It’s time to make drinks and change lives.
It’s not every day that a game manages to come out of nowhere, shake you up and completely surprise you in what it provides and in 2016 for me this game was VA-11 HALL-A: A Cyberpunk Bartender Action game brought to us by Sukaban Games & published by Ysbryd Games and released onto steam in June 2016 with an apparent Vita release to come.
VA-11 HALL-A is a small bar in dystopian downtown which attracts the oddballs and peculiar people from the city from Pretentious Jerks to Assassins to a Robot Sex Worker to even talking Dogs. Yes, talking dogs. Initially labelled as Waifu Bartending, you are cast as Jill, a female bartender with an affection for puns and an obsession with her badass boss and who forgone the option of working a 9 to 5 job to instead enjoy the alchemy of mixing drinks. The game is set entirely from her viewpoint with the actions and conversations between clients and co-workers shaping the world around them
Combining a visual novel with some slight brain teasers the game focuses on Jill’s nightly activity of simply mixing drinks and chatting the clients who enter there, there are no dialogue options in the game and instead dialogue options are triggered via the drinks you make for them, for example a client may ask for something vague and it’s simply up to you to make the right choice, this allows you to form a deep bond with the regulars who come in over the course of the game.
This game excels at its character development, nearly all of the characters who come in are interesting in their own way, even the dogs, yes, talking dogs and over the course of the fifteen or so hours you’ll form deep bonds with all of them and learn to care about them to the point that you’ll hope for some characters to come back more regularly while groaning when certain faces rear their faces again.
The setting of VA-11 HALL-A only works further in it’s favour by setting it in a Cyberpunk universe where despite some outlandish and weird characters they all make sense given the context we are in, it stands out from other titles as everything just seems to work, you don’t question why there is a Sex Robot or a company made out of talking dogs because it just makes sense, as the game continues you begin to learn more of the world outside of the bar.
The developers even base some characters off the ridiculous of this world, the talking dogs seem to harbour slightly racist tendencies as Corgis and some worry that other types of dogs will someday take their jobs, another character known as Streaming-Chan streams her life 24/7 including her most intimate moments. It adds a sense of realism to a lot of these characters and at times you genuinely wonder if some of these would frequent bars in real life.
Graphically the game defines itself with an aged retro Japanese adventure game look which means most, if not all computers shouldn’t have much issue with playing it. It may not be the one you pride to be running on your state-of-the art computer but it sets itself apart in how it looks, in a world where graphically intense games are in constant demanded it’s a fresh change of pace to have something that looks so different.
I could easily sing the praises of the game, however, unfortunately there are one or two issues with VA-11 HALL-A, one in that the game simply ends and with a lot of questions unanswered. It felt like it was cut short too early and rather than a great climax I was simply faced with a simple ending based on one of the choices I had made over the game (there are 6 endings), so personally I’m really hoping that more content will be patched in eventually. You aren’t going to save the world but you may help save a few friends.
While it is cut short it does mirror real life, sometimes people you’ve known for years simply disappear or you lose contact with them, and VA-11 HALL-A echoes that, you may never know what happens to some people because simply put you just don’t learn about them.
Another issue with the game is that over a long period of time (and this is the case for a lot of games) is that the game can feel a bit repetitive, although it is a game you could easily pace yourself with by playing a (in game) night every day until the game is over. It’s not a game to binge on until it’s complete but one to lose yourself with, instead sit down, have a few drinks and enjoy what the game offers.
With an amazing cast of characters that rival and exceed those in popular titles, VA-11 HALL-A is a fun, original, beautiful and even thought-provoking title that anyone who wishes to unwind with a relaxing title will love. I cannot recommend this one enough and is easily one of the finest titles to come out in recent years. Did I mention it has talking dogs?