by Nathan Rowland
reviewed on PC
There’s something unequivocally enticing about a coffee shop. The leisurely, warm and comforting atmosphere it invokes. The smell of ground coffee and the sedated whistling of steamed milk. The gentle patter of customers coming and going – their stories and lives creating a cacophony of life in a bustling city. This is where Coffee Talk firmly places its roots and within the romanticism that such imagery conjures.
As the sole proprietor and barista of the titular midnight café, Coffee Talk, you have to listen to the working woes of the “common man”, all whilst serving up tasty revelations from your espresso machine. Though, “common” in this world is a bit different to what we know from regular coffee shops. It’s still the 21st Century, set in a Seattle as recognisable as ever, but packed to the brim with fantasy races of every persuasion. Your patrons will range from artistic elves to modelling cat-people and freelance fish-folk... aliens, beat cops and everything in between. Each with their own quirks and personalities, ready to be unravelled over a steaming hot beverage.
A good brew
Coffee Talk consistently develops characters alongside each other, knowing when to introduce a new character before old ones become stale versus digging down into the intricate backstories of another. It does mean some characters are left at a shallower level of interaction and design. Central to this cast is Freya, the art-house, clichéd writer who finds her escapism in the din of dark nights and darker espressos. Acting in a role akin to a narrator, she provides structure to the ongoing conversations between yourself and other customers – an interpreter to the unfamiliar fantasy norms. Often distracted by the commitments of her ongoing novel, this game’s parallel of a mise en abyme, Freya’s objective evaluation of all the patrons of Coffee Talk provides a helpful way for players to become familiar with the world.
I’m also quite pleased with how knowledgeable Coffee Talk is in its fringe beverages like Teh Tarik, a Polynesian ‘pulled’ tea or the Indonesian SMJR (Susu – milk, Telur – Eggs, Madu – Honey, Jahe – Ginger). It’s enjoyable to learn about some of these more curious concoctions in between load screens, but it doesn’t overcome one of the more diminished aspects of Coffee Talk: The one point of interaction for the player will be serving the customers their desired beverages and requires only a simple combination of three pre-allocated ingredients. I think I expected a deeper, more involved system of creating the drinks. It doesn’t hold back the witty dialogue between characters, it’s just a small foil in a game which seeks to make you feel like you could comfortably belong in this world. There’s a real lack of agency in Coffee Talk, even after having named your own character. Rather than feeling like a genuine barista, I felt more like those automated Costa vending machines you find at petrol stations.
Coffee Talk’s writing is some of the wittiest and most salient that the industry offers. The game highlights the awareness of many topical issues in modern-day America, often using the parallel of fantasy races to provoke discussion of racial tensions in the ‘real’ America. Fish-people ‘flood in’ from the Atlantic oceans causing border issues. Werewolves require access to medicated sedatives vs. access to medical marijuana. Vampires demand more access to sustainable sources of blood rather than manufactured products. The American dream lives on in any version of America it seems.
Yet, it’s apparent that this visual novel will become very much ‘of its time’ in the years to come. And whilst novels are a personal favourite of mine amongst literary genres, the ‘visual novels’ like Coffee Talk have never had me quite so enthralled as their print counterparts. Toge Productions creates an attractive and calming world to be wrapped up in – but doesn’t provide much more than a comfort read.
Attractive and calming world, handles topical issues
Lack of agency, visual novel doesn’t reach the depth of its literary counterparts