Like many other people in our modern world, I enjoy a stiff drink after a long week of work. While I don’t frequent bars anywhere near as much as I used to in my younger years, there’s something special about finding that one dive bar that has a bartender you like and an atmosphere that lets you relax and unwind.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a new visual novel for the PS4 that perfectly captures those feelings described above. You play as a bartender named Jill in the futuristic world of Glitch City. Unlike most visual novels, you won’t make decisions directly. Instead, your drinks will alter the lives of the people who consume them. Does this game serve up a tall glass of quality gaming, or is this drink missing a few ingredients? Let’s find out.
An Eclectic Cast of Fascinating and Flawed Characters
VA-11 Hall-A is a long name to write out, so those who work in the bar refer to it as “Valhalla.” You play as Jill, short for Julianne (but she hates it when people use her full name). She’s a young bartender just trying to figure out life like so many of us in the real world.
She struggles to pay rent, buys things to keep her happy and focused, and loves her job. While VA-11 Hall-A is set in a futuristic location called Glitch City, your view is limited to the backdrop of the bar as you mix drinks and converse with customers.
This focus on the people of the city keeps things interesting from the very beginning. In between your shifts at work you can read news articles on your phone to better understand the state of the outside world, and some characters will bring stories from the outside as well, but the majority of the focus is on characters.
This puts a lot of pressure on the game’s writing to keep you engaged, but thankfully there’s nothing to worry about here. VA-11 Hall-A has superb pacing and editing that keeps conversations moving forward while also injecting plenty of humor, suspense, and more than a few shocking or uncomfortable situations for good measure.
It results in a story that, despite being set in the far future, feels incredibly real. Talking corgis, sentient robots, and civil unrest doesn’t stop the brilliant characters in the game from feeling like someone you could easily meet in a local dive bar. Whether it’s the innocent looking robot sex worker, a relentlessly optimistic paramedic, or the vulgar editor from an online blog, you’ll never know exactly who is going to come through that door.
Even your boss, who Jill affectionately refers to as “Boss,” is shrouded in mystery, but also hilarious and empathetic to the needs of her staff. These people always have a story to tell or insight that will give you a deeper look into the world of Glitch City, so there’s never really a dull moment as the days go by.
Strong characters, smart pacing, and expert would building are at the heart of VA-11 Hall-A, but it’s when you add on the unique gameplay elements that the experience really comes into its own. While you’ll indeed spend most of your time clicking through text and dialogue, you’ll also need to mix up drinks when customers place orders.
The game has a recipe book ready for you at a moment’s notice, so the actual act of making the drink isn’t too difficult. You’ll use the analog stick to select and apply ingredients before choosing to age the drink or put it on the rocks. Mixing is a careful balance, because you’ll need to stop the process early for a mixed drink, while a shaken one requires you to wait longer.
Recipes are straightforward, but they have some flexibility in regards to making standard drinks or “big” drinks (which often include doubling the ingredients). Some drinks are already “big” if they have more than 10 ingredients total.
Messing up a drink will simply show a broken image with gibberish text, allowing you to dump it and start from scratch. You won’t be timed, so there’s plenty of room to stop and think about what you’re doing.
Where things get interesting is when you have to decide what to serve a customer who gives you a vague order. For example, some customers may ask you for something bitter, something sweet, or just their usual.
To get all of VA-11 Hall-A’s endings you’ll need to always serve the correct drinks, making it key that you listen and learn about your customers. The aforementioned recipe book also includes categories for different types of drinks to push you in the right direction.
The mechanics all work very well. I will say that, on occasion, the ingredient selection would slip up and I would put the wrong ingredient in a glass, which simply meant that I needed to start over, but it doesn’t happen very often once you’ve gotten a hold on the selection process.
It all comes together to create a visual novel that fires on every cylinder. The excellent characters, the fun drink mixing mechanics, and the ability to shift the story based on the drinks you provide all offer an experience that welcomes both veterans of the genre, and those looking for a fun, engaging, and relevant story.
A Near-Perfect Mix of Retro and Futuristic Styles
VA-11 Hall-A has a style that effortlessly mixes a retro look with a futuristic color palette and detailed character models. The game also allows you to select music tracks each day and load up a soundtrack based on your favorite songs.
Honestly, I loved every song in the soundtrack, which combines smooth electronic beats with jazzy synths and upbeat tempos. In the end, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a game that sits among the best in the visual novel genre.
You’ll fall in love with the characters, you’ll enjoy hearing their stories, and you’ll lose yourself in everything it has to offer. Games are often about escapism, about leaving your problems behind for a brief moment so you can enjoy the world someone else has created.
While Glitch City has its fair share of problems, and the people aren’t all innocent, their stories will captivate you from beginning to end. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to mix up a drink and dive back in to get the rest of those endings.
Final Score: 9.0/10
A copy of VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 5/20/19