I love coffee. Tea is something of a beauty in itself of course, but whenever someone asks if we can grab a cup of coffee together, I can hardly resist. Sitting in a cafe with a friend, visiting family-members, or just for the sake of having one while writing, coffee has become an enjoyment I have to a fault. So it might not be any surprise that I was intrigued when I saw the trailer for the title of today. Coffee Talk reminded me heavily of VA-11 Hall-A and while I do not mind liquor for special occasions, coffee is more my cup of tea in general. With a nice cup of joe in my hand, I was ready to have a nice virtual barista-experience.
Everyone is a writer
The game takes place in the year 2020 in a contemporary fantasy-setting. This means that fantastical creatures like elves, dwarves, werewolves, nekos and even aliens, are now a part of our modern world, where they roam freely as a part of society. In this colourful world, lies a small coffee-shop in a street within Seattle. You play as the owner of this cafe named Coffee Talk, where you simply take in customers, serve them drinks and offer a friendly chat if they wish for one.
I just want to start out that the fantasy-elements are implemented in this setting for no real reason. I can only recall an alien on a surreal and hilarious mission, but other than that, the other stories are either familiar takes on Shakespeare’s tales or even more cliched with no interesting dialogues or twists, making their setups forgettable. I thought there was something towards the end when a werewolf was freaking out, but that was toward the ending, and thus: the fantastical aspects added nothing.
There is an attempt to implement world-building with problems of racism or creatures of the night trying to neglect their lust for rage or blood, which I do respect the idea of. However, nothing goes beyond a simple newspaper article or a quick description, and those that try to have an arc could be implied to a normal setting, making the fantastical aspects a wasted effort. The idea of vegan vampires is not something to take on lightly! I also disliked that the events going on outside of the shop such as the problem with the working-union, had no clear effect on the customers, making the newspapers I read every day feel unneeded. I honestly wish there were some comic-strips to keep me engaged at this point.
Because of the poor world-building and unnecessary use of fantastical creatures, it really damaged the story due to adding nothing, yet giving both such big focus on occasion. It was somewhat like adding more water to an Americano. What should drive a dialogue-heavy title like this visual novel forward, should be the characters and the conversations. You are, after all, talking to your customers every day or eavesdropping on their conversations, makes it a clear focus.
Oddly enough, this is where I find it the hardest to pinpoint my thoughts about the stories. None come off as bad, with clear and understandable dilemmas they are facing, and their traits are relatable. Sadly, that is all they have going for them: traits. I cannot say I got much out of their personalities, as they were minimalistic and honestly forgettable. The kind Werewolf who worked at the hospital, the writer who struggles to meet deadlines, the shy indie-developer, these are fine character-descriptions and good building-bricks. Unfortunately, the game ended the moment these characters became interesting and that is a huge shame.
I also want to blame the game’s dialogue for this, as they are not well written. None came off as poor, and could even have funny moments, but when drama entered the scene, it could feel repetitive due to stating what was already done so by another character. I also despise it when issues feel forced, as it happened on multiple occasions with characters that should be mature enough to know better, and even seemed to do so. I am not fond of the moments when they try to be philosophical either. When they discuss games for example, it feels completely vague and somewhat nonchalant. However, when they come with a discussion that does not lead to an answer, Coffee Talk can be interesting, due to focusing on seeing elements from multiple perspectives instead of finding an answer.
Unfortunately, it does not do so often and the character-dilemmas are instead at the forefront. Whenever this happens, I simply get disconnected due to ideas already having been presented and it is a shame it could not have been helped by stronger dialogues or better arc for progression. The problems simply came and got resolved. Thus Coffee Talk became uninspiring and boring. I believed it was going to pick up after two weeks of progression, until I realised the game was over. If you are going to play through this, please have a thermos of coffee at hand. I think I had about 8 cups.
Story Score: 3.5/10
A barista should know more
So what do you do in this visual novel besides scrolling through texts? Well, you are a barista, so you gotta know how to make them drinks! Whenever someone orders a drink, you will choose ingredients for three setups: base, primary and secondary. Each mixup of ingredients will showcase how hot and cold it is, as well as how sweet and bitter it is. You can mix up different types of coffee, chocolates, milk-based, and both green and dark tea for multiple results.
