VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action is a game that feels as good to play as its name sounds, a truly ludicrous but engaging visual novel experience wrapped in a fantastic, fully controllable soundtrack. It’s not for everyone by any means and the writing is occasionally too silly for its own good, but it’s a truly innovative spin on the visual novel genre that I enjoyed pretty much the whole way through.
You play as Jill, bartender at the eponymous dive bar in the slums of Glitch City. It’s a pretty stereotypical cyberpunk world: the president is hilariously corrupt, recessions have ruined the economy and the streets are patrolled by a government-funded army of ‘White Knights’, the setup for your standard near-future freedom fighting a la Final Fantasy VII. The twist is, unlike your Cloud Strifes who spend their time battling robots and blowing up reactors, Jill, her co-workers and her customers are regular people who just have to deal with living in a crappy dystopia. It’s telling that your first objective in a world with mind control nanomachines is to pay Jill’s subscription fee to a VR porn website.
“It’s not for everyone [...] but it’s a truly innovative spin on the visual novel genre”
The world outside rarely intrudes into your bar and the action almost never leaves it. Conversations with your patrons move from civilian casualties to pop music, terrorism to bear wrestling with all the bluntness of a Facebook feed. The game is stronger for it: VA-11 HALL-A’s patrons and staff are interesting precisely because they aren’t leading revolutions or battling tyranny. They’re just people, coming to your bar to get blind drunk and forget everything outside.
This focus on the prosaic extends to the gameplay, too. The real gameplay, as you’d probably guess from a self-proclaimed bartending simulator, is to make drinks from various combinations of five ingredients and a handful of preparation methods. The in-game console ensures you’re always supplied with the methods to make these drinks – there’s no need to hastily scribble down the chemical composition of a Fringe Weaver – but what you actually serve is up to you, and as customers become regulars you can start reading between the lines of their orders. Do you keep serving a tough guy customer the bitter, manly drinks he orders, or the sweeter, more refined drinks he actually wants? Customer tastes are one of the main ways you interact with the characters, too: if you get them drunk enough to start yelling about their love lives they may crash hard the next day…
VA-11 HALL-A’s title screen suggests that it’s best played comfortably with a drink to hand, and it’s right. It’s a light, engaging few hours spent with a gorgeous soundtrack in the company of an interesting cast of characters, from cyborg wrestlers to a girl who livestreams her entire life, and after a long day of coursework it’s an easy way to take your mind off the world outside.