Cyberpunk has a lasting appeal to it. Since it was first introduced almost 40 years ago, it has steadily increased in popularity. There’s just something romantic about a high-tech neon city shrouded in eternal night. The tough part when making a game set in this backdrop is coming up with something that stands out from the crowd. Sukeban has done a great job of this. They’ve taken this popular aesthetic and wrapped it up in a visual novel coupled with a heavy dose of bartending. It sounds strange, but you’ll be surprised how well you mix drinks for clients by the end of the game. VA-11 Hall-A is incredibly engaging.
The game focuses on a women named Jill who lives in Glitch City. It’s a dystopian town where corporations rule the roost and a paramilitary group called the White Knights enforce the law. It’s a harsh place where one can hardly be blamed for wanting a drink. Sometimes folk need a moment to forget about all the problems the city has. So, from the start the game sets a tone that it takes place in a world where an oppressive regime calls the shots and there are groups constantly protesting it and trying to fight back. This backdrop is made all the more interesting one considers that the developers are from Venezuela.
While the story itself is quite interesting, what really brings it to life are VA-11 Hall-A‘s characters. There are a number of them and each are dripping with personality. On one end of the spectrum is someone like Donovan. He the no nonsense editor at the local newspaper. On the other end is Streaming-chan who insists on livestreaming every aspect of her life. This leads to all sorts of conversations when people come to the bar. Some people may want to talk about current events. Others will discuss minute details of their personal life. Then there’s everything in between. It makes for some interesting conversations and also gives hints as to what sort of drinks someone might like.
This brings us to the primary gameplay aspects of VA-11 Hall-A. While all of the conversations with clients take care of the game’s visual novel aspects, this is where players pick up the controller and get to business. From here it’s time to do some bartending. Sometimes characters will bluntly tell Jill what they want to drink, especially early in the game. Later on, though, it becomes important to be able to read their moods and personalities. They’ll hint at what they want and players have to figure it out for themselves.
This can be made easier or harder depending on what players do with Jill when she’s off work. She’ll often be hanging out in her apartment, and one can decide how they want to spruce up the place with some of the money that she earns at the bar. This can range from little decorations to doodads and entertainment devices. Be sure to always have enough left over to pay the rent, though. These little bits of shopping are important because it helps with Jill’s mood and keeps her better attuned to what her customers want. The better her mindset, the less likely she’ll make a mistake with an order.
Mixing drinks is actually a fairly involved process. There are a number of different ingredients that each impact the flavor of a drink in different ways. Then players can choose how much of each ingredient to put in. On top of this, one has to decide whether the drink should have ice or be aged. It’s even possible to make a drink a double sometimes. So, there’s a lot of depth to making these things for customers. What’s even more interesting is how players will discover they’re memorizing drinks and who likes what as the game progresses. The game has a book on how to make every drink, but eventually players will barely need to check it because they know how to make almost everything by heart.
While all of this is going on, players will be bombarded by VA-11 Hall-A‘s aesthetic. Visually the game goes for a very anime-inspired style of pixel art. Each character is full of personality and the environment has that dingy neon high-tech feel synonymous with cyberpunk. Meanwhile, the game’s music is an interesting mix of synth-laden tracks. Think of any of the recent electronic genres ending in “wave” and there’s a decent chance it shows up in the game’s soundtrack. With that, there’s a lot of good music to enjoy here. Players largely dictate what they want to hear as they pick all of the songs in the bar’s jukebox at the start of each shift.
As unusual as it may sound, “Cyberpunk Bartender Action” actually works quite well together in a game. VA-11 Hall-A‘s story and characters really go a long way in carrying the game because they’re all so interesting and likable. Meanwhile, organizing Jill’s apartment and serving up drinks is a lot of fun. People looking for something a bit different in a cyberpunk setting should seriously consider looking into this game. It’s well worth spending some time with.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam and GOG, as well as for the PlayStation Vita. The game is also slated for release on the Switch and PlayStation 4 some time in 2019.