Coffee Talk is a visual novel about an all-night coffee shop in Seattle. You play as the barista, and your job is to connect your customers to one another while improving their moods by serving warm drinks. Although the game tackles serious issues softened through the lens of fantasy, its tone is relatively lighthearted and gentle, and the pixel graphics are cute and cozy.
The game has three screens: your view of the shop from behind the counter as you chat with your customers, an ingredient selection screen for the drinks you make, and your cellphone, which contains an incomplete list of recipes, a music playlist, and an in-game social media app. The story takes place over fourteen nights, and there’s only one ending. There are no dialog choices, but some of your customers will open up to you more (and allow you greater access to their social media profiles) if you serve them drinks to match their moods. In other words, there isn’t much gameplay. Aside from brewing different types of coffee and tea, the player is mainly along for the ride.
Every review I’ve read of Coffee Talk complains about the drink brewing system, and rightly so. It’s counterintuitive and needlessly complicated. Each drink has a base – coffee, tea, green tea, chocolate, or milk – and you can add two additional ingredients, such as mint or cinnamon. The order in which you add the ingredients matters, meaning that tea with lemon and honey is a different recipe than tea with honey and lemon. On top of that, each drink has several different meters measuring qualities such as “sweet” or “cool,” and there’s no way to predict what combination of ingredients will result in the requested combination of qualities. Your customers will sometimes tell you how to brew a drink, but you mostly have to complete the recipe app on your phone yourself.
I can’t imagine that there’s any way to get everyone’s drink orders correct without either using a walkthrough or exploiting the save feature as you employ trial and error to go through a list of possible permutations. Thankfully, it doesn’t really matter, and most players will probably do just fine by paying attention to the dialog.
The main draw of Coffee Talk is its setting, a fantasy AU version of Seattle. The year is 2020, and everything is more or less the same except that fantasy races are real – elves, orcs, vampires, fish people, you name it. As far as I can tell, there’s no magic aside from the general characteristics associated with various fantasy races, meaning that elves have long lifespans, werewolves transform once a month, and so on. Each night at the coffee shop is prefaced by the front page of that day’s newspaper, and the fantasy world’s concerns seem to mirror those of our own: Orcs demand an end to workplace discrimination, the U.S. and Atlantis negotiate immigration reforms, Seattle plans to host this year’s Coachella music festival.
The eleven characters who visit the coffee shop come from all walks of life. One of my favorites is the werewolf war veteran Gala, who works in medical administration. He seems to have a complicated past, but this is nowhere near as important as the mundane conversations he has with other characters, often contributing a sense of perspective to their problems. It’s refreshing that none of the characters care about the details of what it’s like to be a werewolf but are much more interested in what it means to work in medical admin. Gala is friends with a supermodel vampire named Hyde, who is characterized not as a “supermodel” or “vampire,” but rather someone who means well but is brutally honest – and perhaps romantically interested in Gala.
The setting of Coffee Talk has a lot of narrative potential, but I feel the worldbuilding is somewhat shallow. In addition, the lighthearted tone of the writing doesn’t match the complications of the issues under discussion. To give an example, one of the coffee shop’s patrons is an eighteen-year-old aspiring pop star whose manager seems to be setting her up to be sexually assaulted at a Coachella afterparty. Thankfully, the character is able to avoid this situation by not attending the party. How simple is that! When you’re confronted with sexual menace, you can just… walk away! It’s not like careers in the entertainment industry are based on the connections formed at these parties or anything.
Although this isn’t anywhere near as heavy as some of the other character arcs, I felt personally attacked by Freya, a green-haired human woman who works as a staff writer at a local Seattle newspaper. Freya receives a chance opportunity to submit a novel to a head editor at her newspaper’s parent company, with the caveat that she has to complete a draft in two weeks. Which she is 100% able to do, because she believes in herself. Writing a presentation-ready draft of a novel in two weeks is all about self-confidence, right? And of course her novel is accepted for publication, and it becomes a best seller right away, and all of this happens in less than a year. Because that’s all it takes to publish the first novel you’ve ever written: believing in yourself – and a lot of caffeine!!
Obviously I’m being ironic. Writing and publishing a novel in a few short months is just as much of a fantasy as the story arc of a game developer who solves the issue of crunch culture by… just taking a weekend vacation! Putting aside the work cultures of people in creative industries, I’m frustrated by the suggestion that a pleasant conversation all it takes to solve heavier problems ranging from systemic racism to needlessly high barriers to legal immigration, and that if your own life isn’t working out then you just aren’t drinking enough fancy coffee.
It should go without saying that this is nothing more than my personal response to the game. My frustration with Coffee Talk is my frustration with YA fiction in general, by which I mean that I find it difficult to become emotionally invested in characters who face genuine challenges but aren’t allowed to say “fuck.” Still, I understand that not everything has to be realistic and gritty, and that there’s value in seeing a happy ending for a character whose experience mirrors your own.
On the whole, Coffee Talk is enjoyable and well-written, and it’s a nice lo-fi game to chill to. It takes about three to four hours to finish, and it has a fun postgame secret ending that adds a bit of replay value. A sequel is planned for release later this year, and I’m looking forward to reading more interactive stories set in this universe.