In the dystopian future of the year 207X, corrupt corporations govern the world, oppressing the populace with nanomachines and a personal armed force known as the White Knights. Law is to be obeyed and nothing seems to be done to correct the wrongdoings forced upon everyone. But this is not the story being told, this is a story of Jill Stingray, bartender at the VA-11 Hall-A bar in downtown Glitch City, and the customers she has to serve. On a daily basis she has to deal with the often petty whims of the clientele, most times humouring them as they spill their life stories one drink at a time. It’s time to mix drinks and change lives.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
Developed by Sukeban Games
Published by Ysbryd Games
Released: 2nd May 2019
VA-11 Hall-A is a cyberpunk-inspired visual novel integrated with mixology mechanics to differ from the usual choice selections typically offered to deviate from the norm. Unlike many visual novels though, there are no branching paths, the drinks selections alter dialogue depending on what drink you serve or how alcoholic you make them. These minute choices can sometimes just alter dialogue, annoy your customers or even grant you additional endings on top of the standard one, making many playthroughs different from the last. As a whole, it’s not a particularly long game, it might take you 5 hours to clear it for the first time depending on your reading speed, but there are many possibilities and even alternative scenes depending on whether or not you choose a specific drink or not.
Gameplay is fairly basic for the whole, as you spend the majority of your time sifting through text boxes. However, the choice selections are far more interactive than many other visual novels, allowing you to personally cater a drinks order however you see fit. You’re given a selection of synthetic ingredients that you mix together as per a menu of recipes, with additional options such as aging, serving on the rocks and blending the results. One wrong selection leads to a failed drink, but you can retry straight away without punishment, just don’t serve a failure of a drink. You can experiment if you want, as there are secret recipes not included on the menu, but for the most part you won’t come out with much so just stick to the recipes.
What should have you sticking around is the colourful cast of eclectic characters. Taking full advantage of the setting, we have a full range from an android pop idol to literal talking dogs. You won’t be hard pushed to find favourites amongst the lot of them. This game also holds nothing back with a very mature tone to everything, covering subjects ranging from depression to sexual activity, and plenty of strong language. This probably should come as expected, considering the main objective is getting people varying levels of drunk. Most of your time is spent listening to whatever people wish to tell Jill, a lot of which might seem redundant. All in all, it helps craft a very believable world, these are all individuals with their own struggles, some of which might hit close to home. The developers have stated that a lot of what the cast has to tell is based on real-life stories they heard themselves, and it really shows as even the simplest of characters shines in some unique way.
The aesthetic and music is something to behold, adopting the stylings of 80’s and 90’s anime and old PC-98 visual novels from Japan. The cyberpunk inspirations from the likes of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell are very clear to see. Harsh shadows with bright neon lights glitter the world around you with finely tuned pixel art designed to evoke a sense of literally being stuck in dark bar with a dim yet bright glow from the lighting. A CRT filter can also be enabled if you wish to further stress the 80’s stylings the art direction aims for, I don’t find it particularly appealing but the option is appropriate and welcome nonetheless. The music is beyond superb though, integrated into the game very seamlessly with a jukebox you choose songs from before each working shift. This allows you to effectively curate your favourites and avoid any tracks you don’t like. This often leads to hilariously unfitting music playing over someone’s sob-story, it helps to seal the deal that this sort of thing happens anyway in a bar. As for the type of music available, it covers a wide array of stylings from jazz, techno, synthwave and upbeat J-pop.
Even though most of time is spent with clients, that’s not to say this is just a chain of little story beats told one after the other, there is still an overarching plot going on as you go through the game. Jill is not a blank slate character, she has her own woes too and typically cuts back with sharp cynicism. Even so, she’s not ill-tempered and she really does listen to people and deeply cares for her closest friends. Bit by bit, you’re exposed to her own past coming back to haunt her current life, from family relationships to an estranged history with a prior lover. The stress of dealing with her bills and having to cope with repressed memories does come down on her hard, but over time she opens up and faces the music. She forms new bonds and strengthens the already existing ones steadily as the text boxes scroll by. Depending on the choice of drinks you make, she might make friends from unlikely places. The core story won’t change from these choices, of course, but the levels to which the script has been written to account for all the possible variables these actions have is rather impressive to say the least.
Despite all the praise I’ve been singing for this game, it isn’t without flaws. The game had a rocky development cycle which led to some standard visual novel features not being included. For instance, there’s no quick select for chapters, so if you want to retry for different dialogue then you have to rely on your limited saves or else you have to restart the whole game from the start. Fortunately text skip is in place, but it doesn’t differentiate unread text from things you have read, so there’s a good chance you might accidentally skip by something new without realising. Another unfortunate omission is being able to change the jukebox selection whenever you please, if you select a song you end up not liking then you’re stuck listening to it until it ends. It’s also fairly easy, it’s rather hard to outright fail so long as you stick straight to what people order (though that’s sometimes not actually the best course of action) and even if you make mistakes you can often make do and get the standard ending in the end. You have to actually deliberately go out of your way to actually get a game over.
All in all, VA-11 Hall-A is a well rounded, short experience that feels very real in its portrayal of its characters despite the futuristic cyberpunk setting. It might not sit too well with people who aren’t fans of visual novels, as it doesn’t do anything to radically deviate outside of the drinks creation. The writing may also not be to everyone’s fancy, as it focuses mainly on very human drama unlike a lot of existential themes common to the cyberpunk genre. However, I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try if you enjoy reading as it’s a very scattered but personal story, much like our real lives, and may have you thinking more about the people around you, what are their stories?
Final rating – 4 out of 5
VA-11 Hall-A is available now for Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita and PC/Mac/Linux.
Long time fan of Nintendo and games in general, I always lean on the quirkier and unique sides of things in particular. It all started when I was lucky enough to get a Gameboy Color and Pokemon Yellow for my tenth birthday and it’s been going strong ever since. I’ve always had a need to get my voice heard and share anything I find interesting with the world.