Last Meal at Cafe Mori is a low-key fantasy visual novel from Jasmine “Katy133” Osler and the second-place overall winner of the Spooktober 2020 game jam hosted by Devtalk+. Play as beleaguered barista Robyn working at the last coffee shop you’ll ever visit: limbo. But the last respite for the recently deceased faces a new turn of events. The world, possibly the universe, is ending. As a strange void slowly devours reality, even the immortals of Cafe Mori face the existential quagmire of what exists after The End.
Note: the writer of this review was the VN Game Den sponsored judge for the competition.
A Cute Style That Lures You In
With a cute, round style, Cafe Mori is a lesson in aesthetic and subject creatively contradictory juxtaposition. Even being about death, it strikes one initially as a cute, generally lighthearted game. It accomplishes this by treating Death not as an enemy or even an inescapable inevitability, but as, quite literally for Robyn, an old friend and a universally unifying experience. We exist so we must die, and the game embraces that as a core tenet, choosing to lean on the comfort that can bring. When the story must then come to the point where it discusses the ultimate end, that of reality itself, the creeping feeling of dread just softens and fades away. There’s a sense of closure. What must be, must be. In the end (with slight variations depending on the exact ending), the uncertainty is paired with a feeling of comfort in the inevitability of the universe.
An Exceptional Cast
These themes are carried heavily on the backs of a phenomenal cast of characters. They are wonderfully charming, with simple but relatable personalities and backstories and phenomenal acting. Robyn and Mori have a subtle yet well-constructed chemistry that makes their parting all the more bittersweet.
Making the cafe patrons ostensibly magical creatures (or those with magical abilities) was an interesting choice that I’m not fully convinced needed to be made, however. If I have one complaint about the game it would be that making these customers non-human felt more like an afterthought, perhaps to better match the contest jam’s theme. It felt like a missed opportunity to even further explore the nature and perception of death with characters who might not fall into our traditional notions of mortality. With the dullahan (whose actor MAHO! Cody won best monster performance) and ghost characters there was a cursory examination of the cyclic nature of dying, but it was a bit disappointing to feel like they could have gone a little further down that trail with just a bit more development time.
That being said, the designs were utterly delightful and made the effort to break-away from traditional depictions and infuse some “mundane magic” into their character.
Exquisite Puzzle/Narrative Synthesis
The central core of Cafe Mori’s actual gameplay is in the food-mixing mechanic. It’s a very simple puzzle that merely requires the player to look at a recipe book and drop in the right ingredients to a magic blender. The solution is presented to you in the nature of the memories that the cafe patrons present to you. It’s a wonderful, elegantly crafted soft puzzle that’s perfect for a text-centric game. They did a fantastic job at crafting the story around this puzzle element so that it feels natural and organic to the story and the setting. The puzzle hasn’t been shoehorned into the story and vice-versa.
The puzzle is also used as the gating mechanic for the possible endings, which adds an interesting layer of meta-textual consideration to what little choice you’re really given. If you get all the puzzles correct, to get the other endings you have to purposefully fail. When a character’s afterlife is at stake in regards to the success of these puzzles, it becomes an interesting player-side quandary about the nature of memory. If you fail organically, the endings you get in return don’t feel like “bad endings,” necessarily. You don’t feel like you’re being punished for your mistake. They’re simply endings. This holds true to the prevailing themes of the amoral nature of death. It isn’t good or bad, it simply is. The nature of reality (and the ending you get) isn’t good or bad, it simply is.
Last Meal at Cafe Mori is an enchanting, highly polished game that packs an incredible amount into a small package. It’s thought provoking, sincere, and creeps up on you with bittersweet feelings of just falling short of existential enlightenment.
It’s available for download on itch.io.