Kabaret Review: A Bold Celebration of Southeast Asian Mythology

Welcome to the Kabaret, where monsters from all manner of folklore roam free and mysticism lurks within every moving shadow. You play as Jebat, a young man who is uprooted from his small town in Penang and transported to the Alam Bunian, a dark and violent monster realm. Cursed into a monster himself, Jebat is tasked with performing tea ceremonies in order to ease the passage for his fellow dwellers — and possibly learn the truth about his curse along the way.

Kabaret is a dark fantasy visual novel and the second title from Malaysia-based indie narrative games studio, Persona Theory Games. Following their trademark of tackling mature themes through cinematic art direction, Kabaret presents a deeply thought-provoking and complex narrative amidst a gorgeous wayang kulit and batik-inspired artstyle that makes this game stand out from the rest.

Rather than simply drawing inspiration from Southeast Asian culture, Kabaret screams it from the rooftops; from the tiniest references like Jebat’s job as a driver “grabbing” food, to the musical stylings of Hello Universe and SambaSunda that harken back to traditional tunes. This extends to its main gameplay which centers around performing tea ceremonies for different dwellers at the Kabaret. Those from Southeast Asia may recognise a few familiar names here, including Pontianak from Malaysia, Tikbalang from the Philippines, and even Garuda from Hindu mythology.

What is really impressive is the studio’s dedication to the details, even if they may fly under the radar for most. My personal favourite was the tradition of pouring the first cup of tea onto Raden the “tea pet”, a culture that stems all the way from China as a means of checking the tea’s temperature, and from a spiritual standpoint, imbuing the tea pet with a soul.

The game’s unique tea brewing mechanics gives the player a lot to think about, especially as it actively challenges your character comprehension. Not only do you need to pick the right recipe to meet the dweller’s request, you need to take into account their likes and dislikes, and select the right combination of ingredients to brew it perfectly. It’s an interesting approach to the typical point-and-click puzzle to say the least, although its solutions can come across as frustratingly vague at times.

Kabaret also features mini games plucked directly from Malaysian childhoods, namely Congkak and Guli. Although the fundamental mechanics remain the same for both games, there are some minor gameplay upgrades that modernise the experience. I especially loved the trading card-like upgrades to Congkak that allow you to disrupt your opponent’s turn or add extra shells to your row. (Now, when are we adding this to Congkak in real life?)

However, one of the most engaging mini games is a completely new invention. In the Nabau stage mini game, you help her manage the spotlight, smoke machine, and pyrotechnics to put on the best performance possible. Paired with the incredible soundtrack by SambaSunda, it is a satisfying challenge to balance all three performance aspects and definitely one that I wish I could play again outside of the main story.

Besides your performance in tea ceremonies and mini games, there are other ways to determine Jebat’s ultimate fate. Throughout the game, you are given multiple choices that contribute to 1 of the 6 possible endings, but unlike most narratives these days, Kabaret doesn’t have a clear right or wrong. Each side has its pros and cons, leaving the player with the tough decision of picking the lesser evil, or perhaps, the necessary evil?

Much like how Kabaret portrays humans and monsters as two sides of the same coin, beauty and brutality are interwoven throughout every character in this game. It is normal, and in fact, encouraged for the player to question their beliefs and even change their minds as the game progresses. What makes its story special is the level of depth it brings to its supporting cast, making it impossible to part ways without feeling your perspective changed in some way.

In a world of overly linear narratives and filtered stories, few studios match Persona Theory Games’ willingness to confront the uncomfortable. Like a gardener sowing seeds, Kabaret delights in planting thoughts in the minds of its players and allowing nature to run its course. This may lead to an ending you don’t expect, but it definitely guarantees one thing — that you’ll be thinking about Kabaret and its stories for many years to come.

Verdict: 8/10

Malaysian game studios telling authentic Malaysian stories is still a rare feat — one that Persona Theory Games performs with a precise vision and boundless creativity. Even though the game lacks polish in certain gameplay aspects, it is easily overpowered by its bold narrative and creative identity; a vibrant tribute to Southeast Asian culture that doesn’t shy away from sharing both the good and the bad. A game worth playing for visual novel fans, and a must-play for Malaysians.

For more Kabaret, this writer played the first few hours on Youtube, and streams more Southeast Asian indie games on Twitch!

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