VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action Review -- Pour Me Another
Whenever a great evil rises in a world, a hero usually rises to stop them. In times of disaster or despair, some salvation will be brought forth, providing salvation and happiness to all involved. For every alien invasion, dragon attack, evil wizard, conniving terrorist organisation or corrupt corporation, there will be a solution. Such is the way of most stories -- those of video games include -- and it’s often up to the player to fill the role of that solution.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (pronounced “Valhalla”) is not one of those stories.
For every hero that rises, they will interact with the beings of their world on their way to the conclusion of their plot. Every evil corporation will have subjects under their thumb. Every tyrant will have people living in fear beneath their reign. In theory, all of these people have their own lives, stories, and history that could easily be as interesting or expansive as that of the main character, were they given time to shine.
That is the ultimate aim of VA-11 Hall-A: to present a story about those other characters, focusing on their lives and their day-to-day existence in a world that is bizarre, different, and ultimately interesting compared to the world we players inhabit (Earth). And that is a goal that VA-11 Hall-A succeeds in wonderfully.
You take on the role of Jill, a woman living in a near-future cyberpunk dystopia called Glitch City, where she works as a bartender at VA-11 Hall-A -- or Valhalla as the locals call it. Resources in the city are scarce, shortages are common, corrupt corporations call the shots, and crime is everywhere. But all of this is beyond the scope of Jill’s existence; while some of it may concern her and cause her inconvenience, she’s just one regular citizen of the city trying to survive. There are no world saving goals or ambitions for her, she’s just trying to get the bills paid and make it through her life one day at a time.
The game plays primarily as a visual novel that focuses on Jill as she goes about her daily work at Valhalla. Whereas the typical visual novel will offer branching dialogue trees and allow the player to pick conversation options, however, the gameplay here instead comes from your drink selection. You mix the drinks from the ingredients on offer to suit the customer’s needs or requests, and depending on the drink you serve, the dialogue may end up changing drastically.
It’s a simple concept, but it’s strengthened by the characters that Jill will encounter on a day to day basis. Each one would be a big player or background character in other games, but here they are all fully fleshed out and detailed. The characters have their own histories, careers, personalities and quirks. They’ll interact with Jill -- or the other customers and characters they meet -- in their own way, and this may shift over time as the events of the story unfold. Some may just have small and infrequent appearances, but others will quickly become regulars and you’ll find yourself pouring their favourite drinks without even being prompted.
The level of writing on display is really quite masterful. While some characters can be abrasive or irritating, I found almost all of them to be enjoyable, and I was happy to listen and observe as they conversed with the rest of the cast. I quickly grew attached to many and was eager to learn more of them, and recurring characters often brought a smile when they popped in for a drink and a chat.
Most importantly, even the characters I started out hating the most turned out to have fascinating stories themselves, and I was caught off guard by how much my attitudes shifted towards liking them as their true selves came out. It encourages the player to take note of what’s being said, because even little details from idle comments can end up being quite important or lead to astounding revelations of character interconnectedness later.
Tones and moods shift very well at the whim of the writing, too. It’s not all just doom and gloom in Glitch City -- there are genuinely funny moments that had me laughing, and some incredibly heartwarming conversations and relationships on display too. The game never allows itself to become too heavy, with the occasional tongue-in-cheek reference to classic cyberpunk media or tropes, as well as self-deprecating jabs at VA-11 Hall-A's developers or sly nods to the player to keep things grounded.
This is just as well, because there are definitely some heavy themes and mature stories to be told here. Like all good characters, the ones Jill encounters all have some kind of trouble going on, ranging from issues with work and relationships, all the way to huge philosophical questions plaguing their existence. Some of these are unique to the setting, such as the woes of a surprisingly delightful and cheery robot sex worker, or the struggles of a private investigator chasing down a notable gun for hire.
Just as often, however, these can be the very real problems of our world too. People struggling with sexuality, or suffering from work related anxiety, or running from mistakes of the past, are given just as much weight and attention as the bigger issues.
To its immense credit, VA-11 Hall-A is not afraid to tackle any and all of these issues head on, often giving remarkably fair and unbiased views on the whole situation and making for a fascinating reading experience when it does. Many times it leaves both the characters and the player themselves noting just how simple and petty our problems can be at their core.
Jill herself is far from a blank slate for the player to project onto, either. She’s as much a real and interesting character as the customers, with her own traits, quirks, and history that will gradually come out as the story unfolds. As much as she plays the wise bartender role well, there is so much more to her. Just as the characters she encounters develop and grow, she develops and grows too, and watching her friendships blossom and her life progress is amazingly satisfying to behold.
And that’s the true triumph of Valhalla’s narrative. In a world full of cyborgs and AI, a world living in the wake of disaster and facing disasters to come, a world struggling under any and all problems a cyberpunk dystopia has to offer… the story feels human. The characters feel real.
Often, the characters we remember and tell stories about are the biggest heroes or the most dastardly villains. Yet here, Valhalla's characters are the ones who are often in the backdrop of these epic stories. Despite all that, their stories are just as meaningful and impactful as those of the most notable video game leads... perhaps more so!
Combine all of this excellent writing with a fantastic soundtrack that the player can arrange in the bar’s jukebox at their discretion, some gorgeously retro-inspired graphics and character images, and a very cozy and comfortable feeling atmosphere, and you have a real winner of a visual novel. I frequently found myself smiling or even tearing up at the events unfolding, and once I started playing I was so invested that I couldn’t stop. Once I finished playing, it was all I could think about until my next session. When the story was over, I was both satisfied and yet left wanting to replay it to find out more.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action will not be for everyone. Admittedly, there are times when the actual serving of drinks can grow repetitive or tedious, and any gameplay beyond those sections is mostly limited to reading through dialogue boxes, and using Jill's pay to furnish her apartment in between shifts at the bar. But there is a truly sensational story to behold and some deeply endearing characters to meet here if you’re willing to pull up a stool, have a drink, and listen to the tales of Valhalla.
I hadn’t saved the world. I didn’t fix the problems of the corrupt city, but I carved out a cozy niche for the characters to live comfortably in, and made their lives that much brighter. That’s all I truly wanted out of my time with it.
The game is available now for PC at most digital retailers, with releases for the PS Vita and iPad coming soon. You can visit the game’s website here. See you in the afterlife.