Review – Coffee Talk

Dungeons & Decaf

Overview

Developer Toge Productions
Publisher Toge Productions (PC, Switch), Chorus Worldwide (PS4, Xbox One)
Genre Visual Novel
Platforms PC (reviewed), macOS, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date January 29, 2020

Ah, the humble visual novel. For those of us who used to love reading as kids but whose attention spans have since been bludgeoned nearly to death by adulthood and electronic media, visual novels, or VNs, serve as a sort of gateway back to our bookworm pasts. They offer the narrative-driven plot that draws so many book lovers, but with enough interactive elements to keep them engaging in today’s mile-a-minute media culture. I’ll admit that I’m not hugely invested in the genre as a whole, having only played the first two Phoenix Wright games and Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright spin-off. But, from what little I have played, I can see myself getting invested. That’s why Coffee Talk, by Indonesian developer Toge Productions, caught my eye. I was intrigued by its modern fantasy setting, using creatures like elves and werewolves in a modern-day cityscape, and by its premise of being a barista in said cityscape. (Maybe my priorities are a little backward, come to think of it…)

The game currently has come to the surface once again for a not-so-warm reason, that being the death of its creator, Mohammed Fahmi, at 32. Fahmi’s death lends a definite bittersweet tone to the game. This review was written before Fahmi’s death.

Content Guide

Language: Hell, d***, sometimes paired with God’s name, a** and a******, s***, pi****, b******, and one use of f*** in a side story. God’s name is also misused several times. Some minor epithets include “douchebag” and “screw.”

Sexual Content: Two characters kiss. One of the characters is a succubus, though she is generally not over-sexualized. One brief mention of BDSM. At the end of the game, one character gifts another a pair of fluffy handcuffs. Some brief mentions of pornography. One character’s entire arc involves them trying to have sex, but they are unable to until the end of the game. One conversation centers around casual sexual activity, but is not graphic in any way. Mentions of sleeping around and condoms. One character drops the implications of underage trafficking when a character remarks that she’s been making a living on her own since she was thirteen (she is not trafficked.) When talking about rabid fans of girl bands, it’s mentioned that some fans have been known to commit sexual assault on their idols. The game hints that two male characters may be interested in each other romantically. One character remarks that another “has balls,” meaning courage. One character’s social media profile shows her from the back in a bikini. The game’s optional gallery shows the same character from the waist up in a bra and robe. Some female characters show cleavage in the gallery, but not in the main game. During one newspaper shot at the beginning of the day, a bare rear is seen in a low-fidelity newspaper photo about a wild party the night before.

Drug/Alcohol Use: One character asks if you serve alcohol (you don’t,) and then mentions that they’re going to “drink [themselves] under” later that night. Several characters smoke cigarettes. The game mentions an ongoing drug crisis regarding a sedative for Fury, a monthly affliction for werewolves.

Violence: One character gets into a fight (offscreen) and shows up at the cafe with a black eye and is unable to move. Depending on your performance in the game, they either make a full recovery or are unable to recover fully from their injuries. A werewolf character’s arms are covered in bandages, presumably due to the Fury. Vampires still drink blood in this universe, though they generally get their supply from blood banks rather than unwilling victims.

*SPOILER*

At one point in the game, a werewolf in wolf form barges into the café. During the encounter, the wolf pounds its paws on the table and roars several times.

Spiritual Content: One character mentions “the gods” as a brief epithet. The elves consider succubi to be demons and not worthy of their attention, though this is denied by the succubus character.

Other Negative Themes: One character consistently defies her father’s wishes and speaks poorly of him to other characters. A character mentions that a well-known producer is known for throwing wild parties that go too far.

*SPOILER*

One character uses paid work time to work on a personal project, and is eventually fired for it.

Positive Elements: Several characters speak of the difficulties of marriage and how it takes conscious work to maintain love. One character speaks of his relationship with his daughters and how they’re able to work through arguments and come through stronger and closer together. Several characters encourage another character to listen to her father since she’s not as grown up as she’d like to think. One character speaks of how he turned from a self-centered life into medical service to spend his life serving others.

Review

I suppose the best place to start with Coffee Talk is the story itself, as that’s the main draw. The game takes place in an alternate Seattle, Washington in the year 2020. This Seattle looks pretty close to our own, complete with the constant pitter patter of rain every night. The main difference? It’s not just humans who make up the inhabitants. Every race, from elves to succubae, to dwarves, to mermaids, has made its mark on the city, and the nation at large.

What’s more, they’ve swapped their familiar fantastical trades to adapt to the modern era. As the game itself puts it: “It is when the elves have left the forest to build their startups, when the dwarves have emerged from their caves to start their automotive empires, when the orcs have put down their axes and started using computers to improve their lives, and when humans live among them, as driven as ever.”

Right off the bat, I love this concept. Coffee Talk is far from the first urban fantasy story (Onward, anyone?) but still, I love the idea of fantasy creatures fitting into a modern society. I think it stretches our boundaries, forcing us to see familiar situations from an unfamiliar perspective. And, as I’ll discuss later, Coffee Talk uses this premise to touch on some not-so-fantastical issues as it goes on.

