“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.” – Werner Herzog
Kabaret is a beautiful interactive fiction filled with Southeast Asian myths and folklore. As the protagonist Jebat, players can meet a plethora of unique monsters, play traditional games, and perform tea ceremonies all whilst questioning his very humanity.
Developer: Persona Theory Games
Released: 4th April 2023
This game is being reviewed as part of the Indie Game Collective (IGC) showcase.
NOTE: Kabaret includes content relating to difficult subjects such as death, suicide, sexual assault, and gore.
Kabaret is primarily a visual novel and most of the gameplay consists of clicking through extensive dialogue. There are a number of choices to be made, some of which are rather harrowing, making for an interesting narrative experience. However, there are also a selection of mini-games that not only add to the level of interactivity but have bearing on events and the story as a whole.
Guli is a marble game in which players must use one marble to hit others out of a circle. Players must successfully clear a set number of circles within a given time which provided a good challenge. Congkak is a more logic-based game in which players must move shells across a board in order to obtain the larger number. Both are traditional Southeast Asian games and make a nice addition to Kabaret’s comprehensive themes and setting. Another minigame requires players to act as stage managers, controlling lighting and special effects for Kabaret’s performances. This has a fun but hectic feel to it and players are given a letter grade at the end of each show.
The primary mini-game is tea-making ceremonies, in which a guest tells the player the effect and strength of tea they would like and the player must create it from the list of slightly obscurely described ingredients. The process is similar to that in Coffee Talk and while it takes a little bit of getting used to, finding the right combination is incredibly satisfying.
A useful journal exists within the game that will provide a heap of information about characters Jebat has met, a glossary of Southeast Asian terms used within the game, tea-making information, minigame lore and tutorials, a record of the story so far, information about Kabarets political candidates, and minigame statistic and scores.
Kabaret’s protagonist, Jebat, begins the story as a food delivery driver, living at home with his troubled mother. He is unlikeable from the start, having an apparent disdain for other people and a slight superiority complex. He says some truly horrendous things to his mentally ill mother and refuses to help an old man in peril. As a result, he is cursed and finds himself in a realm known as the Alam Bunian and is taken in by the owner of a peculiar monster sanctuary known as Kabaret just before an election.
The story is delivered largely through dialogue and the often hostile inner thoughts of Jebat. It is well written for the most part with each character having a unique voice, personality and often fascinating back story. The NPCs themselves are highly varied and include a mermaid goddess, a sentient foetus and a telepathic frog to name a few. However, things can progress quite slowly at times and the overuse of ellipses makes the dialogue feel rather drawn out in places. There are also a number of spelling and grammar mistakes that become increasingly frequent as the game progresses.
Kabaret deals with some sensitive topics and whilst this was largely pertinent to the story or specific characters, there were instances where insensitive and flippant discussion of sexual assault or suicide occurred, and xenophobic comments were made with no bearing on the overarching narrative. They appeared to be included purely for shock factor and were a detriment to the experience as a whole. Additionally, the content warnings available to the player are insufficient and do not mention a lot of the difficult topics being addressed in the game. This was disappointing in an otherwise entertaining and beautiful game.
Kabaret features some stunning illustrative artwork that is both detailed and stylised. It uses dark and moody colour palettes that are dominated by blues and purples with vibrant lighting often in warmer colours. The characters and scenery are depicted beautifully, with a lot of variation making the visuals a highlight of the game. The only minor bugbear was the mirrored flipping of sprites that left specific features of a character appearing on both their left and right sides and was somewhat jarring given the frequency.
The music in Kabaret is very varied and is used well to elevate different scenes, be they distressing, ominous or energetic. The main music is gentle and evocative, using pentatonic scales, chimes, woodwind and mesmerising vocals to create a Southeast Asian sound that helps tie all the aspects of the game together. Other tracks, however, fit into a range of genres, from jazz to metal and much more. Similarly, a wide range of sound effects are used well to help build atmosphere and add ambience to the different settings and situations.
Whilst not without its flaws, Kabaret is a quality interactive fiction that has a lot to offer in terms of eclectic characters, an intriguing narrative, beautiful artwork and mesmerising sound design. It will take around 10-15 hours to complete and, though it could perhaps have been a bit shorter, it provides a lot of entertainment through the dialogue and mini-games that are wonderfully blended to create this unique experience.
If you enjoy interactive fiction you may also like these reviews:
The Wreck – Relive the Past and Alter the Present in this Emotional Visual Novel – Wayward Strand – A Curiously Heartfelt Interactive Fiction – A Memoir Blue – An Emotional Dive into the Past