VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action Review -- A Hip Flask of the Human Condition
DISCLAIMER: This review will be SPOILER-FREE. Enter with confidence.
I'm so glad that I finally get a chance to talk about VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action. Developed by Venezuelan developer Sukeban Games and recently brought to PlayStation Vita thanks to publisher Wolfgame, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel/bartending simulator set in a fascinating Cyberpunk future world.
VA-11 HALL-A is a narrative-driven game loaded with compelling human themes as well as radical cyberpunk storytelling. It's a game that prioritizes narrative and characters over gameplay, letting the writing take up most of the screentime, and allowing the minimal gameplay to simply function well and exist mainly to serve the story it's telling.
Originally released in 2016, the game was only recently ported to the PlayStation Vita, introducing some slight differences, which gives people like me an excuse to talk about it again. So, is VA-11 HALL-A so good of a narrative game that it's worth playing again on a handheld? Is it a game that's worth your time at all if you aren't into this kind of "interactive story" sort of game?
Pull up a seat and we'll discuss it. There's a three-drink minimum.
What's in a game?
I'd like to start off this review by addressing the talking point people have brought up regarding whether or not VA-11 HALL-A is really a game or not. This sort of debate tends to come up with games like this (or Gone Home or The Stanley Parable), which emphasize storytelling over gameplay.
To me, in order to be a game, something must have a win condition and a lose condition, the exact definitions of which are up to interpretation. In the case of VA-11 HALL-A, while it's very hard to truly "lose" the game, it is possible to get what the creators call a "good ending" and a "bad ending," which, to me, constitutes both success and failure. So in my mind, VA-11 HALL-A is definitely a game.
Sex, Dogs, and Rock and Roll
VA-11 HALL-A is loaded with intriguing dialogues about a variety of topics, ranging from sensationalist media, racism, mental illness, human augmentation, drugs, family, love, fear of the future, sex (there's quite a lot about sex), and so on.
If this dialogue makes you uncomfortable, then this might not be the game for you. This stuff isn't constant, but it's very prevalent.
You play as Jill, the bartender working at the BTC-certified chain bar VA-11 in Hall-A, commonly referred to as Valhalla, which is tucked away in a corner in one of the seedier parts of the dystopian cyberpunk setting of Glitch City. The game's story isn't about the city or the world but rather our main character Jill and the many clients she encounters over the course of most of a month during the Mega-Christmas season.
The writing is the most prominent and noteworthy aspect of this game -- which should be expected from a visual novel -- but the gameplay isn't bad either. Your main goal -- as well as the core gameplay -- is to mix drinks in accordance with orders you receive from customers, making sure to carefully read the instructions and get it right. Depending on the situation, you can decide to make a drink bigger or stronger, which can lead to different dialogues and even different story arcs, making every drink in some way matter in terms of overall plot progression.
Some people don't seem to like this game's writing, and a lot of those people say it's because they don't think the characters speak very realistically. To some extent, I can see the validity of their argument. While the characters in VA-11 HALL-A are definitely unique and well fleshed-out, most of the dialogue that comes out of them doesn't exactly sound like average, everyday conversation but rather more like well-composed arguments and anecdotes a lot of the time.
But for me, this isn't a big issue. While it's true that a great deal of VA-11 HALL-A's dialogue doesn't sound all that natural, a fair bit of it still does, and it's always cleverly written, cleverly delivered, and -- perhaps most importantly -- consistent in its quality. Every character in VA-11 HALL-A -- whether you like them or not -- is consistently written whenever they're on screen. You never see a writing discrepancy that makes you think, "That character wouldn't do that," which makes the cast feel alive and often sympathetic, even if they don't always talk like real people.
What really helps the cast come to life is the wonderful presentation. VA-11 HALL-A is a game meant to visually emulate old PC-98 games, and it does so very well, using gorgeously drawn and emotive character sprites in addition to a color palette that's equal parts bright and colorful and cool and muted. The music is just as diverse, with a variety of original tracks (including a few remixes) that range in mood from calm to frantic, all of which the player can pick out and make a playlist of on the bar's jukebox before the start of every in-game shift. All of these elements help to make the whole experience feel more immersive, and it draws you in quickly and keeps a tight hold on you.
It also helps that this game can be flat-out hilarious. I laughed constantly while playing through the game, even when doing it for a second time for this review, and I was smiling throughout most of my time with it. It covers all the comedy bases from sight-gags, to puns, to serious jokes and childish jokes, as well as a number of truly dark or perverted jokes (sometimes both) that will leave your mouth hanging open -- all done with expert timing and just the right amount of seriousness for each situation.
