We’ve all witnessed the stereotypical scene where a bartender offers some poor shmuck comfort in the form of kind words and alcohol. It’s overly familiar, but also serves as a reminder that people don’t have to be world heroes for their stories to matter on a personal level. In fact, it’s this concept that serves as the crux of Sukeban Games’ VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, which puts the every-man in a place of importance.
I was welcomed to the post-dystopian Glitch City via cutscene. Technology has allowed for robots (or Lilim) to be happily integrated into society, nano-machines injected into each member of the population track their every movement, and it’s all ruled by a corrupted authority. No wonder people are looking for a bit of comfort in the form of a stiff drink and a friendly face at the local bar.
It’s up to Jill to provide this comfort, while working to pay her bills as a bartender at VA-11 HALL-A (but that’s a mouthful so everyone just calls it Vallhalla). As she made conversation with the different patrons who enter the bar, it was my job to supply the drinks. What I chose to serve actually affected the immediate conversation, how much money Jill got paid at the end of her shift, and how things would turn out at the end of the month. It’s a refreshing twist to the normal dialogue options; making Jill a person in her own right, instead of having her be a product of the player.
There isn’t really a running story per say, as everything is about the people who enter VA-11 HALL-A (making their on-going situations the key focus). If you do want something to cling onto, then mentions of the bar closing, and Jill’s past with her ex-girlfriend are probably the main points that the protagonist dwells on. Ultimately, though, the story shifts depending on who you serve the correct drinks to, so I’m going to leave the specifics pretty vague so that you can experience all of the journeys for yourself.
It’s difficult to find a good strategy to playing VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, as it’s not obvious as to what you’ve done right or wrong until the end. The only thing to really go by is listening to customers, remembering preferences, and (as a result) serving the correct drinks. The basics of mixing drinks is a simple matter of finding what you want in the menu (by name, type, flavour, or bottle) then dragging the required ingredients into the shaker. It’s also important to be aware of whether the drink needs to be on the rocks, aged, mixed, or blended, with extra factors like how much alcohol you include factoring into the customers’ reactions.
Making life awkward is the reality that people don’t always know exactly what they want. They may ask for a certain flavour, leaving you to remember what else they like from previous orders. Other times they know exactly what they want but choose to test you, such as asking for a drink based off their history. My favourite moments were when I needed to carefully judge a situation. For example, one guy asked for girly drinks then manly ones right after from embarrassment; I had to choose whether to get him the one he clearly wanted, or the one he asked for. The more I played, the easier it was to judge; rewarding myself with a little smug smile of satisfaction every time I got it right.
I have to admit that for all its charms, mixing the drinks can be tedious. People in Glitch City seem to require a new drink every few sentences, and dragging ingredients into the shaker for every part that needs to be included can get old really fast. When it came down to it, though, the more I played VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action the more investment I had in the drinks mechanic. It had just the right amount of depth to keep me on my toes, while only giving a small list of 24 drinks to choose from (not including some secretive extras).
You really will have all-sorts in your bar, from burly men with secrets and dogs forming a union, to a girl who livestreams her life 24/7. This constant stream of people can be overwhelming, as can all of the information you have to take in, and it all makes for a slow-paced game.
Going forward, I was surprised by how many newcomers kept turning up – even moreso when I realized there were some I hadn’t encountered due to my choice in drinks. I also never knew what information would be useful later, so I nearly started to make detailed notes in hopes for the good ending. Luckily, some of these only appear once or twice, while the focus stays on the regulars (although this can lead to moments of frustration when characters aren’t adding anything relevant).
The eclectic group never gave me any laugh out loud moments, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t smirk every now and then. That said, there was a surprising amount of casual talk involving breast sizes, and other more sexual content, that did feel a bit out of place at times. I generally preferred moments where characters finally opened up, or discussed deeper topics.
An interesting addition is the game’s money system. The better job Jill does, the more cash she gets, meaning that she occasionally treat herself in addition to paying her bills off. Grabbing whatever it is Jill wants at the end of each day means she’ll keep her focus during work, remembering what customers have ordered (and making your life a bit easier). Similarly, it’s possible to have a break from bartending by customizing Jill’s room and catching up on the local news.
After putting so much effort into remembering drink preferences, I was pretty relieved to get the good ending. There was nothing revolutionary there, story wise, but that didn’t make it any less impactful; matching the subtle tone. That said, certain regulars didn’t get enough love, despite the amount of time I spent with them. Perhaps follow-up playthroughs would sort out some of these issues for me, but I feel that the endings are likely kept pretty open.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is not about saving the world, or even the city that you’re a part of, but it is about making a difference in the lives of the people you meet. Even though I never made a dialogue choice, I felt connected to the characters, and really cared when some said “thank you.” It may not offer the most in-depth or challenging gameplay, but it makes time for people, character and charm.
This review is based off a PC copy of the game, which we were provided with.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action excels through relatable characters and stories that are worth listening to, even if its gameplay aspects can appear to be non-existent or tedious.