“The truth is this, every monster you have ever met, was once a human being.”
Kabaret, developed by Persona Theory Games, is a dark visual novel driven by South East Asian folklore. This is one of the most unique games I have ever played and, going into it mostly blind, I found myself never knowing where it was going next. Sometimes I would miss a line of dialogue and suddenly find myself in a completely new and unexpected situation. There was never a dull moment.
You play as Jebat, a food delivery driver who has little regard for anyone other than himself. He yells at his mother as she makes him miss a delivery and tells her he wishes she was dead. It is at this point that I should mention this game shows, and makes frequent references to, the suicide of Jebat’s mother as this is one of Kabaret‘s main inciting incidents. As his mother dies, Jebat accepts a food delivery order and leaves her body to go and collect the food. He is cursed to drown by a winged monster, after failing to prevent the death of a Pau seller, and finds himself waking up as a monster in the realm of ‘Alam Bunian’.
Upon waking, Jebat learns that he was pulled from the water by a masked figure known as the Caretaker, the current owner of Kabaret. He appoints Jebat as the tea master, upsetting some of the other residents, and introduces him to the world and his new form, though it takes a long time for him to discover his true identity.
Identity is a key theme of Kabaret. The player is tasked with making decisions frequently that impact how he behaves. As a monster he must eat human meat to survive, but as someone who remembers their human life he finds himself torn up about doing so. These decisions come alongside internal dialogue that shows Jebat does not feel he truly belonged as a human and wondering whether he could finally fit in at Kabaret.
Each of the five chapters build upon your knowledge of Kabaret and the monsters who live there. You build friendships and relationships with some of the residents and rivalries with others, learn their games and find yourself feeling at home in this other world. This all culminates with the election of the new owner of the Kabaret.
Chapter One opens Kabaret, sets the scene and introduces Jebat. The second and third chapters are very similar to each other. You spend your time making tea, playing Guli and Congkak and speaking to the residents. These are the most enjoyable chapters, in my opinion, as they have the most to do and interact with. Chapter Four, is likely the longest chapter. It is heavy on dialogue and character background and felt like a slog to get through. The final chapter concludes the story, implementing the choices you have made throughout the game (I assume) to elect a new leader of Kabaret.
There are four main mini games in Kabaret interspersed with visual novel dialogue. These are fulfilling your role as tea master, games of Guli, games of Congkak and acting as a stage director for a musical performances. Guli and Congkak are based on real South East Asian games. Each game is unique enough in its own way for Kabaret to lean pretty heavily on these throughout. There is also the occasional press buttons that appear on the screen game though these are infrequent and often feel out of place.
Outside of these mini games however Kabaret felt repetitive and by Chapter Four, by which point Guli and Congkak had more or less been dropped, I was ready for the game to be over. At one point, during the final voting scene in Chapter Five, the ghost boy offered to play a game of Guli, getting my hopes up for a break from the dialogue, though this was quickly shut down by Jebat.
One of the main issues I had with Kabaret was that most of the cast were incredibly unlikeable. I know, I know, they’re monsters and not exactly intended to be the most friendly people going, but throughout the game I realised that there were only a handful of characters I actually liked – one of them being a frog statue. I found that I did not care about most of the characters enough to find their dialogue interesting and none of the electoral candidates felt like they were worth supporting. This meant that it didn’t matter to me what dialogue options I chose.
The dialogue itself sometimes felt a bit unusual for the characters to use. At one point a menacing snake monster uses the phrase “wimpy shrimpy” and a demonic entity states “My knee would like to talk to your FACE!!!!” mid fight. Neither of these fit the character and definitely felt out of place. At other points in the game the dialogue would switch from letting me click through it to automatic and, at these points, the game felt it appropriate to write out each piece of punctuation individually. At one point I had to wait what felt like an eternity for 20 exclamation marks after a statement to be written out, with no ability to skip to the end of the dialogue line, which immediately made me lose interest in what was happening.
At points I thought the dialogue and imagery was too sexual, which often felt jarring and caught me off guard, but the majority of the time it was nice seeing Jebat coming to know and trust his allies and feel genuine connection to the people he meets.
Graphically Kabaret is gorgeous. Each of the monsters is unique and beautiful but the artwork really shines through in some of the later scenes, particularly in stories where the art style shifts.
The music is similarly brilliant. Drawing heavily on South East Asian musical influences, the various songs throughout Kabaret always fit perfectly with what is going on. There is one button pushing mini game towards the end of Chapter Four that essentially takes you through an interactive lyric video and getting to focus on the music for a few minutes without much distraction in the form of dialogue felt like a real treat.
Overall, Kabaret is a bit too long, coming in at about 10 hours, for the amount of actual gameplay there is. There is definitely room for replay-ability with the introduction of several dialogue options, and, if you plan on getting 100% of the achievements, you will probably have to start over at least three times.
If you are looking for something different to play that will really shift your perspective, Kabaret is definitely unique. While it could use some work on the dialogue and characterisation, it is a beautiful take on South East Asian Folklore that is definitely worth exploring.
Megan played Kabaret on PC with a key provided by the publisher.