Developed and Published by: Toge Productions
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: Out Now!
One part coffee-barista-simulator and one part visual novel, Coffee Talk is quite unlike any other game I’ve played before! I’m personally not much of a coffee or tea drinker myself, but that isn’t required to enjoy this game – the easy-to-understand game mechanics and richly-written characters make Coffee Talk a compelling experience with something for everyone. It’s a well-deserved breakout for Toge Productions, an Indonesian independent developer/publisher who are behind other games such as the Infectonator series and When the Past Was Around.
In this review, I’ll serve up my reasons for why Coffee Talk comes together so well. It’s an intriguing game in the visual novel genre, bringing fresh ideas for how interactive elements can be added to text-heavy experiences. So, get your favourite drink, and let’s dive in…
May I Take Your Order?
The overall premise and staging of Coffee Talk is quite straightforward; you play in first-person as the owner and barista of Coffee Talk, a moderately-popular café in fictional Seattle. In this version of the world, other species and aliens are commonplace in society; as well as humans, you’ll get werewolves, vampires, orcs, and plenty more as your customers. Gameplay is broken up into days, each presenting you with a different combination of characters. By talking to them, listening to their stories, and serving up the correct drinks, you’ll bear witness to their evolving lives.
Your main regular is Freya, a striking green-haired human who writes for the local paper and appears almost every day. Freya essentially acts as an early guide to ease you in to things, as well as a narrative throughline for the game as a whole, even as your customer base becomes larger. Freya helps establish how the coffee shop isn’t overly popular, but is well-liked by the people who discover it, and her taste for Espressos makes your initial drink-making easy (it’s just coffee, coffee, and more coffee!). When brewing drinks, you have three slots for your base, primary, and secondary ingredients. You mix and match from your available stock to make different drinks, and you have up to five chances a day to trash your concoction and give it another go.
There’s also the option to add some extra flair with the optional latte art. It’s not easy, but you can make some beautiful-looking images this way to treat your customers. The “Brewpad” app on your in-game phone has recipes for a selection of drinks, and you add to this as you discover new combinations, sort of like a Pokédex for drinks (Cafédex?)! New ingredients become available as you get further into the game, and this allows you to experiment with new combinations. Overall, it’s a deceptively easy-to-understand game mechanic, because it hides a wealth of different recipes to uncover and add to your Brewpad. It also cleverly gives you more motivation to pay close attention to the words of your customers, so you don’t miss any crucial details about the ingredients needed for their orders.
On a base level, it’s satisfying to keep your customers happy, but you also have the rewards of filling your Brewpad and discovering different endings to the story depending on which drinks you make! In addition, your phone shows the Tomodachill social media accounts of characters you meet, and the more you connect with them, the more information you’ll be able to see on their profiles. All these extra details and story paths add longevity and depth to Coffee Talk – which is good, as it’s otherwise a short experience you can finish in 3-4 hours. Whilst I have no issue with games being that length in principle (to the contrary, lots of games I love are around that long), Coffee Talk does feel a bit too brisk, particularly in the final stages, which were a tad rushed compared to the gradual, thorough way we interact with the characters for most of the game.
Of course, all of the satisfying drink-brewing and chit-chatting wouldn’t work unless the characters themselves were well-realised, and this is an area where Coffee Talk excels. Toge Productions manage to construct a group that feels larger than it is, because they’re all such singular personalities. Take Gala, the werewolf who works at the hospital but has a troubled past; or Aqua, a shy but talented Oceanic and aspiring game developer who learns to come out of her shell; or perhaps Neil, an alien who takes on the form of an orange-suited astronaut (complete with helmet!) and is attempting to make sense of the way humans live. As you can probably tell from this, the conversations you have with these characters will be varied and tackle some intriguing philosophical points.
However, the dialogue never gets laboured, as Coffee Talk manages to capture that tone of talking casually at a coffee shop with friends. I know that sounds obvious for a game called Coffee Talk, but it isn’t easy to successfully achieve – there’s just the right amount of playful teasing and genuine conflict to make the conversations feel like believable back-and-forths rather than plain paragraphs of text. The different combinations of characters you meet will give some surprising results, and if you play your cards (or should that be “serve you drinks”) right, you might help them to become friends – or something more! Either way, by the end of the game, you’ll care for these characters like they’re real people, and I love the diversity element that the introduction of fantastical species and aliens provides.
The Coffee House Aesthetic
Emphasising that is the wonderful presentation of Coffee Talk. Both in terms of visuals and audio, it manages to capture the style of real-world modern coffee shops you’d seek in a city like Seattle. There’s a cathartic and welcoming vibe; this can be applied to both the retro pixel art and the chilled, indie pop/rock instrumental soundtrack. The aforementioned phone which houses your Tomodachill and Brewpad apps also has access to a Spotify-esque music app, where you can choose which songs to play – and there’s also an app for the local paper, if you’d like to read the (genuinely engrossing) short stories that your most loyal customer Freya writes!
To come back to the pixel art style, it’s an ingenious choice that imbues the game with a nostalgic glow of browns, greens, blues, and yellows. As the game is set predominantly late in the day, the background windows often show rainy streets, silhouettes of people walking past, and the neon signs of other shops. This makes an ideal backdrop to the vibrant cast of characters, allowing their detailed sprite art to stand out and shine. I really appreciated the animation work; for example, the little laughing motions or characters noticing their phone ringing and picking it up. This happens even for characters who aren’t in the current conversation, and it makes the coffee shop feel more real as a result.
The coffee-making itself is a sensory joy, too, with the brewing presented as a series of pixel artworks that change depending on the drink, paired with realistic sound effects such as ginger being chopped or liquid being poured. It all adds up to create a warm and cosy atmosphere – and this works especially well on the Switch, as you can wrap up in bed, dim the lights, and really immerse yourself into it.
Outside of the main game, you can view an extensive collection of unlockable art, which includes fascinating initial concept and development artwork for Coffee Talk, plus enlarged looks at the pixel art for Tomodachill profile pictures – as well as more that I won’t spoil here! Additionally, there’s some brilliant Coffee Talk webcomics which are included here – I recommend waiting until after you’ve played through the game to read these, as they involve the characters you meet in-game.
I’ve been playing quite a few visual novels recently, and Coffee Talk really succeeds at carving a space for itself in a crowded genre. Utilising coffee-making instead of dialogue trees to change the course of the story is an inspired idea, and it’s woven into a story with a genuinely compelling cast of characters that draw you in with their individuality and fleshed-out lives. Furthermore, the coffee shop setting is well-utilised to construct a warm, soothing pixel art style and soundtrack. My only criticism is the length of the game – just as we really get to know these characters, the game comes to an all-too-quick close, and the replayability of different story paths only slightly softens this. I could quite easily have played this for double the runtime it ultimately has! The silver lining, though, is that a sequel set nearly three years later, Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus & Butterfly, is planned for 2023! Count me in for that; in the meantime, I’m off to get a hot chocolate…