One of the brilliant things about Nintendo Switch becoming a new harbour for indie development is the sheer number of unusual ideas and concepts that see the light of day. So, even the most oddball of premises have the opportunity to cultivate an audience when they land on the eShop. It's this inclusive atmosphere that's allowed one of the weirdest yet most intriguing indie curios on PC to make its way onto Nintendo's current-gen machine; a game that asks you to casually mediate the personal problems of fantastical millennials while soothing their bruised egos with cups of tea and coffee. Welcome to the world of Coffee Talk.
The Seattle in which you operate just so happens to be populated by elves, dwarves, succubi and many other fairy tale folk. The wars of these races are a distant memory, and now everyone is just trying to live their lives in a Fables-esque maelstrom of normality. The dwarves have left their mountain mining to form automotive empires. The elves have traded their peaceful glades for tech startups and valleys made of silicon. Yes, this really is a game about making coffee and listening to people talk, but don't let that elevator pitch put you off, because it's a really moreish experience. Who knew navigating the emotional minefields of the Emerald City's werewolf, vampire and orc population could be so much fun?
On this roughly six-hour-plus journey, you’ll take on the role of ‘The Barista’ as they attempt to run a quaint little coffee house that's more than happy to operate with more unusual opening hours. While the game itself is driven on the flow of the dialogue on-screen, you’re only ever lurking on the periphery of these conversations. You’re the conveniently placed ear that steers the chat in one direction or another by serving correctly made beverages (and interjecting with the occasional quip). The rub comes in knowing exactly how to make said hot and cold drinks (based on actual ingredients you’d use to make them in real life… mostly) and listening intently enough to know which drink is best for a certain patron at that given moment in the story (even if they don’t know it themselves).
Thankfully, even with only a handful of recipes available on your in-game smartphone, it isn’t particularly hard to work out what a customer wants by simply extrapolating said drink from their thinly-veiled requests. Does someone want a strong coffee with a hint of sweetness? That’ll be two servings of coffee and a splash of honey. Patron feeling a little under the weather? How about a serving of green tea mixed with honey and lemon for a nice cup of ‘cough syrup’? The only really frustrating ones are those customers that simply ask you to ‘surprise them’ with little or no additional clues, but at least these bozos are relatively rare during the main story mode.
Part of the fun comes from simply trying out new ideas, which then adds this concoction to the list of recipes on your phone (which happens to contain, among other things, a social network that gradually grows as you meet and befriend more patrons from across Seattle’s fantastical population). Whether you’re playing through the relatively short story mode or the more satisfying endless mode with its perpetual conveyor belt of customers, simply using a little logic to create a drink from cocoa powder, milk and whatever other ingredients that are available behind the counter is really rather satisfying; it’s a bizarrely relaxing experience and unlike any other game on Switch at the moment.
You can also do your own ‘latte art’ if you happen to serve anything with a milky finish. This cute little mini-game was a little more frustrating on PC (and other consoles) as it's difficult to precisely make any sort of pattern that wasn’t a big mess on top of your coffee (especially with an analogue stick), but with support for touchscreen controls on Switch, drawing milky masterpieces is far more enjoyable. Sure, you’re unlikely to be recreating Pierce Brosnan’s face in your beverages anytime soon, but at least this little extra actually works in the way it was intended.
There are lots of endings for each of the customers you meet, and while you can’t necessarily fail at your new virtual career, the outcome of your tea and coffee concoctions can subtly shift said character’s mindset, and the decisions they eventually make. The storyline of each character ranges from the mundane (such as navigating the unknown waters of online dating) to the increasingly personal (including a father attempting to protect his young daughter from making poor decisions as she heads out into the world). The dialogue is well-written for the most part and it's fun to see people from vastly different backgrounds encounter one another at the neutral zone of the coffee counter.
Coffee Talk isn’t afraid to broach far more sensitive subjects in an attempt to hold a mirror up to the problems facing society today (including the rather eerie story about a pandemic spreading from overseas). Even topics as palpable as racism and segregation are covered, such as the problems facing a young couple who find their star-crossed love clashing with long-standing inter-species intolerance. However, while the game does attempt to shed light on many of these important issues, it rarely delves deep enough to offer anything particularly valuable or insightful. It's clearly trying to avoid being controversial and risk losing its 'chill' vibe, but you're left wanting more lasting developments over the melodrama.
Games in the 'visual novel' corner of the industry can often leave you a little cold unless you’re happy to watch an anime with a small amount of actual player interaction, but with its unique premise and interesting take on a fantasy world (think Netflix's Bright, but actually good), Coffee Talk serves up a refreshing brew of angst, introspection and coffee beans. Its hand-crafted story mode is a tad too short for our liking, but with Endless mode you’ll have plenty of fun getting in touch with your inner barista.