Kabaret is perhaps best described as a dark and grotesque version of Coffee Talk. It’s a relaxing yet disturbing visual novel in which your main character will act as a tea master for a community of supernatural beings (monsters or ghosts), engage in entertaining conversations with them to learn their thoughts and needs, and then craft through a minigame a suitable tea to ease their sorrows or uplift their moods.

The game is told from the perspective of Jebat, a young delivery guy, who becomes a serpent-like monster after being killed by a mythical entity with the shape of a winged man. The first chapter of the game narrates the series of tragic events that Jebat goes through during his last day before his transformation, gradually building up a state of intense psychological tension. Starting with Jebat questioning the meaning of society and his place in it, continuing with his mother’s suicide which triggers him to run away from dealing with the feeling of loss and despair at the sight of her corpse, and ending with his choice of not saving another human being because of his disbelief in the value of life, the narrative is simply daunting and stirring.

The winged man’s punishment comes on the apex of all these circumstances, and Jebat suddenly wakes up in the body of a serpent-monster on his way to a place called Kabaret, also known as a sanctuary for all kinds of non-human beings: mythical monsters, as well as ghosts and other entities. The rest of the game will have Jebat interact with the other dwellers, slowly getting to know them and preparing teas for them. On the background of all this, there’s a political plot revolving around the upcoming elections for the future leader of Kabaret, but it serves only as a context for the hard life choices that the writers throw at you revolving around who you let live and who you let die, who you sacrifice and for what kind of purpose, etc. Different characters will support different candidates, and the choices you make will gain you friends or allies for that candidate. Ultimately though, the story is about Jebat awakening his innate potential and rising above the conflict between his two opposing sides: his humanity which prompts him to be compassionate, and his rough monstrous instincts.

Just like in Coffee Talk, the game has an overall chill ambiance, but the bizarre interactions, the twisted narrative and the distorted events that you will get to experience make this game not suitable for sensitive audiences. It contains depictions of a hanged person, dead animals, dismemberment, cruelty against infants and other unsettling elements that can have an emotional impact on someone’s well-being, even though they are not the main focus of the story and appear only sometimes.

While there are several minigames that you will get to experience during your gameplay (some of them seemingly being popular in Asia), the most often encountered one is the tea ceremony for preparing tea according to the dweller’s requests. This consists in picking the correct three ingredients (one of each type: leaf, liquid, spice) from the ones that the minigame spawns. Identifying what kind of tea you are required to prepare is done by following the indications about what combination of ingredients is used for each tea and what its effects are (available in your journal), combined with what you previously discussed with that respective dweller. In practice though, what the dwellers want and what they actually need are two different things, thus you are required to read between the lines to pick the right tea. Unfortunately for me, this whole process was most of the time not very intuitive, leading to the majority of tea decisions being incorrect. The dwellers also have certain preferred ingredients and others that they dislike but it’s not entirely explained what the consequences of using a hated ingredient (despite it being seemingly needed) are. There is no feedback about the correctness of your choices during the preparation phase, and the tea type that you were expected to prepare is revealed only at the end of the sequence. Sadly, there’s no way to go back and prepare another tea to fix your mistake.

In terms of design, Kabaret is not your typical visual novel. It’s pretty interactive, letting you choose in which order you talk to the characters available for that stage, plus you’ll have to go through around 10 minigames that can’t be skipped even in subsequent playthroughs. It’s also not the kind of visual novel in which you pick a route and then sit back and relax simply because… the routes are not very well defined. There’s an enormous amount of choices, spread over all chapters, and a lot of the earlier choices affect the way the ending unfolds. Rather than working based on a route system, these choices seem to use a stat-building system, in which points are allocated to one candidate or another based on what you pick during a choice. Their immediate outcome is not evident, and more often than not, the replies from the dwellers are the same (or differ only through one word / one line) for all options.

Likely because of its interactive design, Kabaret doesn’t use one of the common VN engines. Instead, it’s built using Unity, which comes with a few nice features (for example, you can mouseover a highlighted term in the text to see its definition) but also with a lot of downsides too: the lack of a manual save feature, no option to auto read text or skip already read text. The game autosaves at certain checkpoints, but these are not placed often enough to explore the different outcomes of a choice. Reloading usually puts you several choices / minigames back, making you replay even 30-60 mins. Not being able to skip the text, the minigames, or the cutscenes makes you waste a tremendous amount of time to get back to the point you were previously at and perhaps attempt a different choice or tea combination. Also, there is no history of the text you read, therefore you can’t go back to read a line that you might have missed. Perhaps equally annoying is that the tea ceremony (which occurs very often in the game) has some extremely slow animations.

The fact that the game has many mutually-exclusive achievements and seven different endings already indicates that the player is expected to do multiple playthroughs. However, without manual saves or clear routes, and without writing down your choices to keep track of them, you have a pretty big chance of spending 10h on a playthrough only to reach an ending that you’ve already seen before. Essentially, Kabaret is the type of game that you can either play once for the fun of it and reach one ending, or strictly follow a guide if you want to explore everything it offers.

Even though sometimes the characters are not very consistent, the narrative is overall good and entertaining. There are no voice-overs aside from some guttural sounds that the monsters make (which at times can become a bit annoying due to their constant repetition), but the game features some great songs. Also memorable are the beautiful visuals and the overall character design based on mythical creatures of South Asia, which give the game a lot of flavor.

Despite its shortcomings, Kabaret is overall a good game, with a very peculiar vibe. It’s a worthwhile journey into Asian myths and folklore, yet one that I’d recommended only to those strong enough to digest really dark and disturbing writing.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a press preview copy of the game, kindly provided by Persona Theory Games via The Indie Game Collective.

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