Pixel Cafe is an interesting take on a time management game, splicing a rather basic serving game with visual novel elements to create something a bit more interesting than what you would typically expect.
Developed and produced by Baltoro Games, Pixel Cafe follows the many service jobs of Pixel, a small-town barista with big dreams. While she is evidently a hard-worker, she seems to be down on her luck, constantly being let go from jobs for the littlest reasons. Strangely, she seems to last almost exactly a month at each place, though this does make for a fairly consistent gameplay calendar.
There are three types of days which pop up on the calendar for each level: standard game days, story days, and bonus level days. The standard days and bonus level days are fairly similar mechanically, however the bonus levels are a bit more difficult with some funky screen effects to add to the challenge. At its core, Pixel Cafe is about serving customers in a timely manner, and players are challenged through having several counters to man at once, lots of machines which take time to prepare drinks or cook foods, and a penalty cost for making mistakes and needing to throw away items. In contrast, the story days are purely visual novel snippets of Pixel’s life. Whether she is arguing with her mother on the phone or reminiscing about days with her Grandma, they are all quite short, sweet, and a welcome break from the hectic nature of the actual gameplay.
Unfortunately, the visual novel elements in Pixel Cafe fell flat for me. While it was interesting to see snippets of Pixel’s life in between the gameplay, I found that it wasn’t as impactful as a typical visual novel is. Whether it is because it was so few and far between, usually only a few days a month dedicated to story, or because it wasn’t that narratively interesting, I honestly wouldn’t be able to say. The idea behind the visual novel sections is interesting, and it was nice to see Pixel become more comfortable with herself as she navigates life in the city, however I didn’t feel any real connection with her, perhaps in part to the stress of the gameplay.
I did think that Pixel’s memories of her grandparents were nice, however the way the story jumped around between time periods made it a bit more confusing for me and it took me far too long to figure out that they were showing different points throughout her past. There are some points where you are given a choice in what to say, like telling your mother which grandparent would say a certain thing, however it was unclear to me whether this changed anything in the story or responses gained. I personally think this would be more effective if the response was more directly related to the choice.
One of the things that stood out to me about Pixel Cafe was the ability to switch between keyboard, controller and mouse controls. Typically when I play games that thrive on the chaos and frustration of needing to press multiple buttons at once, there seems to be an emphasis on tricky controls – it can almost feel like the majority of the difficulty comes from accidentally pressing the wrong button. Instead, the option to add mouse controls allows you to make the game feel a bit more comfortable, which is great for someone like me who has been using a keyboard my entire life and yet still seems to be unable to find a specific key quickly.
The mouse controls don’t make Pixel Cafe any less stressful, and the need to monitor different workstations, work quickly and accurately, and keep items stocked and ready to go is still there. Honestly, while it is a bit less hectic, the mouse does make things a bit slower as it takes time to move over to a different machine or item which needs to be served that definitely limits how fast you can go. I played about half of my playthrough on keyboard and the other on mouse, and found that both ran smoothly. It just depends on personal preference as to which you decide to play with.
Graphically, I am actually a big fan of the style that is used. Each of the different levels look unique and interesting, the bar backgrounds having their own twists that make them feel special even when the core mechanics and serving stations are the same. Similarly, the chibi art style of the gameplay and visual novel sections compared to the more gritty art style of the story beats are a really great way to contrast the two elements of the visual novel side to Pixel Cafe. You know when the characters are front and centre the information is probably going to be pretty impactful to the experience from then on. There are also some graphical tells which can help make the actual gameplay experience a lot more pleasant. It took me a little while to pick up on some of them, but knowing which counter a customer was heading towards and where there were machines about to overflow was helpful to say the least.
Ultimately, Pixel Cafe does a great job of capturing the stress and hectic nature of time management games, and it had me sitting on the edge of my seat during some of the bonus levels as to whether I would complete them in time. However, it isn’t particularly innovative, and I felt let down by how the visual novel aspects I was looking forward to took such a back seat compared to the gameplay.
For fans of the time management genre, I think Pixel Cafe is well worth looking into. But if it is the visual novel side to the game that had you reaching to play it, you may also feel let down by how it seems like an afterthought compared to the main focus. I didn’t feel any real connection to the character of Pixel, which I think was potentially the game’s biggest flaw.
Megan played Pixel Cafe on PC using a review code.