and how their lives all begin to intersect.
Guess which one is Neil
Thankfully, considering the overall trappings of the project, the writing is confident and strong. While the occasional errant line of dialogue can misstep and come across as too “Tumblr.” every now and then in terms of eagerness to land a hip reference or crack a zinger, COFFEE TALK is able to successfully get us invested in the lives of the characters we meet. Considering the obvious intention of evoking retro-fitted anime, the story is heavy on endearing melodrama, all dramatic proclamations and bare-faced emotionalism, spiced up with the intermittent visual flair of a dramatic shift in camera angle or a striking split-screen presentation when characters are really going at it. While one or two are slightly undercooked (the police officer character Jorji never really experiences a distinct arc or conclusion), others are genuinely layered and arresting, especially the star-crossed love affair between Baileys, a cynically hip elf, and Lua, a succubus whose race is not embraced by Baileys’ family. However, the star of the show is by far Neil, the inherent humor of his predicament the game’s most cohesively lighthearted touch and the character that most explicitly learns and grows. Everyone ends up helping each other out in the end, and it’s a bittersweet moment to say goodbye to the Coffee Talk family as they’re all sent on their way.
That said, it is worth highlighting for those less in the gaming know that this is a visual novel (alright, alright, a “coffee bar simulator with visual novel elements,” but cut me a break). Having only really cut my teeth on DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB! before this, which is, well, you know, it is a bit of an experential curve that a large portion of the “gameplay,” as it were, consists of clicking through dialogue options. Kind of. To its credit, COFFEE TALK does add a mechanic wherein you have to regularly make customers drinks based on a three-tiered permutation of 10 key ingredients. Some customers give it to you straight, whereas others give you hints as to what they’re in the mood for (something sweet, bitter, etc.). It’s an interesting idea in theory, but does end up feeling like a bit of an afterthought considering that while you can make the incorrect drink, nothing that untoward happens to you if you flub it (there’s not even an achievement for making everyone the right brew). My ideal version of this game would have transposed the story to a more bustling coffee shop where you have to quickly make a variety of customers drinks under a time limit, stopping off to drop in on a conversation a la real baristas and waiters/waitresses. Nevertheless, the roster of drinks are all aesthetically pleasing in the game’s pixelated art style, seem cozy and delicious, and feature a few I’d never heard of before, chiefly Marrakech, Russian Tea, and Jahe Tubruk, that I’d definitely be interested in trying the corresponding recipes for.
Unfortunately, it did end up proving harder than I thought to write “100 gecs” in the latte art
All in all, I can’t really think of any reason you shouldn’t give COFFEE TALK a try if you’re looking for things to occupy your increased free time and are open to what can be summarized as a story-heavy fantasy rom-com. If nothing else, COFFEE TALK is certainly a “vibe,” with an endearing soundtrack of lo-fi anime hip hop beats to chill and study to that is well worth turning up as loud as possible to fully immerse yourself within. Easy on the eyes, ears, and soul, the events affecting the Seattle outside of Coffee Talk’s four walls are also eerily relevant, with newspaper headlines discussing iron-fisted immigration policies, festival lineups and reschedulings, and a zombie disease that is of growing concern. As such, for a price that’s about half of what you’re ordering on DoorDash or Uber Eats (with a 20% tip I hope, you monsters), COFFEE TALK is a more-than-welcome way to spend a few late nights or afternoons.