I originally wanted to begin with a preamble about berating this game for having an insufficient amount of its advertised waifu abuse, as both the quantity of true waifus and their abuse leaves much to be desired. But that really isn’t what VA-11 Hall-A is about, despite what 18 month old marketing materials led me to believe, and instead it is a visual novel about cyberpunk bartending, and a pretty wonderful one at that.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS Vita, iOS
Developer: Sukeban Games
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
VA-11 Hall-A is a small nook inside the underbelly of Glitch City, a den of social experiments, source of massive class divides, and the sort of greedy corporation run futuristic setting that the cyberpunk genre is built off of. But this isn’t a story about the great injustices rippling through the world as much as it is the tale of its denizens, the stories of people who seek momentary refuge and a glimpse of solace. A refuge for people from all walks of life, from the editor in chief of a successful webpaper, to a loli robot sex worker, to a girl who streams her life 24/7 as her primary source of revenue, to a young woman who dedicated her life to helping people, but is chewed up by the perturbed denizens of the city for being part of a corrupted organization. Also Jim Sterling’s beloved character of Virgilio Armadio.
It’s a very personal story, one that is more interested in exploring the people living in this “post-dystopian” setting, and it does so alarmingly well. I was genuinely thrilled whenever a new face entered the bar, as I knew something interesting would come out of their mouth, either details of their own life, the lightly painted world this game exists in, or just something amusing in its own right.
For as grim and melancholic as the setting can be, there are plenty of fantastical and silly moments within the story. About half of which comes from the fact that dogs can inexplicably talk, and a shibe with a hawaiian shirt and sunglasses becomes a co-worker to the main character, Jill. Who naturally has her own share of troubles that are explored in detail, from the simple act of making rent, maintaining self fulfillment, and avoiding the cynical rut that exists in a world where things probably won’t be getting notably better for years to come. She also has her own personal story arc that, while not remarkable in regards to premise alone, managed to be incredibly relatable and endearing. Though, I’d say that just about every conversation, character, and aspect to this story is endearing in its own way.
Unfortunately, the developers decided to include a series of epilogues to close the book on certain characters and establish true closure to the story, only to lock them behind some obscure ending requirements. Requirements that pertain to the gameplay.
The core gameplay of VA-11 Hall-A is actually rather simple. As people talk to Jill, they ask her for a drink, either offering a direct order, one that requires a bit of thinking, or one that falls into a certain category. In order to prepare these drinks, you have access to a reliable system that lets you sort drinks by type, flavor, or alphabetically, with each drink’s page telling you how much of what chemical you need to add to prepare said drink, and how you need to prepare it.
It’s not very riveting, and the experience could be made better if somebody made a fancy looking spreadsheet listing every drink, if only to enhance one’s ties to the word and provide a potentially better user interface than the page flipping UI of the game itself. Which I considered doing, but didn’t, ‘cos I’m lazy like that. However, it gets the job done, and by the end, I was flipping through the UI and making drinks within fifteen seconds.
It’s also not very difficult to do a flawless run of the game, especially given the number of times you have to save throughout the game, and I think you might need to in order to pay Jill’s bills. But that does not necessarily mean you’ll unlock the true ending. Instead, there are certain sections of the game where you need to use your intuition to determine that one person should not be served the drink they requested, and should be given something else that will change their mood. Which just annoys me. The game presents itself as a relaxing drink serving experience, but if you make the mistake of following someone’s orders, then you’re deemed unworthy of seeing the true ending, which I believe is vital to the story as a whole.
As for how this whole thing is presented, I certainly have nothing bad to say about the sprite art itself, as it effectively brings characters to life with all of them sporting a unique design, but it is a little bit lacking. Characters look good, but their animations are limited. The bar wall that will be on screen for 90% of the game looks fine, if a bit too unremarkable. Whenever the game mixes it up with a unique looking scene, it looks awkward on some level. VA-11 Hall-A simply lacks the same level of quality that I have come to expect of games of this scale and nature, especially given the quantity of visual assets on display.
Then there’s the soundtrack, which you have control over for the most part, as you can create a playlist of songs once every day and after your break. They are a diverse variety of lyricless tracks that fit the setting well, and offer a wide range of moods for you to sift through depending on the context. I actually really look forward to regularly listening to the soundtrack in the future and to enjoy its sympathized amniotic tones while writing. Like I did for most of this review.
VA-11 Hall-A is a distinctive, intimate, and strangely mature treat that manages to blend the fantastical, the crass, the upsetting, and the vaguely philosophical into something that is simply delightful. While I’m not as head over heels with the game as I would have liked to have been, this is still an excellent visual novel and a distinctively modernized cyberpunk story on top of that.