Disclaimer: As part of Steam's Curator Connect program, the reviewer received a steam code from the developer for the purpose of writing a review for the game.
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night craving some snacks? If you do, are you able to control yourself and just go back to sleep? Or do you do your best to look for something you can nibble on in the comfort of your bed?
Back when I was a kid, my mom used to tell me stories about what happens to people that eat hearty meals before sleeping or who snack on something in the middle of the night. The stories were usually accounts of people’s heads turning into a cow’s or an animal of some sort or being plagued by nightmares for days on end. Regardless, it spooked me a lot and I’d regrettably turn away lots of food offered to me late at night. Though I couldn’t care less anymore about eating late, I’ve since had a lingering connection between hunger and horror.
Cooking Companions is Deer Dream Studios’ first VN release for PC. Originally a Kickstarter project, it was able to meet its funding goal and eventually released the full game for Windows in October 2021. Since then, it has received multiple updates such as support for Mac and Linux OS, a port for Android devices, and an expansion titled “Chompettes Origin“. The game is currently available in four languages, namely English, Japanese, American Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese.
Before the full launch of the game, Deer Dreams Studios released a demo titled Cooking Companions: Appetizer Edition on itch.io and Steam for free in October 2020. A direct sequel, titled Dread Weight, is currently in development. It’s available to wishlist on Steam and is currently slated for a 2024 release.
Cooking Companions is set deep in the woods of the Tatras Mountains, where you, the protagonist, find yourself in a secluded cabin along with four adults. They designate you as the group’s cook, while the others gather materials for you to use in your dishes. You share hearty meals together, all the while laughing and enjoying each other’s company. At night, everyone sleeps peacefully. After a few days, however, you wake up to a raging storm. The outside of the cabin is flooded, and suddenly, food becomes scarce. Some of the food even start talking! With supplies dwindling as days pass by, how do you ensure the group’s survival? Scavenge, hunt, and be creative—it’s time to cook.
Similar to most VNs, Cooking Companions presents you with multiple choices that can determine the outcome of its story. You as the reader need to pick the best choices possible to ensure the group’s survival. Where should you look for food? What dish should you make for the day? Who should you speak to for help? These and a large number of other scenarios make navigating the VN’s story a little challenging—akin to how “Choose Your Own Adventure” games give you a ton of agency to pick the ending you want to work towards. Additionally, the VN explicitly tracks time in days, limiting the number of choices you can make in a particular time period.
Some choices are available to be chosen multiple times, especially during times when you’re looking for food inside the cabin. Depending on your choices, you can either find extra items or secrets that lead you closer to solving the VN’s mystery. This is explicit, as the VN expects you to find answers through a mix of these limited options. As a supporting feature, the second gameplay element introduces a sort of progress bar for you to monitor the impact of the choices you’ve been making—your relationship level.
The relationship level or affection system is the VN’s way of introducing visible progress to you as a reader. In many dating simulator VNs this metric is usually hidden, eliminating any real way of determining your progress towards a particular character’s route. But because it’s visible in Cooking Companions, you can easily work towards securing your relationship with your potential love interest by simply monitoring their progress towards five hearts. When the hearts are maxed out, they are considered cleared and you get the additional content associated with being able to do so.
True to the story’s emphasis on survival and mystery, you will encounter portions where you’ll be asked to wander in the dark to discover items or elements necessary to progress the story. When clicking on the correct area, it’ll trigger an event that breaks you out of the “scavenger hunt” and gets you back to reading. If for some reason you can’t tell where you should click to clear the stage, areas of interest will start flickering after a while to help guide you towards the areas you should be checking.
The next section involves heavy spoilers for Cooking Companions, so tread carefully.
The VN also has a simple combat system in place for the climax of its scenario. You’re given the choice of Attacking, Dodging, or Chompettes when facing against the enemy. These actions ultimately don’t matter because of the Chompettes option being an auto-win after a few presses, but it is still possible to achieve victory by only using a combination of Attack or Dodge.
After playing through the VN once, you’re given four choices when you go start up a New Game again. Each of these choices aren’t gameplay options by themselves, but because they’re actually additional scenarios, they each introduce new sets of activities/puzzles to do related to their story.
