My education of local and regional paranormal stories calls back to the salad days of collecting copies of True Philippines Ghost Stories and waiting for the annual Halloween special of Magandang Gabi… Bayan. I also remember bravely browsing SFOGs on a dial-up connection, marathoning the same Thai horror movie rotation with my cousins, and starting up the Indonesian flash game The House with grade school friends in the computer lab.
The Southeast Asian horror industry – which includes films, TV shows, and games – has always represented its deep spiritual culture in modern adaptations of its monsters. That’s why I was so excited about Kabaret and its all-star cast of the famous paranormal creatures in the region – and what a show it has been.
Persona Theory Games is a studio that does not shy away from heavy themes. Their previous title, Fires at Midnight, explored relationships and sexuality in an arrestingly raw and honest way. This approach is preserved in their newest venture and cements their voice as a narrative game development studio.
Kabaret is an extremely visceral experience – from the violence and darkness to the subtle sense of humor, gripping moments can shock and fascinate you.
This grim visual novel’s greatest strength is its narrative. Kabaret’s writing is a fantastic mix of poetic and archaic mythology and modern quips. It establishes a world between worlds that Jebat has fallen into, and despite the strange paranormal sights the game offers, humanity makes itself felt through the thought exercises on morality and politics.
The beating heart of Kabaret is its everyman protagonist, Jebat. His less-than-stellar stint as a human is what fuels his desire to do well and make a name for himself in Kabaret. Who hasn’t experienced Jebat’s struggle for identity, to find a voice and form an opinion of one’s own in a world so full of loud voices? The game provides moments of dialogue choice that tie us more to our protagonist. I liked his role as a bridge between the player and this grim world.
The only struggle I couldn’t get on with was trying to hide the secret of his humanity – when every single monster who could taste his blood in the ritual bite greeting would find out anyway. While this setup keeps players on edge, the looming danger for our Jebat didn’t feel real. However, at this point, he’d already died and was vibing to his new dark dwellings, so perhaps it’s all the same to him.
The main gameplay involves Jebat’s role as the appointed master of the tea house, creating blends to suit and soothe the dwellers of Kabaret. I enjoyed the descriptions of the ingredients, as well as the reactions of your customers when you’re trying to put together the perfect pot of tea. It was also good that the clues are not as straightforward as they seem, challenging not only your logic and attention to detail but your intuition, too.
The implementation of the Guli and Congkak mini-games were excellent additions that felt like they delivered on the themes of the story. These side activities served rather than hampered the narrative. I usually don’t mind mini-games much, but I found both easy to play and don’t overstay their welcome in your total game runtime.
One of the best things about Kabaret is its visual presentation. The dark washes of color mixed with the gorgeous use of purples and reds on the imposing Wayang Kulit figures create a moody environment that reminds you that this is no ordinary afterlife. Not only are the character designs beautiful and well-thought-out renditions of their precolonial counterparts, but they also have their own colorful personalities. The daily life in Kabaret felt lively as you interact and entangle yourself in the lives of monsters and ghosts alike, through your main quest as a newly minted Tea Master to the dwellers and overhearing some interesting conversations in the hub.
Another excellent aspect is the audio design. The soundtrack also fills the scenes with the right amount of uneasy calm. Kabaret’s lean on its cast of characters makes it a good candidate for a fully-voiced edition, but the sound effects and audio cues make the narrative easy to follow.
As a text-heavy visual novel, it would have benefited from a bit of editing as I caught some misspellings and that did take me out of the experience a little bit, as well as a text log which is a VN staple at this point – but overall Kabaret’s tight theming and execution make up for these small details.
A dark and engrossing adventure into Southeast Asian mythology, Kabaret is an easy recommendation for lovers of grim, gruesome, and beautiful visual novels, particularly those who fancy paranormal monsters who pack a lot of personality.