An Intoxicating Experience
I’ve made my stance on the cyberpunk genre plenty clear by now; I absolutely love it. There’s something about the way it takes wonderful and advanced technology and places it within the middle of an absolutely dystopian world that, perhaps somewhat ironically, lifts my spirits. Seeing as how it started its initial fall from mainstream popularity before I was even born, however, pickings are pretty slim when it comes to cyberpunk-themed video games. Because of that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I jump on the chance to play a new cyberpunk game whenever I get the chance. Games like, say, VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action.
While the cyberpunk genre has never completely died off, I’ve always felt as though more contemporary titles fail to hit the mark when it comes to truly reproducing what made the “Golden Age of Cyberpunk” so wonderful. And VA-11 HALL-A? Well, it doesn’t nail it 100%. But it is close. Very close, even. It’s obvious that the people over at Sukeban Games know what they’re doing. And that’s why, despite the game taking a few liberties here and there, VA-11 HALL-A ultimately ended up being one of the most authentic experiences that I’ve had with the genre in quite some time.
VA-11 HALL-A is set in the distant year of 2069 in Glitch City — a bastion of technology that holds the potential to change the future. Be it its many advancements in medical technology or program attempting to integrates Lilim (sentient robots) into mainstream society alongside humankind, Glitch City could truly shape the world at large… at least it could if it had any semblance of ethics. Glitch City may be making technological advancements hand-over-fist, but that’s nothing compared to the rampant corruption plaguing the city. From basic murder, theft, and drug use, to the more cyberpunk-y issues revolving around nanobot usage or the corrupt nature of the White Knights — Glitch City’s own highly diversified task force — you can’t walk a block down this high-tech hellhole without witnessing some kind of indecent act. Fortunately, none of that matters! While Glitch City itself may be a digital deathtrap, VA-11 HALL-A‘s story takes place within a little run-down bar by the same name. And you, dear player? Well, you’re put into the shoes of Jill — a 27-year-old bartender just trying to make the most of her job before her beloved bar closes. Nothing more, nothing less.
I’m sure that I hear some of you out there asking why I built up Glitch City so much just to tell you that basically everything outside of VA-11 HALL-A’s four decrepit walls doesn’t matter, but I promise there’s a reason for that — it’s exactly what the game does. Now, VA-11 HALL-A doesn’t lie to you about what it is. Heck, it’s sub-header is “Cyberpunk Bartender Action“. Still, I didn’t quite expect what I got. Cyberpunk games are, more often than not, going against the odds to tackle some kind of seedy city underbelly, regardless of who your character is or what they do. With its introduction about rampant corruption, I expected VA-11 HALL-A to eventually segue into something bigger. And, in a way, I suppose that you could technically argue that it does. But not in a way that you’d expect.
A lot of things do happen within Glitch City, much of which you’ll be privy to. However, rather than knowing the city’s goings-on by participating in them, you’ll instead learn the ways of the world (or at least the city) through your duties as a bartender. A good 95% of what you learn is through nothing more than hearsay, and, despite how dire things may get on the streets, you’ll never be participating in any of the action at all. I know that it might sound like I’m fixated on this, and I probably wouldn’t argue with you if you said as much, but it’s only because this is such a unique narrative tool made even more unique by the genre in which it’s being carried out. It takes a lot of creative effort to make a game about standing behind a bar and serving drinks to people who are undoubtedly more exciting into something fun, and I love the fact that VA-11 HALL-A actually pulled this off to be incredibly appealing.
Like a Well-Oiled Machine
Despite its “Cyberpunk Bartender Action” tagline, VA-11 HALL-A is, undoubtedly, a visual novel. A visual novel with an amazing, customizable soundtrack. With the crux of its gameplay revolving around lending an ear to the many barflies seeking to rest their weary souls from their real-world troubles, and get hammered in the process, most of what you’ll be doing is conversing with the patrons. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be doing some actual bar-tending, however! Rather than selecting from dialog choices when prompted, players will help to keep the story going on by making use of the most potent and literal form of social lubricant around — alcohol!
As players progress through their conversation with each patron, they will also be tasked with making drinks. For those worrying about this, breathe easy; contrary to real life, bartending in VA-11 HALL-A is incredibly simple. When it comes to actual orders, things like timing and predictions are nonexistent. Dialogue always cuts off when it’s time to make a drink, and the player is almost always told what it is that they should be making. There are exceptions to this rule later on in the game, such as a handful of patrons asking for “the usual” (not to mention all of the cryptic nonsense spouted out by a certain enigmatic individual), but these instances are few and far between and generally don’t pose much trouble.
Mixing drinks isn’t any more difficult. In fact, it’s less difficult. All VA-11 HALL-A‘s mixology entails is that you follow directions and, apart from stopping your drink-mixing before it speeds up, requires no skill. Honestly, there isn’t that much that this game needs to do in order to improve. It’s already pretty great. However, if I had to pick one thing to work on, it would would be this. I understand that, as a VN, measuring a player’s skill via traditional gameplay isn’t the most appropriate thing to do. With that being said, I don’t think that it would have hurt VA-11 HALL-A to make mixing drinks more interactive. It’s not that I want something difficult, per se — that would hurt the game more than anything — but letting the player mess around with drinks and ingredients more could have been a lot of fun.
Cyberpunk Adulting Action
Cyberpunk bartender action may be VA-11 HALLA-A‘s primary gimmick, but it isn’t its only one — players are also invited to experience the struggle of being a poor twenty-something as well (as if most of us weren’t already that)! Before each shift, players are given the chance to chill in Jill’s
suffocatingly small cozy apartment. While there, players are able to catch up on news articles, lurk on forum boards, and even shop around for trinkets that can be displayed in Jill’s living room. Money isn’t just for buying cool-looking clutter, however. Throughout the game, players will be tasked with saving up enough money to pay bills. And, while the first two technically necessary, failing to pay the final bill (a whopping $10,000) will result in a game over. I’m not going to lie; that last bill is a real doozy. I rarely bought anything that wasn’t specifically mentioned by Jill herself (doing so will help her concentrate at work), and I still only manage to just scrape by. It’s kind of a nasty trick if you ask me. Then again, the cyberpunk genre is essentially one big, nasty trick in and of itself… so I suppose it’s fitting.
As far as contemporary cyberpunk games go, you’d be pressed to find a better game than VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action. Like a refreshing drink after a hard day’s work, this game hits the spot for those thirsting for another taste of that sweet, sweet mechanical dystopian feeling. And, thanks to its engaging story that manages to straddle both humor and drama without being overbearing on either front, it’s got a little bit of something for everyone. So, whether it’s because you like booze, banter, or a bevy of bubbly (or not-so-bubbly) bros and babes, VA-11 HALL-A is one hole-in-the-wall worth visiting.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC; Publisher: Ysbryd Games; Developer: Sukeban Games; Players: 1; Released: May 2, 2019; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.