Three things that always catch my interest are reading, gaming, and coffee. So when I saw that Games with Gold was featuring a visual novel game centred on brewing coffee, I instantly downloaded Coffee Talk.
Coffee Talk was released in January 2020 and set in the near future of … September 2020. This version of Seattle is home to elves, werewolves, succubi, nekomimi, and many other species, but thankfully not to COVID-19.
As the friendly yet mysterious owner of a coffee shop that only opens at night, you attract all sorts of customers in a variety of circumstances. Over the course of two weeks in the world of Coffee Talk, you eavesdrop on, and help along, the lives of six characters. How do you do this? By listening, talking, and of course by brewing them the perfect drink they need for the situation they’re facing.
Giving people the perfect drink for the situation isn’t always easy, however, and certain events within the game will change depending on whether you give your customers the drink they wanted. As Coffee Talk is a visual novel, this brewing mechanic represents around 10% of the game (depending on your reading speed and autoscroll settings), with reading and responding to dialogue making up the other 90%. Despite the small proportion of time allotted to the coffee-brewing section, it works well and contains a surprising variety of drinks to discover.
Each drink is made by combining three ingredients from a shelf of 9 ingredients. Luckily Coffee Talk doesn’t use all 196 resulting permutations! Instead, there are 37 named drinks, which are stored inside your in-game smartphone app. These include familiar Western staples such as a cafe latte and an espresso, real drinks such as a Teh Tarik from Indonesia (recreated here as Tea+Tea+Milk) and a Shai Adeni from Yemen (Tea+Milk+Cinnamon), plus fictional drinks like a Milky Way (Milk+Honey+Mint).
The in-game smartphone also contains an app for the soundtrack, and a social networking app that shows information about the characters you meet after you get to know them. Using a diegetic smartphone and app instead of a traditional journal system works with the rest of the style and feels really natural in the modern-day setting.
Expressing a consistent and clearly-defined style is one of Coffee Talk‘s main strengths. Coffee Talk gets all of its ideas across, despite its handful of 2D backdrops and its limited animation, because the game operates within its constraints so well that I didn’t think about those constraints at all when thinking about the story. Its clear that the game is the work of small team who aimed to create the maximum amount of immersion possible from a small resource pool.
Later in the game, during heated moments of dialogue or surprising events, the standard view is replaced by more dynamic comic-panel sections – the extra animations here add variety and underscore the importance of those scenes without detracting from the text.
The soundtrack of Coffee Talk works with its “less is more” style too. All of the songs, which were composed and produced by one of the development team, use a soft “chillhop” style. If you’ve ever seen one of those YouTube “lo-fi songs to study to” playlists, then you’ve heard some kind of chillhop, and the game’s official YouTube channel is clearly cementing its soundtrack videos into that aesthetic niche. (It also has one of the friendliest YouTube comments sections I’ve seen in a while.)
This approach might sound sparse and retro to people familiar with grander AAA games, but it perfectly complements the graphics and helps Coffee Talk further convey its warm, relaxing atmosphere created by its writing. Coffee Talk effectively creates a sense that the coffee shop is a comfortable, welcoming respite from the outside world. This comfort is brought up by the characters inside the story as well, who surprise themselves with how they let their guards down. According to an interview with the development team I read, they aimed to make Coffee Talk into a relaxing and cozy place for players – on that front, they met their aim impressively.
In terms of its writing, Coffee Talk does a good job of making each of the ensemble cast feel like separate people with distinct written “voices”. From cafe mainstay Freya, who fuels her novel-writing with triple espressi after finishing her day job as a journalist, to new visitors like teen idol Rachel, shy game developer Aqua, and otherworldly surprise arrival Neil, each character has their own history, and their own links to the other characters. Some characters have conflicts and situations that are also found in our real-world, but expressing them through fantasy species allows them to be discussed in a way that isn’t too heavy-handed. Coffee Talk contains elements of social commentary, but it isn’t a polemic.
Because Coffee Talk is such a small game (just over 1GB), I was expecting it to have a linear story which would only be played once. However, reaching the last day of its two-week time-frame reveals some hidden character depths and starts a partial New Game + where specific days contain new information and conversations.
As well as the main story, Coffee Talk contains two extra modes that are all about its coffee-brewing gameplay. In Endless mode, you can experiment with every combination of ingredients to discover new drinks and become familiar with what different ingredients add to a drink. You can also practice latte art here; the latte art, while a fun novelty, is only directly asked for once in the game. (You can add it to other customer’s drinks if you want, it just doesn’t do anything).
Challenge mode is purely about gameplay and your understanding of the coffee-brewing system. In this mode, you fulfil drink requests against a timer, with correct drinks awarding you more time. While this starts gently, with customers who make exact requests such as “I’d like tea, milk and cinnamon please”, later customers merely refer to drinks by their name – “I’ll have a Spiced Lady“- or even ask you for a drink which matches a set of flavour qualities – “I’d like something extra warm, less bitter and extra sweet please”. Remembering the drinks named in your app, and remembering the rules of which ingredients create warmth/coldness/sweetness/bitterness, are essential during these later questions.
This mode is home to the game’s most difficult achievement, which is awarded for making 50 correct drinks in Endless Mode. To do this properly requires knowing the effects of every ingredient and combining them rapidly. (However, most people with this achievement (including me) obtained it by pausing the game after each customer appears and matching the request to a written list of recipes and profiles…).
While Coffee Talk initially appears unassuming, its writing and atmosphere place it among my favourite text-based games. The team reference real-world issues in a way that doesn’t sound dogmatic or forced. The story adds slight twists and meta-text moments without falling into the trap of being self-consciously clever or pretentious. Also, the well-written characters ensure that the dialogue never feels like a bland wall of text. (Although I would recommend turning on autoscroll to save your RB button).
I can best sum it up as a comforting and heart-warming game which doesn’t try to pad itself out or overstretch itself. It does exactly what the developers intended it to do. I’ve put Coffee Talk in my Brilliant tier as its a great example of how setting a clear direction, and making sure that the writing, story and atmosphere are in agreement, can elevate a game above the sum of its resources.
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