“Even in the technological dystopian future, there’s still a place where everybody knows your name”
The visual novel game is an odd one to review. First and foremost they’re less of an actual game and more of a text narrative. VN games vary in what they offer: while some revolve around the ‘dating’ element that’ll hook you up with a virtual girl/boy, others split the gameplay and story down the middle, where it’s less of a VN game and more of a regular roleplaying title that has a solid story throughout.
Regardless of what tricks it brings to the table, a visual novel game will need to have that strong, well developed story at its heart. Its characters should be as well-developed as any paperback. The settings themselves must feel lifelike and ambient enough to draw in the reader (or should I say player?)
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is developed by Sukeban Games and published by Ysbyrd games. Set in the year is 207X within the corrupt and dangerous urban metropolis of Glitch city lies a small bar named VA-11 Hall-A. You play the role of a young female bartender named Jill and through her eyes you get to see first hand the sapient individuals that inhabit this bleak future.
The intro itself remarks on how hope and joy have been sapped almost dry in this dark future, due to brutal government enforcement. The gap between the privileged and the poor widens over wealth and basic amenities. But hope seemingly lies within Valhalla, where it can offer a breather from the chaos of the outside world.
Even before the actual game has started, the intro gives a concise summarisation of the world around the player and what kind of characters are expected to enter VA-11 Hall-A.
The characters themselves are very well written, bringing a myriad of different backgrounds into the fray. As with the usual bar fly cliche, they will spill parts of their life story to you while you serve them drinks. Each character has a personality you can recognise, while supporting characters in the form of bar staff occasionally drop in with their own opinion.
The interactions between the characters themselves are incredibly well written. Unlike a lot of anime-inspired visual novel games, it tends to shy away from typically oversexualized dialogue. Instead VA-11 Hall-A flips between the sombre and serious to the wacky and comedic.
The quality of the writing speaks for itself when you find yourself hanging on the every word of your patron. You may learn of someone about to turn their entire life around, while others question their very existence. Even a number of sci-fi and anime references make their way in through the dialogue, which tickled me something fierce.
Playing the game
While you listen to their stories, it’s up to you to dispense drinks and the game presents it in a streamlined fashion. A short informative tutorial instructs you on how to mix drinks, such as adding ice and mixing instead of blending. The puzzle element is simple and straightforward, yet not too simplistic or overly complicated. There’s a guide book that’ll tell you how to mix each drink and with what ingredients. Each drink recipe in the guide comes with a small story or an opinion placed underneath. However, there may be times when the customer gives a vague idea of what drink they’d like. They may only offer a couple of descriptive words instead of a drink’s title. Sometimes it may be a single drink, or perhaps you can narrow it down to a few under a specific flavour/type category.
After each working day, you receive a final score. You get the usual pay, extra cash for getting everyone’s drink correct, plus you’ll get a story related bonus too. Then you arrive at your apartment, where the gameplay switches to a different style. You’re free to browse news articles on your smartphone, or peruse the local shops for umpteen knickknacks to add to your cozy apartment. Without going into too much detail, these items will affect your day to day work.
When you return to work the next day, you can choose twelve from a long list of music to put into the digital jukebox. Again with the aforementioned quality of the writing, the music too is an absolute work of art. From the moody undertones of ‘A Neon Glow Lights The Way’, to the upbeat ‘Your Love is a Drug’ these tracks inject so much atmosphere into the game. Before you know it, you’re mixing drinks with ease, while still keeping up with the goings-on of regular customers.
With a strong script and equally realistic characters, there’s a surprising amount of ambience and immersion. The retro graphics certainly add to the feeling of a cyberpunk theme, while the choice of music is perfect for this dystopian surrounding. You’ll learn the familiar quirks of the patrons in no time at all, perhaps recalling their favourite drink. It’s a solid, relaxing game that blends both comedy and drama together very, very well.
5 out of 5