Over the years, video games allowed me to the opportunity to do many things I would never otherwise be able to do. I’ve gone to Mars, I became a murderous cyborg ninja, I was even Batman for a time. Now, the thing has gone full circle as with VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, a game where instead of blowing things up or saving innocent people – you serve drinks at the bar, listening to the patron’s stories. Bartenders are unsung heroes, serving alcohol late into the night and dealing with people and their problems.
Shaken, Not Stirred
What caught my attention about VA-11 HALL-A was not only the setting (a cyberpunk world serves as the backdrop) but the gameplay. Playing as Jill, the bartender at the dive bar VA-11 HALL-A or Valhalla, your job is to serve drinks to paying patrons and listen to their woes. Don’t expect explosions and don’t expect health bars. Instead, your focus is mixing drinks all the while talking to everyone that pops into the bar.
Jill lives in Glitch City, a technological metropolis akin to what you see in Blade Runner or even Demolition Man. Many signature cyberpunk (hence the subtitle!) themes appear, but those aren’t as important as what happens at the bar. Instead, those tropes serve as the backdrop for what really matters: being the bartender.
I’ll Have What She’s Having
Playing as Jill is fun. She has a schedule, so you wake up at your apartment, check out the news at home before heading back into work. Of you can customize your apartment with decorations. Or check the news, but I kept saving my money as it felt responsible. Each shift sees Jill serving her clientele drinks. Without going too much into spoiler territory, the patrons who stop for a drink at Valhalla, are really well written. On top of that, patrons end up being relatable with their problems, which drives Jill’s narrative path into some great places. By the end of my playthrough, I ended up heavily investing in Jill and the bar she works at.
Using a simple but effective UI, on screen is a catalogue of cocktails Jill can create. On the Nintendo Switch, the bonus of being touch capable allows for easier mixing. The basic idea is someone pops into the bar and orders a drink – you’ll have to grab the ingredients and mix the drink, but if you mix the drink for too long, the entire thing goes bad.
You’ll want to be paying attention to orders then, as being bartenders need great listening skills. Some drinks are of course, in the included recipe book but what about when you need to pay your bills? Serving drinks starts off relatively easy but when you must make money or learn your patron can’t handle their liquor, you need to act responsibly for them. Other times, if you ruin a paying customer’s order, the scene continues but you miss out on branching scenes and inevitably, the closing on certain character’s storyline.
My initial playthrough lasted roughly eight hours at my own pace. If you are inclined to continue, a New Game Plus option opens with your purchased items and money staying with you. If you missed out on a storyline the first go-around this is a great option to explore every possibility. There are also six possible endings from good to bad. It’s worth at least playing through a second time to see what ending you get.
If you enjoy breaks from big AAA titles, VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a wonderful reprieve. With a neat gameplay loop devoid of stress, and thoughtful, engaging characters who offer interesting insight into their lives, I finished this game wanting more of it. Sure, there is a lot of reading, but this is a visual novel offering a look at what an ordinary bartender deals with each day. The mechanics don’t need to be deep because the story is why I kept coming back to Glitch City’s dive bar.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]