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VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

Written by Sean Colleli on 5/1/2019 for SWI  
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About a year ago I reviewed Deconstructeam’s indie game The Red Strings Club. It was a point-and-click adventure game of sorts, about a ragtag group of misfits at the titular club, who tried to take down an evil corporation through a combination of hacking and social engineering. The most interesting aspect of the game was the middle act, where you played as a bartender who plied his patrons with various drinks to loosen their lips and glean privileged information about the corporation.

I liked Red Strings Club, for the most part, but it was a touch heavy-handed with the developers’ preferred politics and while the bartending/conversational minigame was the best part of the game, it was over far too quickly. I understood why—conversations are naturally difficult to write, so as much as I wanted a whole game based around mixology and fascinating talks with denizens of the cyberunk underworld, I didn’t think it was in the cards.

Lo and behold, a completely different game released by a completely different team about a year earlier than Red Strings Club ended up giving me exactly what I wanted, and more. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t hear about Sukeban Games and their indie hit VA-11 HALL-A until the Nintendo Switch port was announced, but damn am I glad I jumped on the bandwagon. What this tiny team has accomplished is nothing short of astonishing, and I really wish I had known about it earlier; I would have thrown all kinds of money at their Kickstarter, or at least bought the game on both Steam and GOG. I hope I can rectify my oversight by at least giving the game a fair review on Switch.

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action has an intriguing genesis. It began life as a game jam project by three developers working out of Venezuela. Without wandering into the controversy-laden weeds of international politics, I’m pretty sure it’s fair to say that Venezuela is not the nicest place in the world to live and work right now. Sukeban wanted to make a game that expressed what it’s like to live in a third world country, by setting their game in the sidelines of an oppressive cyberpunk society. They wanted to explore the lives of side characters in movies; the people who aren’t the heroes, but the ones you glimpse for mere moments in the background. These people have their struggles as well, and Sukeban wanted a game that explored the troubled lives of marginalized people on the fringes of society.

This Venezuelan philosophy of “laughter in the middle of despair” is at the core of VA-11 HALL-A. You play as Jill, a woman who took a job as a bartender at the franchise bar VA-11 HALL-A to escape some unwise decisions she made a few years ago. At her day (or rather night) job, Jill has access to several synthetic ingredients that she can mix into a multitude of cocktails, shooters and even run-of-the-mill drinks like beer. One of these ingredients is essentially pure ethanol, allowing her to vary the strength of a drink, while the other ingredients determine the flavor and style of the drink. Some drinks need to be aged or call for added ice, and some can be blended. The gameplay on offer is extremely chill; there’s no time limit and Jill can always dump a drink and restart before serving it, so you’re never completely committed to a mistake. A frantic time management game this is not, which is probably why my wife enjoys watching it, but not playing it.

Character interactions are the meat and potatoes of VA-11 HALL-A and they are completely dependent on the drinks you serve to each guest. There are no dialogue trees so what you serve is ultimately what guides the path of conversation. Early on patrons will tell you exactly what they want, so it’s as simple as looking up their drink of choice in the recipe book and mixing it up. Later on though some customers will be indecisive, cagey or just plain stubborn, which gives you some leeway in what you serve them. Paying attention to your regulars means that you’ll often know what they want better than they do. For example, serving something light and fruity to a girl who insists she wants to get hammered—but really shouldn’t be right now—can brighten her mood and strengthen her friendship with Jill. This in turn nets you better tips, but more importantly it will make customers more comfortable talking to you, so you ultimately learn a lot more of the story.

And the story is what VA-11 HALL-A is really all about. If you don’t click with these characters and this setting immediately you won’t like this game, but wow, it is supremely easy to like these characters. VA-11 HALL-A takes place in Glitch City, an insular tax haven for mega-corporations and corrupt businessmen. It’s ruled by a despot named Quincy, the streets are patrolled by the brutal White Knight police state, and nearly all citizens are infected with a nanobot plague that makes it impossible for them to leave. You learn all of this tangentially though, just by talking with average people struggling to survive in this mundane cyberpunk nightmare. VA-11 HALL-A feels a lot like a Neil Stephenson novel; things aren’t explicitly spelled out, but you pick up the lingo and culture as you immerse yourself in the story.

