Coffee Talk is set in Seattle in 2020, but isn’t exactly a representation of the real world. In this alternate reality, creatures like werewolves, vampires, and succubi coexist with humans. Elves are building startups, dwarves are creating automotive empires, and orcs are using computers instead of axes for job satisfaction. You play as the owner and barista of a small coffee shop – one of the few open past midnight. Your job? Fulfill patrons’ drink requests and listen to their troubles.
It’s important to go into Coffee Talk knowing that it tells an authored story; it’s a visual novel first and foremost. This isn’t a game of choice, and it has no dialogue options. The only control you have to how events sometimes play out is by correctly fulfilling drink orders. For instance, if you find a special concoction, you may be able to help a werewolf contain his rage. The game is more about capturing the relationships that form between a barista and their customers. Many times you’re just watching interactions play out between other customers who have also formed companionships due to their shared interest in late-night coffee.
For such a text-heavy game, the dialogue is well done, albeit with a few grammatical errors. I especially liked the banter between everyone. It isn’t all fun and games, though. Coffee Talk gets creative and uses its characters to explore various issues in society, from racism to crunch. Sometimes the writing waxes philosophical. For example, it discusses how even if the world was one race, we’d still find some differences among us and use them to marginalize others.
I like that Coffee Talk poses these questions, but it does so in predictable, well-worn ways. You have an elf and succubus whose parents want them to marry within their species. A father struggles to let his daughter make her own mistakes, while the daughter can’t seem to grasp how little life experience she has. These scenarios feel too familiar, and they unfold without many surprises. The most interesting storyline centers on Neil, a mysterious being from another planet who is merely looking to breed and enters the world of dating apps. If anything, Coffee Talk feels like a game full of interesting concepts that are only half-realized. I was more entertained with the ideas than their execution.
When you’re not chatting up customers, you’re creating their requested drinks, and this is really the only way you can show people you’ve been listening to them. Sometimes, customers say, “Make my usual.” Other times, they say, “Surprise me.” Sometimes they make requests you can’t fulfill exactly, forcing you to improvise. A lot of the later game drink requests require experimentation, and sometimes you’re just fumbling in the dark. At the very least, you can trash a drink up to five times before serving it, and the loading menus sometimes provide hints at how to create the fancier coffees.
The specificity required to make some drinks is frustrating. For instance, you get one primary ingredient and two secondary ones. The order that you put the secondary ingredients can alter the drink you’re making. You can have all the right ingredients, but still endure some trial-and-error to craft what you want. And the controls (on PS4, at least) make creating latte art more trouble than it’s worth, to the point where I had to stop bothering with it. Outside of these annoyances, I had fun trying to unlock all the different drink types.
Coffee Talk is an interesting experience. At times, it struggles with just how far it wants to explore certain topics, sometimes only giving a cursory look at the issue at hand. I was still entertained during my playthrough, and I genuinely cared about the characters and their journeys – even if those journeys don’t take them to unexpected places.