Beans: The Coffee Shop Simulator grabbed my attention when I was mindlessly flicking through Steam’s upcoming games list (AKA the no-frills abyss of shovelware, missed chances, and broken dreams). “Yes,” I said to myself, “A coffee shop simulator! That’s exactly what I want to play when I get home…from working at a coffee shop.” It was the promise of a concept I didn’t realise had been missing from my life until now, and judging from the game’s successful Kickstarter campaign (nearly 300 backers raised $5,000 to get it finished), I wasn’t alone. I was hoping that it would transpose and unpick some of the mundane absurdities of my low-wage, zero-future existence. I wanted to see employees saying “Hi, how are you?” three hundred times a day. I wanted a cacophony of little things getting blown out of proportion. I wanted to see customers being uncomfortably rude, sexist, racist, or weird, and staff being essentially incompetent. I wanted to see a barista come to forgive, know, and like a customer, even though they order their coffee extra hot with two artificial sweeteners, because I’ve been there, man. I’ve been there.
However, to my disappointment, the subtle minutiae of the lived barista experience is not really what Beans is about. What you get instead is a mindless, hands-off game with a decent chiptune soundtrack. Rather than running your dream cafe, you’re playing through a series of repetitive, easy missions to run a variety of cafes in a dull, linear story. You begin with a generic urban haunt before moving on to a campus/stoner lounge, a smelly seafood locale, and a fine-dining hotspot. It has a similar top-down pixel-art style to Stardew Valley, but don’t be fooled: if we’re honest (and we are right now ‘coz we’re a game reviewer and not just a barista, Goddamnit) we’d say Beans is not much of a simulator at all. There’s no depth or complexity (much like our competitors’ coffee, hoo-boy!), there are no upkeep costs, no real ways to fail any of the missions, no micro-managing of staff or interesting customer interactions. You furnish and decorate your cafe, buy what appliances are available to you, click for tips, research new recipes for items you can sell given what appliances you have, and the rest takes care of itself. If only success IRL was this inevitable.
The one repeated instance where I feel like it does accurately relate to my experience, intentionally or not, is when the employees get stressed out and start stamping around helplessly if there are too many patrons for them. This reminds me of a recurring dream I’ve had over the years where a queue of customers keep piling up while I try to fulfil one order which keeps going wrong, and I get slower and slower while more people appear at the counter until I wake up in a cold sweat. I haven’t had this dream for a couple of years now, so thanks for that game. I appreciated being taken back there. Also, every cafe you run seems to be a 24hr business with no staff changeover, which seems like some private hell; the terrifying factoid of which is never mentioned.
What Beans lacks in slick sim seriousness it tries to supplement with the sillies, which it piles on unashamedly. Here it somewhat succeeds – enjoyment in Beans comes mostly from the short, occasionally hilarious descriptions of the recipes that you’ll research. Some of these sound like real things you could consume (e.g. espresso, tea with milk, glazed doughnut), but as the game goes on it turns out the bulk of these appliances and recipes are borderline absurd. For instance, there’s a level where you own a very sea-themed boardwalk cafe, and you can research a drink called the “Fruity White Russian” if you combine your appliances “Squid Ink Pump” with a “Discus Fish Tank” and “Milker,” and your “Barrel of Grog” (sensible). The description reads “This would be funnier if there weren’t already drinks like the Bloody Caesar, which actually have freaking Shellfish in them. Humans are horrific.” There’s an astonishing amount of different recipes like this, given each level comes with an entirely new set of appliances. All of them have their own description, and a good number of these are wryly amusing. I mean, most of my smiling was on the inside as I have to reserve my real smiles for paying customers at my day job, but still, these tidbits were enough to keep me going to the end despite the fact that Beans plays more like a clicker game than anything else.
What’s weird is that despite all the good writing in these amusing little descriptions and ideas, the actual story that pads the game out is garbage. The premise is that Ruby, the protagonist, has to successfully open a number of cafes in order to win the inheritance of a cafe empire from her dead-in-suspicious-circumstances distant relative. Meanwhile, a mysterious antagonist sends a series of ineffective goons to disrupt her. It’s boring and predictable in a way that not even being self-consciously unserious can save it. The characters and dialogue are terrible. The long, over-extracted cutscenes are full of laboured conversations priming with bad jokes, with so much unnecessary dead air in-between lines. There’s nothing at all to redeem it, sadly – it’s the kind of story you’d think would be better left out altogether, even if the game underneath it doesn’t have much substance to begin with.
There are definitely some other shallow improvements that could be made in the short-term. There’s no kind of free-play or sandbox mode. The game doesn’t allow you to replay any particular levels, even when you’ve already finished the game – my only option if I wanted to track down better examples of joke recipes for this review, say, is to start over again from the beginning. You might ask why I didn’t just screenshot these funny recipes at the time: I couldn’t because the game isn’t integrated with Steam’s inbuilt screenshot taker. The game has a Twitter parody window called Cluckr which remains permanently in the bottom-right corner of the screen – it’s fine for a while, but soon enough you’ve read everything it has to offer and from there on it’s just annoying.
To tamp it down for you: Beans is not good if you’re expecting a genuine simulator, or if you want something that relates what it’s like to work in or manage a cafe, or if you want a game with any depth or longevity to it whatsoever. However, once you cycle past the awful story chunks that bookend each chapter, you can settle into some decently soundtracked, breezy, light entertainment, fuelled mainly by the inward-chuckle inducing descriptions of various bizarre food and drink recipes. If this sounds like something you’d want for $5 (the price of a takeaway coffee), maybe Beans: The Coffee Shop Simulator is for you. Otherwise, I’d go somewhere else.