For example, androids called Lilim exist in the world of VA-11 HALL-A, and one of Jill’s regulars is a flirtatious Lilim sex worker named Dorothy. Through talking to her you learn that Lilim gained independence and legal protection after years of fighting for their rights. What’s more, Dorothy is highly independent and upbeat about her work; she can defend herself and takes pride in what she does, so the game does a good job of subverting the Westworld sex slave narrative that I was worried I could see coming a mile away. Dorothy is a fascinating and multilayered character that you can learn a lot about, if you take the time to get to know her.

And every single character is like this. One of Jill’s most trusted friends is an assassin, a guy who comes in, orders a beer, and will open up about his own code of ethics vis a vis killing people for money, as long as you hear him out and don’t judge him too harshly. Your first customer is the editor in chief of a trashy clickbait rag, and while he’s naturally scummy and reprehensible, at times you can’t help but sympathize with the man as his bluster and ego are clearly a smokescreen to hide just how miserable he is doing his worthless job. Two more regulars are members of the dreaded White Knights, but you quickly realize these two women are a couple of the rare good ones who just want to protect people. When a crisis puts one of the White Knights’ safety in doubt, her partner agonizes over what she could have done, and as Jill to you can serve her drinks to lift her spirits or send her into a bottomless depression spiral. How she rides out her guilt and doubts depends entirely on what you pour for her. I was on the edge of my seat for a couple levels.

Jill herself is a refreshingly normal, yet tragic enigma. Through regular dialogue it comes out that she’s bisexual, and the game makes absolutely no big deal about this. It’s just another aspect of who she is, and the important part is how her past relationships panned out. After hours of living in this woman’s shoes, when I found out what she was running from, and what running eventually cost her, it just about tore my heart out. A lesser game would act preachy about this and wear its bleeding heart on its sleeve, but not VA-11 HALL-A. Its understated, even-handed delivery makes the pain, grief and hope of each character land with that much more profoundly. By letting you into each character’s lives and vulnerable moments, instead of beating you over the head VA-11 HALL-A makes Jill and every other character feel like real people. Their sexualities or disabilities or even scifi powers aren’t flashing neon signs put there to grab your attention and lecture to you. A character’s sexual orientation is just one aspect of his or her unique personality, just as important as their flaws, their virtues and motivations.

There’s a beautifully understated sense of wry humor to VA-11 HALL-A, once again I think strongly influenced by the studio’s Venezuelan heritage. Between shifts Jill can read the aforementioned clickbait rag and an in-game Reddit parody to keep up on the happenings in Glitch City, which gives you even more flavor for this cyberpunk dystopia. There are tons of little winking details in here; references to old games, pro wrestling, anime and other nerd and otaku culture. It’s clear that the Sukeban team weathered their difficult childhoods by escaping into the geek-o-sphere and that affection from where they came from, from VA-11 HALL-A’s 16-bit PC-98 aesthetic to the thinly veiled Sailor Moon ripoff that Jill remembers fondly. It’s obvious that they wanted to inject that love and fondness into their own game. A lot of indie games these days are condescending or outright insulting to the nerd community—something I just don’t understand at all—but it’s clear that Sukeban know their roots and have a reverence and appreciation for the games, shows and films that inspired them.

This reverence reverberates throughout every aspect of VA-11 HALL-A. The aforementioned graphics are strongly evocative of 90s point-and-click adventures, but have their own warm, neon-dripping cyberpunk edge that’s all their own. You see most of VA-11 HALL-A from over the bar top, which is an admittedly limiting perspective, but each character and their minimalist animation beat with the heart of distinctive retro-futurism. And don’t even get me started on the soundtrack. Before each shift Jill can load up a dozen tunes on the bar’s jukebox, and somehow no matter how you stack the playlist it always reflects the game’s mood. The soundtrack is simply phenomenal, but in a subdued, moody way; just like everything else in this game. Don’t be surprised if you find various songs stuck in your head for weeks on end.

There is honestly a lot more I could write about VA-11 HALL-A, but all of that would give away its incredible storytelling, which is more or less the whole point of the game. It really is unlike anything else out there, Red Strings Club included, and in terms of bartending and storytelling it far exceeds anything in that game. To sum up, let me paraphrase a Steam review I read for this game: “I bought VA-11 HALL-A on sale, and after playing it, I felt bad and wish I could go back and pay full price for it. Think about that.”

Endlessly stylish, emotionally gripping and deceptively addictive, VA-11 HALL-A is the pure essence of a visual novel: a digital page-turner filled with unforgettable characters and set in an infectious cyberpunk noir that will live in your head for weeks after you’ve put the game down.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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