This might sound complicated if the customers do not give a specific order. However, 90% of the time, they will just tell you what they want and you can always check recipes, making the challenge of finding the perfect brew, gone. There are two occasions where someone wishes for maybe heat and bitterness, or finding one ingredient, but since you can trash your creations up to 5 times per day, finding the right drink will be easy. In fact, if you just play the poorly named endless mode (which is actually free-mode) before starting the game, you can mix and find every single recipe in this game by trial and error.
Even without exploiting the game like this, making drinks is a painless effort and something you have to actually try in order to fail. Because of this, the main-aspect of the game becomes you following recipes and serving the drink, making it almost a barebones interactive title. If there was anything I did enjoy about making coffee, it was whenever I could make latte-art, as it is quite hard, but intuitive, with sketches and subtle pouring being available to make your artistic creation. It is definitely a nice and novel extra, even if it has no impact on the actual game.
You can also save the game whenever you wish to, and a dialogue-log always makes sure you get the most out of conversations. Both can be misused to make sure you make the best cup of drink, but I suppose purists will not. What baffles me, is that you can use your phone whenever you are at work, which I can tell is a hard sell as one who has worked in the service-industry. You can use it to check the music playing, recipes, news, and your relationship with other people. The last one is also tied to the gameplay, since if you serve people the right drinks, they will allow you to read more about them, but these are such monotone descriptions, that I wonder why this was even added. They do not elaborate on the characters and do not effect the game in any meaningful way.
This is a relaxing game, but there is nothing at stake or no way to alter your course of action unless you want to be a downright jerk, which even then adds little to the experience. There is no time you have to take into consideration the cost of drinks, people’s well-being, or anything. You simply read an underwhelming story while making drinks. It feels like what working in a coffee-shop would be in a dream-like status, but this is anything but. It fails as a simulator, and it drags as a visual novel.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
Light and calm
The aesthetics Coffee Talk presents, gives a lovely atmosphere that I expect from a cosy coffee-shop. The simple attire, street-art mixed with some plants, the interior gives a relaxing vibe that fits the game’s tone. The shades of brown in cutscenes and in the newspaper are also nice touches to make me want a cosy cup of coffee myself. The same focus on quality also goes for the character-design as they are varied, colourful, but down to earth to be believable in a modern-day setting.
The characters even come with different animations to highlight their emotions. Their overall body-language is stiff, however, which can hurt the immersion, but it is not too distractive. Sadly, there are not enough details to be really taken in by the atmosphere, despite its simple approach. I am baffled that a cold cup of milk leaves smoke, and I wish the cups could be more diverse to highlight the different drinks. In fact, there are too few visual highlights, making the days repetitive and dull. However, it is still colourful and imaginative within its limits due to the nice character- and shop-design. Despite not always being immersive, it is definitely atmospheric and I especially like how people are walking by outside or rain falling, which helps the cosy and warm feeling from a hot drink.
While I wish for more details and visual highlights, I do like that the phone is used for ingame-checkups like status and ingredients, but that is about it. The soundtrack is wonderful and one I simply had to get. It is a mix of relaxing tones, using fitting instruments like piano or bass, and goes in diverse genres like chill-step and jazz. With varied tones that changes the rhythm, but always keeps it at a calm pace and tone, it all adds to make an atmosphere that is easy to get lost in long after the game is turned of.
Presentation Score: 7/10
Might as well call it a night
As I already stated, you can play endless mode, where you just mix drinks for the “fun” of it and see what you can create with no challenge added. A free-mode rather, if you will. There is also a challenge mode, which has you taking in orders and trying to please as many customers as you can within a time limit. It is a nice change of pace as customers will give more vague requests as the game goes on, and satisfied customers will add more to the timer so you can play for longer. At the end, you will get a score on how many pleased and disappointed customers you have. This is fun for a couple of short runs, but sadly, this is it. There is no reason to go back for a second run of the main-game, not even to reread the same experience. Even the art-gallery is unlocked completely after a solid run. I usually do not comment on achievements in this segment, but what is exciting for getting an achievement for starting the game?!
Extra Score: 3/10
So, I cannot say that this was my favourite coffee-shop, but I am glad I tried it once to see what it offered. Coffee Talk offers a nice atmosphere and characters that are passable, with interesting recipes I would like to try. However, the overall experience was rather tiresome, which is odd when a cup of joe should do otherwise. Uninteresting coffee-making, and conversations that were more misses than hits, made me want to leave and chug down my espresso. I would recommend finding a certain virtual bar instead.