Coffee: Not only my gaming fuel of choice during a long session, but also the basis for some of my favourite games of recent memory.
Coffee Talk is in one hand with its relaxed gameplay, and then Coffee Crisis with its alien invasion and heavy metal soundtrack is in the other. Can Pixel Cafe, a hybrid of time-management barista-style tending mixed with visual novel storytelling, join this list? Stick the kettle on and let’s find out.
In Pixel Cafe, you play as a young woman called Pixel who recently moved into her grandparents’ old house. Much of the game’s visual novel segments are flashbacks. Early on we learn that Pixel didn’t always see eye-to-eye with her parents, and spent a large amount of her time growing up in her grandparents’ house. Not that this made things any easier for Pixel.
In order to pay for the upkeep of the house, Pixel has to get a job, and does so working in a dingy bar serving coffee and snacks to customers. You can picture it now; the walls are papered with old posters announcing gigs for bands that have long since disbanded and your feet stick to the floor if you stand still for more than a few seconds.
Things start off easy enough as Pixel Cafe does a good job easing you into the gameplay. It’s fast paced as you deal with customer orders in quick succession. Most levels will introduce a new feature for you to contend with, and considering there are several hundreds of levels, things do get very tricky as you progress.
But whilst Pixel Cafe is a game about serving customers, at times it feels more like a rhythm action game. Quickly, you will be forced into learning the muscle memory when a customer orders a pancake or a waffle. And, due to the nature or the configuration (putting a plate on the counter is left thumbstick and putting a waffle on it is the right) you find yourself getting into a natural rhythm with it. Most drinks are also assigned to the left bumper so as soon as you see that in a person’s order, you hit the corresponding button without really thinking about it, much like you would in a rhythm action game.
When pressing buttons, the game flows incredibly smooth. However, when navigating around drink accoutrements using traditional movements, things are more frustrating. You are controlling a cursor that only snaps to specific items rather than having free movement around the screen. For the most part, Pixel Cafe knows what you are trying to do. By that I mean if you have poured a coffee, it will assume it is for the right person and the cursor will snap to them once you have the coffee in hand. Or, if you have just mixed a concoction and you have an empty glass ready, the cursor will head straight to the empty glass for you to pour it in.
It is when adding frosting, straws and other items that it can be fiddly. Often I have accidentally thrown a drink away instead of getting ice, or picked up a cherry rather than a straw. In later levels when literally every second counts, these mistakes can quickly throw you off course.
Every so often, the intense gameplay is broken up with visual novel vignettes. These follow a non-linear pattern; sometimes you can be seeing the present day story unfold but there are also times when you get an insight into Pixel’s past. Frustratingly, the present day story is unaffected by your performances in the levels. In the first location you can get full marks on each level but the story tells you that you are performing badly and you will still get fired. This is less of an issue as you progress from location to location and you learn of the numerous ways that Pixel has to jump from job to job, but it still doesn’t always match up with the grades you are given.
Delving into Pixel’s past isn’t all that interesting either. Perhaps this is more of a personal issue, but I can’t say I am fully on board with her decisions a lot of the time. You are occasionally given options to choose from, but I found myself disagreeing with both of them a lot of the time. She just isn’t a very likeable protagonist, but I am willing to admit this may be down to my own prejudices. Of course, she has her foibles as we all do, but there just appears to be a narrowmindedness about her and a disregard to learn from her mistakes.
The money you make from completing orders can either be spent on improving your grandparents’ house or directly on your setups in each area. Upgrading the house gives you points to then spend on upgrading your abilities in a slightly convoluted but necessary method. Spending money on your setups is also highly advisable, but it is worth noting that upgrades don’t transfer between locations. Adding an extra slot to put drinks down makes a lot of sense, but you will need to do this at each new location as well. And things can get pricey the more you upgrade. If you can do without a dual coffee machine, that money is better spent on improving Pixel.
Down a double espresso as you will need to be on high alert with Pixel Cafe. The gameplay is a lot of fun if you can find the rhythm-like gameplay within, but it does get repetitive over time regardless. The visual novel element is also welcome to help drive you on, so long as you are invested in Pixel herself.
Sometimes, Pixel Cafe feels better suited to a touchscreen or mouse and keyboard, particularly when dealing with a lot of items on screen. But the controller just about manages to cope with things. You may need a few coffees yourself to get through it all though.