Meat.

This game is not suitable for children
or those who are easily disturbed.

The visual novel genre has seen that disclaimer a lot since 2017’s post-Doki Doki era of releases.  The masterful delusion of taking an aesthetically innocent palette and turning it on its head has become as popular as making flat out horror titles, with an added peaking of interest to what the developers have hiding behind the cute and relatively undeterred demeanor of a carefree experience.  It’s like trying to figure out the twist in a horror movie, but only kinda knowing it’s a horror movie and not how it’s a horror movie yet. It’s a blast.

This trip around the block puts our protagonist with four other characters deep in the woods of the Tatras mountains for a trip full of outdoorsy experiences and learning of the flora and fauna.  While the group heads out into the picturesque woods, you’re tasked with cooking various delicious meals for the gang when they return.  Learn all about these delicious meals and more when you engage in some lovely conversation with the Chompettes, various 2D ingredients who help you on your quest to make the best food possible for your friends!

…Though some of these could use some more Meat though.

Cooking Companions starts as your typical VN, with a bright cast toting varying spectrums of personality: unwavering optimism, unperturbed realism, bickering selfishness, and misguided curiosity.  Each day separates its time to learning the ins of the cabin as well as conversing with one of your four friends.  Taking the time to schmooze with your cabinmates gives relationship bonuses, where increasing to the maximum of 5 hearts will grant extra content for that character and is a key part to unlocking some of the game’s 7 endings.

But as the days continue on and a torrential downpour floods the trails around the cabin, a slow-building panic starts to build in as resources become scarce and the looming threat of starvation bleeds into every one’s psyche. Strange dreams of past lives and the horrors they witnessed spark into memory like an old light snapped on.  The dread of each day becomes palpable, with figures living in your peripherals and second guessing the conversations and actions of your counterparts.  The lack of jumpscares, save one to two, make treading through the deep of the story unbearably tense.  It’s a beautiful omission from Cooking Companions since there are plenty of times they could’ve hit you with a jumpscare, but they will stick you in a scene like quicksand and force you to unflinchingly stay on one screen and dare you to keep your headphones on.  It was hard to do for the 3 hour campaign.

But when Cooking Companions leans into the creepy, it also leans towards the ridiculous.  So let’s talk about these Chompettes.  Early on in the game you’ll be greeted by five talking veggies, complete with cute self-announcing lines for each one.  These veggies stay hidden to the other guests but remain prominent to the main protagonist, giving cooking tips and a lot of cryptic hereabouts throughout each day.  While the veggies give nice comic relief and I will always crack up at Bread’s confusingly deep laugh, it deters from the very well done and meticulously prepared uneasiness that should dominate the back half of this visual novel without a step away for a breather.

And not to spoil the main story, but there’s a tonal shift in gameplay in the final act that is just…not well done.  I like the idea, but most of the options don’t feel like they work as intended and the trial and error of losing a few times turned futile seeing as there’s one correct way to do things.  Cooking Companions whiplashes you with multiple endings and restarts after the credits roll, piecing information together that helps explain more of the cabin and its inhabitants, and New Game+ will give you a chance to revisit relationships to nook every cranny.

When all is said and done, Cooking Companions is quite the wild ride, albeit not the most cohesive.  It’s rough around the edges with the design choices and narrative direction, but it nails the slow churning horror and dreadful anticipation and that alone is worth squirming about in your chair for a few hours to see a prime example of how VN horror can be done, with maybe a little less on the plate next time around.

A Steam code was independently purchased for review.