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ICYMI is GAMINGbible's simple way of highlighting a game that's not quite brand new, maybe as much as a few months old, but that we've been playing and loving, and we really want to tell you about it.
Most years, we all find ourselves a game that we're in no rush to finish, but really enjoy spending time with - however short our irregular sessions with it are. And for me, in 2020, that game has been Toge Productions' Coffee Talk.
To look at the game's progress bar, on each save file, tells me I'm still a little way from seeing the credits; but I'm really happy to just let the game play out slowly, dipping in and out of it once, maybe twice per week, for ten-minute tasters on my Switch. Because this isn't really a game to binge your way through. I mean, you could, but I prefer it in sips rather than gulps. After all, nobody in their right mind necks a freshly brewed cup of joe, do they?
The mechanical what-you-do side of Coffee Talk is very simple: you, playing as a barista in an alternative-universe Seattle of 2020, prepare and serve hot drinks (not just coffee), and you speak to the people (more on those, in a second) who've ordered them. The making of the drinks is extremely elementary but incredibly satisfying.
All are composed of a maximum of three ingredients - coffee, green tea, ginger, honey, chocolate, milk, and so on - and if the request is for a brew with a frothy crown, you can indulge in a little improvised latte art. It's a nice touch, but nobody will walk out in disgust if your creation is a swirly mess. At least, they've not done so upon seeing my steamy abominations.
Sometimes customers will be specific with their order; at others, they'll suggest what flavours they fancy and leave the exact recipe to you. Coffee Talk doesn't usually punish you for 'wrong' decisions - if "the usual" isn't actually their usual, they'll often drink it anyway. The exception there is intolerances, so do pay attention to what might actually make your customers sick. It's a lot less scientific than the cocktails of The Red Strings Club, to name another game where drinks-mixing is a key to progression.
As you play, you'll grow a menu which allows you to immediately recall the make-up of particular orders, should they escape the memory. As someone who only mainlines builder's tea, ideally alongside a Hobnob (biscuits are sadly absent from the game), this has been essential for me.
The café the game is set in - called Coffee Talk, hence the game's name - constantly plays a very laid-back, very 'lo-fi hip-hop beats to relax/study to'-style soundtrack, the tracks of which can be optionally selected in the same sub-menu as the drinks menu, but otherwise simply play away in a natural-sounding sequence.
Composer Andrew Jeremy's music is so nicely balanced between sharp snares and soft keys that I've played it on Spotify several times while working myself, this year. (Indeed, I'm playing it while writing these very words.) It's fuzzy and familiar and entirely background-filling, treading very lightly around the player's attention and allowing them to focus on the stories being told by the café's patrons.
And it's these characters and their stories that make Coffee Talk what it is, really: a visual novel, essentially, that takes hugely relatable, real-world issues of class, race, sex, wealth and more and filters them through a fantastical lens that's comparable to what we've seen in Bill Willingham's Fables comics and their spin-off video game, The Wolf Among Us.
The game doesn't specify the player barista's race, gender or sexuality - the most you see of 'you' during gameplay is a hand, and the conversations are entirely text-based, with no voice-overs. But those who come through the doors of Coffee Talk are a varied group, inspired by all manner of myths and legends.
The first we meet properly is the green-haired Freya, a human who's the lead character on a lot of Coffee Talk's promotional material. She's a writer for a local newspaper who dreams of branching out into fiction, and is certainly Coffee Talk's most regular regular, if you get me.
Another human, Jorji, is a cop who's been known to leak information to Freya and nips into the café during his shifts, to let a cigarette burn down between his fingers. But this Seattle's home to much more than boring humans.
There's Gala, a werewolf who we first meet alongside a visiting vampire friend of his, Hyde - who's vegan, by the way, because of course he is. Baileys and Lua are an elf and succubus, respectively, who are in a relationship that's frowned upon by at least one set of parents. Rachel is a nekomimi, a young girl who can turn into a cat - "more practical" for commuting, apparently.
There are others who call into Coffee Talk at different times, for different conversations with different people; but really, it's best that I don't reveal all of them here. As you play, and as you listen, you can check in on the customers' social media pages, which give the player a few extra details as to what makes them tick.
You can see where this is going: the hardships faced by these customers - because of their race, their upbringings, their families and their fortunes in life so far - absolutely hold a mirror up to what we see in our own 2020. Some of the stories will touch you, and others may well miss - but it's going to be hard for anyone to play through Coffee Talk and not recognise something of themselves, or something about someone they know, in its narrative. Even with all the spiky ears going on.
Coffee Talk isn't a complicated game, but it's a surprisingly deep one - one to get a little lost in, a single serving at a time. So if you're craving something to sit down quietly and chill out with, and maybe even learn something from, step inside and take a load off.
Coffee Talk is out now for Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One - where it's just been added to Games With Gold, so if you have that, you can play it for 'free'. Nice. A Switch code was provided by the publisher for this coverage.
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