As a quick summary, the first option allows you to play the game as it was intended for beginners. Nightmare Mode is a non-canon scenario where it maxes out the Horror aspect of the game and launches you into a series of creepy or disturbing scenes that draw inspiration from the prior Cooking Companions story. The third one, NG+, is similar to the first mode but instead of starting from Day 1, you start from the middle of the story after the first cabin member leaves you behind to search for food. Here, all characters start at Relationship Level 3 which makes the task of maxing their affection level up incredibly trivial. Of course, all the gameplay elements mentioned prior to this also appear in all of these game modes.
The last one, Chompettes Origin, is additional content added to the game back in July 2022 that serves as a sort of prequel to the Cooking Companions VN. The core gameplay is basically the same, but instead of the original four cabin members, you’re playing as a group of kids who stumble upon the same cabin while running away from what they described as a “psychopath”.
At first glance, the art is simple and warm—something you’d expect to find in a camping story or a comfy slice of life. It betrays the game’s true colors of being a psychological horror VN (but it sure fits the bill for being cute!) As the horror aspects kick in, however, the art slowly starts turning creepy and unsettling. It’s as if the beings depicted are what you would find creeping in the darkness as you try to fall asleep at night. Personally, the contrast between these two aspects of the VN made its twists a lot more impactful.
As for the music tracks, they’re good mood-setters for most of the scenarios. The VN has character specific tracks that play when the scene shifts to focus on them; this makes some of the tracks memorable and easily identifiable given enough listens. The creepier ones linger and feel like they stick to you as you read, which I appreciated for the immersion. There’s not really one thing I can nitpick that I didn’t like about them and they fit the VN well.
Of course, what would a VN that has romance be without the romantic interests? Cooking Companions features a total of four characters you can romantically pursue—yes, it means both the men and women are available! You as the protagonist are free to choose who you’re interested in without any inclinations being hinted at from the VN’s story. It’s one of those moments when it’s appropriate to say that love truly wins.
Anatoly is the group’s resident bookworm who’s pretty weak-willed and easy to sway and influence. He harbors knowledge about edibles in the wilderness that helps the group immensely while foraging for food, perhaps a result of his endearment with books as a whole. He’s eager to help, impressionable, and quick to make friends. But is he really as dependable as he makes himself out to be?
Honestly, he’s pretty silly but he seems to try his best. Sometimes you’ll find him very vulnerable and end up unable to resist trying to comfort him. He’s one where kindness and consideration can go a long way, and in this context, it gives opportunities to deepen your relationship with each other.
Mariah is the ball of sunshine that lights up the group’s mood! She’s energetic, a go-getter, and is willing to try and learn anything that looks interesting to her. Because of how she radiates happiness, she is able to keep your group tightly-knit together even in the face of different kinds of challenges. But with a great storm trapping you all inside the cabin, will she be able to continue keeping everyone’s spirits high?
Mariah’s boundless energy actually makes her a lot more complicated to deal with in this scenario. Because she’s very much willing to throw herself out there, she values people who go out of their way to learn skills and grow as a person as well. With this in mind, Mariah as a romantic interest ends up building a relationship rooted in the concept of what’s “interesting”.
Gregor’s a bear of a man—he easily towers over the rest of the cast! He’s sturdy, tough, and can probably carry you like a princess with one arm. A man of great stature, his strength is betrayed by his overt kindness and gentleness as a person. Although he looks like he can knock anybody out in one punch, Gregor is a guy that would choose to talk it out with his gentle disposition. But faced with the dangers of the wilderness, how far can his kindness get you in satiating the group’s hunger?
The size and strength of our body doesn’t mean anything in matters of the heart, and in Gregor’s case, even more so. The big guy, although standing tall over most people, harbors regrets and fears in him just like any other person. I found his story to be one full of heartbreak and determination; seeing him continue forward despite what he’s lost serves as a nice source of inspiration.
Karin is a strong-willed woman who won’t settle for less than what she thinks she deserves. Oh, there’s not enough honey for the dish? Go run out and get some from the beehives! If the glass is half-empty, you better believe she’ll find a way to make it full. Her strong attitude usually puts her at odds against some of the members of your group, but it originates from a place of kindness. She earnestly doesn’t want the group to starve and, in a situation where there’s no possibility of going outside because of strong winds and flooding, it’s up to her to find a way to procure food.
