Title: VA-11 Hall-A
Developer: Sukeban Games
Release Date: May 2, 2019
Reviewed On: Switch
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
I’ve heard a lot about Sukeban Games’ adventure VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, but sadly haven’t gotten the chance to play it. Even though the premise is something that is right up my alley, I just couldn’t find the time to sit down with the game. Now that the game is available for Nintendo Switch, I’m out of excuses and made it a point to finally play it through. What I discovered is that this game is not a title that should be rushed through, but rather it’s a title that is best experienced over a few days. I can assure you that they will be the most relaxing days of gaming you’ve had in quite some time.
Players assume the role of a bartender named Jill who works at a small hole in the wall bar named VA-11 Hall-A in Glitch City. While this bar is nothing special, and the writers make sure you understand this early on, it is a lively place that never seems to have a dull moment. The story begins by introducing Jill’s coworkers and the art of mixing drinks. I’ll admit, I was a little overwhelmed with the idea of having to memorize ingredients for drinks, but the game kindly has a book with everything you need to make all the drinks in the game.
VA-11 Hall-A presents a unique way of storytelling by using the interactions with bar patrons as a way to progress the narrative. These characters will spill their guts and reveal interesting things about their lives and relationships over the course of the game. It’s through these conversations that players also learn new things about Jill and who she is as well as how she reacts to certain customers and situations. When she is stressed or anxious about something her mood clearly changes and this is all conveyed by what and how she responds to whoever she’s speaking with.
VA-11 Hall-A has many characters who pop in and out of the bar and each of them prefers a certain drink. Understanding what they want isn’t always easy as they can sometimes be a bit vague in their request. Terms like “bitter” and “sweet” will be thrown around, but even though that’s what they requested, it’s sometimes necessary to gauge the mood of the conversation and understand the drink that will truly compliment them. My first time through the game came with a handful of trial and error moments, but it felt more like my personal story. As I neared the ending of the game, I felt like a mixing genius who could make a drink for any situation.
However, drinks in the game come across as mostly casual breaks within the dialog. Yes, they are an important part of being a good bartender, but they also unlock the door for more positive conversations between characters. With that said, there were some characters that I didn’t like and I sometimes made them bad drinks even if it meant suffering a score lose. That is what is so unique about this game, the casual nature of it makes the consequences of getting things wrong feel less because you are getting a story that is tailored to your choices. The game doesn’t need to be treated like a game where you strive for a perfect score. There is room for mistakes which made each interaction with the characters so impactful.
With that said, messing up on too many orders will mean fewer tips and fewer tips could mean that rent doesn’t get paid on time. Yes, the game extends past the confines of the bar and into Jill’s personal life of managing her budget. This would be easier if there wasn’t so much cool stuff to buy including things like posters, figures, and even porn. These items do more than just liven up Jill’s room, they also keep her from getting distracted at work. Aside from this, there are a few interesting blogs to read and news articles that pop up via Jill’s phone that give players a deeper insight into the state of world events.
The story in VA-11 Hall-A is everything, and I never seemed to tire of the visual novel elements in the game. This is thanks to the game’s amazing writing where the pacing is kept slow, but there always seems to be something that pops up to keep the player’s interest. More interesting subjects that pop up are things that border on the line of criminal and even sexual themes. The writers of the game didn’t hold back to what they threw at the player in terms of colorful characters, but it can get rather distasteful for some. Being a visual novel fan myself, nothing really stood out to me as ‘too much’, but I could see where this might turn more casual adventure fans away.
Graphically VA-11 Hall-A has some extremely detailed pixel art characters. While there aren’t many environments in the game, the ones that are here are well detailed and beautiful. The developers clearly knew the music in the game was good, by giving the player the chance to fine tune their own playlist on the jukebox. I loved this little feature and found a few favorite tracks in the sea of music, but they are all pretty great.
The Nintendo Switch version of the game takes advantage of the console’s rumble HD Joy Con by using them to signify the speed of which a drink is being mixed. This game is great on the go, but it is a bit on the dark side which doesn’t always work well with the Switch’s screen in daylight. However, taking this adventure on the go with me with some headphones was always a commute well spent.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action has some amazing moments of storytelling where the player learns about dozens of characters as well as the main protagonist over the course of a 10-hour story. The system of using drinks to connect with characters which then branches the path of the narrative felts so seamless as I went through the game for the first time. This is a game where each conversation serves a purpose to expose something about Jill, the customer, or Glitch City, which makes the immersion into the world easy.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is one of those ‘marathons, not a race’ type of games and approaching the game with that in made will provide the best overall experience. The casual nature and lack of any real antagonist, other than not having enough money to pay rent, was confusing at first, but after I became more comfortable with the flow of the game, I sat back, relaxed, and got to personally know the citizens of Glitch City over a drink.
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