Review: VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

By Sam Quirke, 2 months ago
Whenever I step into a bar or pub in a videogame, I wish I could stay there. I want to grab a drink with my dungeon party, or see what the local neo-noir security forces are like off-duty. Sadly in most games the drinking hole is a side show to your main quest, a place to get a couple of lines of basic information on a case or pick up some alchemic ingredients. VA-11 HALL-A presents an opportunity to escape the usual formula and kick back with the regulars — by placing you behind the bar in a cyberpunk metropolis.

VA-11 HALL-AVA-11 HALL-A

VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel of sorts, which may put some players off if they have tried to get into various examples of the genre over the years. Luckily VA-11 HALL-A doesn’t go to the same wordy extremes. There’s no labyrinthine plot here, nor are there reams and reams of text to get through. Instead, it presents itself more like Papers, Please; you are working a somewhat menial job and you are building a picture of a world beyond your simple booth via the stories of those who drop by. This is a game all about characters and relationships, and it just happens to be part of an intriguing cyberpunk universe that presents itself to you in scraps of rumours, gossip and alcohol-soaked pity parties.

This is the only view you get of Glitch City, but it's more than enough.This is the only view you get of Glitch City, but it's more than enough.

The game excels at this simple approach to world-building. Glitch City is much more interesting than other cyberpunk worlds in gaming because you never see it; you live it through the lives of others. What makes it so charming is being the local bartender with her own list of problems. As new patrons become regulars the relationship grows stronger, and more character shows through on both sides of the bar. The dialogue is for the most part snappy and believable, particularly among the carousel of regulars. The protagonist bartender leans a little too much into melodramatic hyberbole when she talks about herself though – she’s possibly the least likeable of the bunch, though she still has her interesting moments.

It’s not just reading text, either; the game revolves around you serving drinks to these curious people. It’s a cyberpunk world so naturally you are operating a kind of automated drinks dispenser ripped out of an 80s graphic novel. The gameplay is simple ingredients-matching, and the only difficulty is in reading the recipe and making sure to follow it. There’s only five possible ingredients, two methods of mixing and an option for ice or ageing, so it’s hard to go too wrong. Occasionally patrons will ask you to help them choose based on their flavour preferences, but even that’s not too difficult given that each drink in the menu is accompanied by three descriptors. One fun wrinkle is if you fail to buy protagonist Jill something specific from the store before each shift; she will lose “focus”, which means that she won’t remember the specifics of the customer’s order while in the mixing screen. It’s also fun to replay scenes in which you add more alcohol into the patrons’ drinks, leading to different results.

Dorothy is a Lilim, Glitch City's variant on the usual android trope.Dorothy is a Lilim, Glitch City's variant on the usual android trope.

The art design is a very pretty but typical throw-back to PC-98 graphics mixed with the usual anime fare, helped immensely by a fun and airy synth soundtrack that has now found its way onto my personal playlist. The individual character design is intriguing and mercifully free from stereotypical skimpy outfits. That doesn’t mean sexuality isn’t a big part of the game, but for the most part the subject is handled surprisingly maturely. Denizens of this bar, on both sides of the cash register, are pretty open about their experiences in a city that clearly has an open-minded idea of sexual relationships. Unfortunately there are some troublesome spots – there’s a male-gaziness in the fact that the women of this world seem to constantly discuss their breast sizes – but on the whole the frankness of the conversations paints a genuinely interesting picture of the sexual and gender culture of this futuristic town.

Unlike Papers, Please, the narrative doesn’t build to a dramatic showdown of any sort – even the tense political goings-on beyond the bar never fully explode at the finish, and neither does the underlying hacktivist threat lead to a final dramatic stunt. In fact the nearest equivalent moments spike right in the middle of the game, leaving the game’s finale to wrap up the bartender’s personal tale of sorrow. If you play the game well and listen carefully you can also end up getting sweet additional endings for each of the regular patrons; there’s even some hidden crossover with 2064: Read Only Memories and YIIK if you’re hunting for easter eggs. Ultimately, the pay-off is satisfying because it’s personal. As a result we get a much more human and even realistic window into life in a cyberpunk universe than we might with a more blockbuster approach. Because of its modesty, VA-11 HALL-A is easily one of the most accessible and satisfying visual novels on the market for a genre beginner.

One of the most fun aspects of the game is charting the course of Jill's adorable crush on her boss.One of the most fun aspects of the game is charting the course of Jill's adorable crush on her boss.

Speaking of easter eggs, you will need to find them all to finish off the game’s trophy list. On the whole the list isn’t too difficult, especially if you follow a guide which will point out all of the secret actions to take to reach the additional characters and endings. You will need at least a partial second playthrough to reach two different endings and unlock all the cosmetic items, and unfortunately you will also have to beat a fairly irritating shmup to conquer in a hidden mini-game.

Summary

VA-11 HALL-A is a great primer for the world of visual novels on PlayStation. With a cute and eclectic cast of characters, a simple gameplay loop that fits the game world and a thoughtful take on the usual philosophical debates of cyberpunk, VALL-11 HALL-A never outstays its welcome and stays fun all the way to the finish. There are some hiccups in dialogue quality throughout, but on the whole these are forgivable in a game with a lot of heart. It’s a memorable tale in a memorable world, and we’re glad that a sequel is on the horizon.
4 / 5
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 10 hours serving drinks and changing lives, earning 27 of the game's expected 34 trophies. A PlayStation 4 code was provided by the publisher for this review.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been gaming long enough to know the pain of a failed DOS install on the fifth floppy disc. When not hopelessly lost in the latest open-world epic, Sam is busy devouring books of all genres or trading Pokémon with his wife.