VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a game that’ll take you by surprise, if it can even be considered a game. There are certainly elements of gameplay that affect your progression, but the pacing is more akin to a Japanese visual novel. At what point does a visual novel become a video game? Are they mutually exclusive after all? Can we even ever truly know? VA-11 HALL-A asks approximately zero of these questions, and it’s a much better experience for it.
VA-11 HALL-A is set in a cyberpunk concrete jungle of a city, in an undisclosed year (although the game was “published” in 2068). Human society has evolved to a point where corporations control entire cities, and privacy is a rare luxury. Brutal not-so-secret police control the population that aren’t oppressed by nanomachines. Bodily augmentation is common, creating a new divide between cyborgs and those who retain their basic humanity. While VA-11 HALL-A has these elements in the background, your role in them is incredibly small. In fact, you’re literally just there to serve drinks. You play as Jill, a twenty-something woman who mixes drinks with her (best) boss Dana and her…friend (?) Gillian at a dingy bar designated as VA-11 HALL-A, or as they put it, Valhalla. What sets VA-11 HALL-A apart from most other visual novels…games…narratives is how you affect the story: By mixing drinks.
Most of the time, you’ll be scrolling through dialogue text that’s pretty damn well written. In other visual novels/RPGs, you’d pick a dialogue path some time or another to create a new story path. But in VA-11 HALL-A’s frequent intervals, these characters will ask for a drink. Give them what they want, and the narrative will go one way. Make them something they didn’t expect, it could go another way entirely. Something they didn’t know they needed? You better believe that’s a narrative paddlin’. As they become regulars at the bar, you can unravel their stories at your leisure. They’ll talk of loves, losses, lives – and even transhumanism and keeping brains in jars. VA-11 HALL-A revels in presenting tough philosophical questions in a calm and sometimes even comfortable environment. The game even recommends that you grab a drink and a snack when you start a New Game. On the other hand, it’s also satisfied with random WWE lines or ham-handed references to pop culture and the most accurate simulation of a message board I’ve ever seen. The character design takes more from Ace Attorney than Robocop, and it shows. There’s a guy who wears an outfit that looks like it was stolen from Akira‘s Kaneda. There’s a Shiba Inu with aviators and a Hawaiian shirt with an eyepatched (big) boss and an ‘adult’ streamer that brings side-scrolling messages straight out of a Japanese stream wherever she goes. There’s a detective with an uncanny resemblance to George Costanza just to set up a joke hours after he’s introduced… you get the idea.
“No, Rad Shiba…I’m already a demon.”
Nobody under 16 will get this.
That sound you hear, in your head? That’s a pre-2005 hard drive creaking. You’re welcome.
And yet, these factors never feel like they conflict with one another; the writing and presentation’s just so damn enjoyable. I’ve always been a sucker for Blade Runner-esque dystopian futures that resemble the dirty back streets of Shanghai, and VA-11 HALL-A sure doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The bar itself is cramped, barely lit, and smells like ‘dog piss and hand soap’. The characters, as mentioned before, blur the line perfectly between cheesy references and genuinely thoughtful human beings. VA-11 HALL-A’s characters will often talk between themselves, berating and loving each other, making them part of a seamless narrative that’s become one of my favourites in any game. These simple interactions are, again, all determined by you and what drinks you make. Jill’s backstory in particular was personally relatable, and the way she grieved and laughed and loved reminded me of myself in a not-so-cheery way. And, in the end, isn’t that what cyberpunk is all about? In a world overrun by technology, concrete, and steel, we’re still as human as ever and no amount of cybernetic implants are changing that.
So, the actual gameplay elements. As I mentioned before, they do exist but aren’t the most dreadfully important. Mixing drinks is done right from the main screen, and when Jill goes home at the end of each shift she’s returned to her tiny (but surprisingly cosy) apartment where she can read news blogs for some lore fluff, go shopping for trinkets that help her stay focused at work, and talk to her cat. Well, she talks on his behalf so she’s technically talking to herself. You know what, never mind. All this is done on a tight budget, and you’ll need to have a certain amount of cash by a certain time in order to progress. This is the only real deadline given by the game, as the rest is paced as you like it. In true visual novel fashion, your actions control the narrative and it’s controlled at your pace. Wanna take a half hour to make a drink? Totally fine. Read a sentence four times that you’ll want to put on your Facebook profile? Go for it. Fucked up a drink? Not to worry, just start again. No rush. For a game with such intense amounts of character development, it’s a very ‘chill’ game. The gorgeous synthwave soundtrack and visuals lovingly inspired by the PC-98 (complete with optional CRT scanlines) only help you sit back and simply absorb the game’s shenanigans. And oh boy, what shenanigans they are. I won’t go into detail for fear of spoilers, but trust me when I say that VA-11 HALL-A is a game that you won’t be forgetting any time soon.
Despite being fantastic, VA-11 HALL-A isn’t perfect. Mixing drinks can prove tedious after a while, especially if you find yourself making the same ones over and over. Experimentation is encouraged by the game, but some players may find the lack of real nudges confusing. The game also neglects to mention the difference between blending and mixing, a pretty damn important part of cocktails, which led to me blending a drink that’s meant to be mixed and redoing it for nearly 15 minutes before a friend thankfully told me. For the record, mixing is shaking the container for under five seconds and blending is when you shake it for longer. Finally, the way that the story unfolds may be immensely enjoyable but the multitude of different endings may leave some characters coming across as unfinished even across multiple playthroughs.
“Just like my favourite Christmas classic, Mega Santa Conquers The Martians!”
“I’m sorry, mama.”
When all is said and done, VA-11 HALL-A manages to be the best narrative of 2016 so far and I don’t think it’s being toppled from that mantle any time soon. Interesting characters and superb presentation are put together with such finesse that you can’t help but fall in love with it. If you’re looking for a more traditional cyberpunk game, stick with Deus Ex or Syndicate. But if you’re more a fan of contained stories and themes that are deeper than the Mariana Trench, VA-11 HALL-A won’t disappoint.
“It’s time to mix drinks and change lives.”
Reviewed on Windows.