Sometimes it’s hard to choose between a good book and a videogame. Thankfully VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a wonderful blend of interactivity and wonderfully deep narration.
You are Jules, a simple bartender at the titular bar. Here you will meet a whole host of quirky, wonderful, and colorful characters. On top of this, you will learn about the world in which you inhabit and how it differs from our own as we learn of its inhabitants and the social politics surrounding this alien Earth.
The beauty of VA-11 HALL-A is the world. Overall everything remains vastly mysterious as you haven’t yet been given exposition for ANYTHING AT ALL! Deep down under all the dialogue is copious amounts of lore. You occasionally receive snippets of world events of the past and what sorts of relevance they have in the overarching narrative playing out all around you, therefore, weaving quite the tale underneath the current events.
With all this narration comes the subject of social politics. In a world full of incredible technological advancements comes a whole host of issues. These come in the form of body augmentations, escort robots (seriously), riot control, and living in a police state. All this comes forward through the medium of the locals who frequent the humble hovel you call a workplace, and when you are outside of work you can check a couple of apps too, all found on your phone (we will get to that a little later).
Now onto the magical misfits that frequent VA-11 HALL-A. These oddballs range anywhere from honest, humble, narcissistic and naive. No two are alike in almost any way. Some seem to be quiet and retained until you get a few smacks of booze down their throats and that’s when you learn who they REALLY are. It’s through their intoxicated rants that you learn the level of depth truly put into creating such a marvelous world.
In terms of the gameplay of VA-11 HALL-A, I was genuinely unsure of what to expect. The majority of the gameplay that exists is just as you would expect from a game about being a bartender and that is mixing drinks for punters. The mixing of the drinks was honestly, a lot easier than I was expecting. You constantly have on hand a nifty little guide book on how to make every drink!
There was something, however, which I found disappointing. I was actually quite let down by the games leniency towards failure. You were able to fail repeatedly at a drink order until you were finally able to serve it. This may sound like a weird complaint but I found it took away from the immersion. Not only this but you could take as long as you wanted too.
It made the customers of VA-11 HALL-A seem like the most patient people to ever exist in the entire history of the universe. I wasn’t buying it. Especially as one of the first people you meet is the most arrogant man to grace the face of the Earth. The only thing which really had any impact of negative consequence was serving the entirely wrong drink, or one with or without ice which SLIGHTLY impacted your end reward. Unless you were a massive tool and decided to fuck up every order that is.
Outside of work you were subject to living out Jules’ personal life, which (like real life) had you sat in your room browsing the web and doing occasional bits of shopping to fulfill a void in your life which should really be filled emotionally and not on spontaneous and pointless purchases. Now THAT’S the level of reality I expect from video games! You can also check the news and find out all the current events which may have been touched upon by the NPC’s or vice versa helping you to weave together the tribulations which plague this familiar, yet alien, world.
VA-11 HALL-A is not only an astounding visual novel in both ways. The writing and dialogue are not only great but, thankfully, so is the visual style. The game is presented in beautiful pixel art form with close-ups of NPC’s being extremely detailed. The choice fits the Cyberpunk category as it helps to make things feel like its more of a retro-futuristic feel as opposed to one or the other. It really sends off old school sci-fi vibes and reminds of Blade Runner and Total Recall in aesthetic.
On top of all this comes a few hours worth of glorious soundtrack. VA-11 HALL-A has such a huge range of songs to choose from its overwhelming. The worst part is being only able to pick twelve to listen to whilst serving up drinks. As much as this allows you to pick your favorite, it does mean that it can take a while to listen to them all which is a shame because every piece (that I managed to listen to) was a blast and really helps to set the mood of the bar whilst remaining up-tempo and entertaining.
VA11 HALL-A doesn’t feel like it has much reason to replay (other than those boss ass tunes it’s packing). Dialogue choices were only altered if you made a boo-boo on making a drink or not buying Jules whatever the hell she was eyeing up but this really only caused you to ‘get distracted’ which meant missing out on parts of the lore found within.
Overall I did enjoy VA-11 HALL-A though I did have my reservations when it came to gameplay. Thankfully though, as a visual novel it excels, with amazing retro graphics and lore with incredible depth, it is very easy to get lost in the problems which plague this dystopian marvel. It is definitely one for those with patience however as it is heavily dialogue based and the pace isn’t exactly supersonic.