After a brief intro, the game deposits you into Coffee Talk, the eponymous café where the game takes place. The owner of this particular establishment is none other than…you. In this land of orcs and succubae, you have opened a small coffee shop to allow the inhabitants of Seattle to gather, take a load off, and maybe talk through their joys and woes with other city dwellers. Or, you know, maybe they just want to scroll on their phone for a couple of hours without anyone bothering them. To each their own.

On your first day, you’re introduced to Freya, a journalist for the Daily Whisperss and an aspiring novelist. She shares an exciting meeting she’s had with a higher up at her work: if she’s able to throw together a draft of her next book over the next two weeks, she has a shot at getting it published. To do that, of course, she needs coffee. You, the ever-obliging barista, give her a cup of espresso, and she retreats off to the corner to work on her book.

After Freya leaves, another couple walks in, Baileys and Lua. They’re having…a rough go of it relationally, to put it nicely. To put it not-so-nicely, Baileys’ family, who are elves, are intensely disapproving of his dating Lua, a succubus. They see their family as above the succubus race and aren’t happy that Baileys has had the misfortune of falling in love with a lesser race. Baileys, to his credit, is ready to disavow his entire family to be with Lua, but she’s not sure that’s the right decision. They get into it, and eventually, Lua leaves, asking for some time to think things over. After a few words with the ever-present barista, Baileys leaves as well. Freya comes over from her corner, having heard the whole thing. She’s got her idea as well: she’ll write a novel based on the stories of the people that come into the coffee shop. And hey, if people get upset that she’s snooping on their private conversations, there’s always that little “all resemblances to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” disclaimer, right? That’ll work.

That’s only your first day in Coffee Talk. As you go on, you’ll meet a varied cast of characters, all with their story arcs, struggles, and idiosyncrasies. I was impressed with the amount of variety Toge Productions was able to squeeze into this game. Every character felt unique and fleshed out, with fully fledge personalities and speech patterns and quirks to match. One of my writing pet peeves, (exacerbated even more so because I’m guilty of it myself,) is when you can tell that all the characters were written by the same author. They all have the same “voice,” in a way. But here in Coffee Talk, I felt like I was getting to know a bunch of different people. The fact that the game is told from a first-person perspective helps with that feeling.

And honestly, the game doesn’t shy away from some real-world commentary too. As I said, the thing I love about urban fantasy is its ability to paint familiar situations in such an unfamiliar light. By doing so, it’s able to draw our attention to mainline issues in a way a more “grounded” game wouldn’t. In between days, you’ll read the front page of The Evening Whispers, the in-game newspaper, and you’ll see that, just like in our real world, there’s a lot amiss here in Coffee Talk. Immigrants from Atlantis are being mistreated at the border, and are pleading with “landfolk” to send some good relations instead of just trash. Orcs are protesting against racial profiling at the workplace, fighting against a long-held negative stereotype. A werewolf activist is found with an illegal sedative for Fury, just as medical red tape makes it harder and harder for werewolves to fight off their monthly episodes. One character, a medical archivist at the hospital, even makes a crack about $8 medication costing $20,000 in the U.S.

I think what I appreciated most about all this, though, is how Coffee Talk isn’t preachy about any of it. It presents the issues in between days, but the actual story is just about real people. Sometimes they’ll talk about the plight of the world in general, but for the most part, they’re just doing their best to live life in this crazy world. They’ve come to your café for a break from that living and to connect with some other folks along the way. Yeah, we’re all thinking about, and maybe even worried about, the world at large, but right now, it’s okay to just sit and talk for a bit.

It’s not all hot-button issues on display here, though. Coffee Talk has some genuinely funny and even meta moments. I couldn’t help but chuckle when one of my vampire customers revealed that most skincare product models are vampires since they don’t age. Felt a little too close to home to real marketing “techniques” (read: deceptions) that we’re all too familiar with. The same vampire also, amusingly, is attempting a vegan lifestyle and has switched to synthetic blood, which is a thing here. Another time, what I thought was a typo in the script became a fourth-wall breaking gag that made me laugh out loud.

In addition, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the game treats love, marriage, and family. Most of the conflict in the game is between family members or significant others. The game doesn’t lean away from the fact that love is work. Several characters comment about how, if you’re not sure you’re willing to put in the work, then sometimes relationships should wither. It reminded me of Christ’s words on “counting the cost” before you take on work. And as for the family relationships, they’re difficult too. The characters are trying to make sense of family in a world that so often defies explanation. But several characters express that conflict is going to happen, but it’s how you deal with it that takes a family from broken to bonded. I loved the way one character, in particular, Jorgi, talked about his family.