Rad Shiba is the best dog. I will fight you on this.
While it excels at comedy, VA-11 HALL-A as a whole isn't afraid to paint with the whole palette of the human experience. The game isn't afraid to be dark or serious when it needs to be, and it pulls this off really well, often creating a great deal of anxiety or tension as you worry for a character you haven't heard from for a while being alone out there in the big, cold world.
Whether it's Dorothy pushing the boundaries of comfort and making you laugh with stories of her life as a robot sex-worker, hearing more rumors about the origin of your boss Dana Zane's robot arm, or speculating where your co-worker Gillian goes most nights, there's always something interesting going on and some story arc developing. The bartender angle is seriously a perfect approach to organic storytelling, as you're always hearing different news and opinions from regulars as well as one-timers, and you're slowly piecing together the world's story and your own.
The game does an amazing job of using little more than its writing and a variety of unique characters to paint a picture of a truly fleshed-out fictional world that feels alive, all with maybe a dozen different screens and less than half as many locations. VA-11 HALL-A's excellent writing allows it to create a world more real and expansive than the biggest outer space skyboxes that AAA money can buy.
Differences With The Vita Version
This is a review of the recently released PlayStation Vita version of VA-11 HALL-A, which is mostly the same as the PC original but with a few noteworthy differences that might be worth knowing about if you're unsure about which version you'd like you pick up.
For the most part, Wolfgame has made what I consider to be an excellent port. The smaller screen on the Vita compared to an average PC monitor has been compensated for by cleaning up the user interface and reworking it slightly so that it fits in its new home, which I think was done neatly and efficiently.
The touchscreen controls working in tandem with the buttons and sticks works very well, and in many ways feels smoother than the original ever did. The visuals also haven't suffered either, as despite being on a much smaller screen, the backgrounds and sprites are all still wonderfully drawn and lively. In all honesty, I would have basically no reservations about calling the Vita version of VA-11 HALL-A the definitive version were it not for just one small difference between it and the PC version.
In both versions of the game you can select your playlist for the jukebox both at the start of your shift and after your break, so that's all the same, but one thing I was actually a bit saddened to see absent from the Vita version was the ability to shuffle through your selected songs during regular gameplay. In the PC version, you could skip between your selected songs, put one specific song on repeat, or even put your whole playlist on shuffle, which was a really cool feature that is unfortunately absent from the Vita version.
I reached out to the publisher of the Vita version, Wolfgame, in order to ask them about it. I asked if the live jukebox feature was present in the Vita version, and Wolfgame replied with "Not at this time." Their wording makes me think that maybe they're still trying to incorporate the feature into the Vita version (but that could also just be speculation), and if not, I won't hold them to it. It would nice to see it come in at a later date if possible, because with it included, the Vita version really might just be the definitive edition.
Not at this time.
— Wolfgame America (@WolfgameNA) November 8, 2017
Taking a Break From All Your Worries Sure Would Help a Lot
At the end of the day, VA-11 HALL-A isn't a perfect game on either PC or the Vita. The writing has its occasional bumps, the basic gameplay may flat-out bore some people, and it could have done a better job in certain places of conveying information relevant to progression to the player. But despite all that, I'm willing to forgive most its flaws, simply by its virtue of being one of the best narrative-driven games I've ever played.
While I don't want to spoil anything too specific, I will say that after a brief adjustment period to get used to the game's unique style and pacing, I was in love with VA-11 HALL-A. Its diverse cast of characters is one of my favorite that I've seen in video games, the graphics and stylistic presentation are phenomenal at evoking the tone and setting, the music is jammin', and even at its slowest, its story is more engaging than most I've played.
The gameplay may be basic, but it's just complex and variable enough to be engaging, opening up subtle options for the player in how they want the story to progress and how they want to interact with the fascinating world. I could go on about the game for a good while longer, but it really is just something you need to experience for yourself.
VA-11 HALL-A is a beautifully written, beautiful-looking, beautiful-sounding glimpse into an amazing world full of wonderful characters, and one that I can recommend to absolutely anyone who wants a game with a truly great story -- and even to people who aren't sure if it's for them. It's a world I'd love to live in, and one I know I'll be visiting again very soon.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is available now on Steam and PlayStation Vita. You can watch a trailer for the Vita version of the game below:
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Note: [Review copy for PlayStation Vita provided by Wolfgame.]