Karin places a lot of value in someone’s ability to achieve the ends that she envisions or wants; that’s why the people who she keeps close to herself are those who can affirm her or do her bidding. And it’s not weird given what she experienced as a child! If you saw such a cruel sight at the age she was at, you’d start to believe that the intention behind something mattered less than the outcome you’ll be able to achieve. It’s a classic Machiavellian way of life, and it’s likely why she’s so strong. Or maybe it’s just her knife.
Thoughts from Inside of the Cabin
Cooking Companions, at its core, is a VN that can only be done justice by experiencing it for yourself. Its Steam page describes it as a “cute psychological horror VN” with a mystery to solve, implying that there’s more it offers than what meets the eye. If the fact that most of its events happen in a secluded cabin nestled in the wilderness of the Tatras Mountains doesn’t scream “mysterious!” to you, then this is your chance to revisit that impression and correct it. There are only things that you can talk about once you step into its cabin, and some of which just have to be kept amongst its visitors.
However, even with this being the case, it’s hard to claim that I’ve sufficiently reviewed the VN without touching upon aspects of it that contribute to its overall horror-mystery atmosphere. This section here, then, is a warning for those who want to experience Cooking Companions in the intended way—step away from the cabin, unless you want it to bare its secrets to you. If that doesn’t bother you, then come in. There’s a whole campfire story waiting for you inside.
The story, based on the characters’ experience, seems to be set during or shortly after the Holodomor. The Holodomor (literally meaning death by hunger in Ukrainian) was a man-made famine that happened in Soviet Ukraine around 1932-33 during Joseph Stalin’s term as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. It’s an event characterized by mass starvation throughout the country that led to large amounts of people dying or resorting to other means of sustenance.
It’s important to note this implied historical event in the game because it gives a lot of context as to why your group of five is currently stranded in a cabin in the middle of a forest in the Tatras Mountains. All four of them recount the lack of proper meals in Ukraine at the time, which had led to them seeking refuge after witnessing their town succumb to their pangs of hunger. This also implies that they’re deathly hungry as well—an incredibly important detail for the succeeding days in the plot as it emphasizes hunger as a central theme throughout its runtime.
Related to the desire for food is the idea of hallucinating food. It’s not so weird that in our most desperate times our brain comforts us by sharing a vision of what we deeply desire. And for the Cooking Companions cast, there’s definitely food to be eaten. But why is it that only the protagonist sees these talking food a.k.a. the Chompettes?
There’s more than meets the eye with these fruits and vegetables, and it’s our job to find out what that is. Over the course of the story, you get to know various details about each of the members of the Chompettes and disturbingly, their relationship with you. As the reader, you start to get acquainted with the madness our protagonist seems to have normalized in their everyday life and honestly, it opens up some pretty unsavory topics. And the more you dive into the specifics, the more the darkness threatens to swallow you whole.
It’s in the darkness of the unknown that Cooking Companions thrives as a horror VN. It purposefully denies you knowledge about the setting, the characters, who you are as the protagonist, and the story’s finish line. You’re left feeling your way through the story and identifying what kind of shape it takes, all the while wondering what the heck all the hints they’ve been leaving behind mean. Will it all make sense at the end? Or will you still be deprived of the satisfaction that comes from finally knowing? It makes the overall experience one full of creeping anxiety and dread as you join the characters in discovering the secrets lying under the cabin. And that’s what messes you up; it’s not the visual or audio cues themselves, but the anticipation and ironically, the fear of knowing.
Cooking Companions is an excellent way to spend your time after work if you’re looking for a short yet engaging VN to read. While a sizeable chunk of it involves a lot of choices and gameplay elements, the commitment to provide only as many details as necessary and letting you pick up on everything else yourself opens up an opportunity for you to become invested in its world. Do your best to survive and maybe you’ll learn about the darkness the cabin hides under it.
If I had something to nitpick about the VN, it would probably be the lack of an option to skip the credits after viewing it for the first time. I understand wanting to respect the people who worked on the game, but it’s pretty annoying when the game requires you to do multiple playthroughs to achieve 100% completion. That and because it was so short, there wasn’t a lot of opportunities to explore character depth. They’re not necessarily problems given what kind of VN it is, but I’d like to see them anyway.
To finish it off, my final score is as follows:
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Personal Rating: 8/10
Remember, don’t go down the basement. And don’t trust the onion.