A quick note on content: you may have noticed that the Content Guide for this particular review is rather long. Coffee Talk does touch on some mature themes, especially sexually, but I never felt like it was crude or overly explicit. The characters express sexual ethics that are not in line with Christian ethics, but it never felt as if the game was glorying in its portrayal of casual sexual relationships. In addition, it never felt like the game dwelt on its mature content, aside from one day where sex was the overall topic. But there are a total of 14 days to play through, with a lot of dialogue in each, so the questionable content is a small factor in the entire game. Still, this is most definitely not a game for children or even those who are sensitive to mature content. If that describes you, I’d say it’s wise to steer clear here.

Going beyond the writing, I want to highlight the fantastic artwork present here. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you’re going to go for pixel art in your game, you’ve got to make it good. Coffee Talk looks great. Every character is vibrant and animated, and their designs are all wonderfully unique without ever clashing. Their personalities come across beautifully not only in their designs but in the way they move and react to things in the story. The Coffee Talk café is also nicely designed, with some fun references to those cheesy wall hangings you can find at Hobby Lobby and a consistent look through the window to the rainy cityscape outside.

The lo-fi art is accompanied by some appropriately lo-fi music. Andrew Jeremy’s soundtrack is a delight through and through, keeping the whole experience relaxed and chill, even as some of the situations get somewhat heated. (In fact, I’m listening to it as I write this review.) It never feels like the music is contradicting what’s happening in the narrative, though. Instead, it’s a constant backdrop for what’s happening, relaxed enough to not draw attention to itself, but melodic and catchy enough to be interesting. Plus, you control the music with an app on your in-game smartphone, which I found to be charming.

When it comes to gameplay, well, there’s not too much to speak of. You’re a barista, after all, so you literally have one job. As characters come into your café, they’ll order a drink before getting into all their drama. Early in the game, they’ll straight up tell you how to make their drinks. But, as you progress and unlock more and more ingredients, you’ll have to start filling in some of the gaps yourself. They’ll give you one or two ingredients, or maybe just a hint in the name of the drink, and you go from there. The game does offer some more hints in the way of loading screens that offer the names of drinks and a brief description, so sometimes you’re able to piece together a recipe from that, but you’d better get used to writing things down as you’re waiting on the game to load.

For the most part, I liked this. I liked experimenting with drinks and seeing what came out, and finding a special named drink always felt like an accomplishment. There’s an absolute treasure trove of creations here, including a few drinks from Southwest Asian nations like Indonesia and Malaysia, a fun reference to Toge Productions’ home base. The sound effects add to the overall atmosphere of the game as well. I swear there were times I could smell the espresso coming from the machine. You’re even able to draw latte art, if that’s up your alley, though it’s not mine. There was one moment that particularly jumped out where I had to specifically deny a character what they ordered to see the best ending, and I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I made the wrong drink.

I did have one complaint about the drink system: the game tends to drop drinks on you with little to no information as to how to make them. The most egregious example of this is one particular moment when a customer simply asks you to “surprise” them. I took this to mean, “make whatever you want.” As it turns out, this was an essential drink to getting the true ending, and the drink I needed to make hadn’t been mentioned in the entire story, other than featured on one of the loading screens. And keep in mind, this was after I’d played through the main story once all the way through and the game had told me to replay the story again to see the true ending. Given the name of the required drink, in hindsight, I see how the drink fits into the story, but it was a little frustrating that that one drink was keeping me from the true ending.

But finally, I think what hit me most about Coffee Talk was just how cohesive everything is. For me, cohesion can make or break an experience. Thankfully, here, everything just fits, and that’s saying something for a game that has you make a triple espresso for your journalist friend as a mermaid swishes in on tentacle feet to order a masala chai. From the art to the music, to the dialogue, to the gameplay, everything here complements each other and fits together as well as any handcrafted beverage from your local café.

Conclusion

Coffee Talk was a surprise hit for me, especially with my being a relative newcomer to VNs. Its chill atmosphere and charming characters drew me in every time I booted it up, and it lets me live out a vocation that I’m sure would be a lot less fun if I tried it. The writing was strong and had me laughing throughout. It even managed to touch me in its more somber moments, though I wouldn’t exactly call the game a tear-jerker. It manages to address some real-world themes without ever coming across as preachy, and it lets you just live life with these characters.

If you need a game to help you chill and maybe escape for a couple of hours, Coffee Talk is a solid choice, and for $12.99, it offers a wonderful experience for the price. As I mentioned earlier, the untimely passing of its creator lends a certain bittersweet tone to the game, but I think the game stands as a testament to Fahmi’s career. I will reiterate the content guide for anyone sensitive to mature themes, but I can’t help but love this game. It hit a note no other game has been able to do for a very long time: it’s just a very comfy game, for all of its up and down storytelling. Whether you’re new to VNs, or you’re a fan of the genre looking for something new, Coffee Talk is a perfect brew.

The Bottom Line

 

Coffee Talk is an absolute gem of a visual novel, with charming characters, entertaining and engaging dialogue, and a beautiful and calming atmosphere that will keep you coming back for a refill.

 

8.5

Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

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