After Piofiore: Fated Memories just about ruined me when I played it a few weeks ago (I just never thought Otome games would get that dark), I rather enjoyed the contrast that Café Enchanté has offered. It’s another lengthy, substantial visual novel by the same developer (Otomate), and it shares a similar standard of production over its 60 or so hour runtime. The difference is that Café Enchanté is, for the most part, nice. It can be chaotic and almost anarchistic at times, but it’s always charming, and is set against the backdrop of one of my favourite little experiences that has crept into Japanense coffee culture.
As a broad rule, cafés in the west are transactional places. People pop into their Starbucks or local coffee shop, grab the coffee to go, and then duck back out to get on with their commute or lunch break. Or they’ll use the table service as the location for a business meeting or a moment to catch up with friends or take a breather before getting on with the day. Across all those scenarios though, the coffee’s just the commodity that’s peddled by the business, and in many cases, what people look to get out of their time at the café doesn’t even seem to matter if it’s particularly good coffee.
There are Starbucks and similar coffee shops in Japan, of course, and those are much the same as they are anywhere else in the world. The difference is that there’s another kind of coffee shop which is something very different. It’s a coffee shop where you can choose the way that the coffee’s made, and you’ll sit at the counter and watch as the drip coffee is carefully percolated for you. While you’re there, you might strike up a conversation with the barista. You’ll order a light meal. You’ll soak in the ambience (typically these cafés love their wood and jazz tones). You might almost call these kinds of cafés pretentious, but they really are celebrations of the culture and experience of coffee, and the cozier they are, the warmer the sense of community that forms around them. We don’t really have these in Australia or, I would hazard a guess, the overwhelming bulk of the rest of the west. But it’s a definite thing in Japan, and Café Enchanté is a celebration of that kind of café and the experience of being part of that community.
It’s a recipe for plenty of humour and good times, perhaps best characterised as being like that old sitcom, Cheers, only that instead of a bar serving alcohol it’s a café serving coffee, and instead of Frasier Crane, it’s some mesmerisingly pretty men hanging out instead (I’m really showing my age with that sitcom reference, I know). It’s not all comedy, of course, and there are things going on with some serious undertones – especially when government agents start getting involved. There’s also “bad endings” which are not uncommon for visual novels, of course, but in this particular case, those bad endings tend to be jarring because of how wholesome and good-natured much of the rest of the story is. Putting those moments aside, though, even when the action and drama heats up Café Enchanté wants you to see it as a light and bubbly narrative experience that draws on myths and religious stories to reflect on life and, of course, love.
Even by the standards of visual novels, Café Enchanté is heavily reliant on its ability to make you love the characters. Each of the cast here are delightful, from the hot-headed beast-man with a heart of gold (yes, of course, he’s a tsun), to the whimsically and charmingly dangerous demon lord, through to the fallen angel that really plays up his ability to look innocent to manipulate those around him to do his bidding. Thanks to a generally sharp localisation, we do get a real sense of character development and strong narrative arc across each of these characters, and it’s not just the relationship with the protagonist that’s interesting here, because the dynamics between the boys and their long-standing friendships are a lot of fun, too.
It’s easy to be charmed by Café Enchanté, which brings together whimsy, romance and humour together with one of the more understated joys – having a favourite café and being able to take a moment out to enjoy both it, and the company that it brings.
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The critic was provided with a copy of this game for review.