Video games based on the bartending industry are nothing new. Way back in the eighties for example I remember playing an arcade port of Tapper on my humble Amstrad CPC 464. In that game players controlled a moustached chap who had to serve pints of Budweiser to his thirsty patrons. The clientele were an impatient lot who would hurl you across the bar it you kept them waiting for too long. VA-11 HALL-A (which is text speak for Valhalla) isn’t as action packed given that it is a visual novel. The settings differ too. From what I recall Tapper took place in the old West whilst VA-11 HALL-A is a cyberpunk adventure set in a futuristic pub. Customers can include anything from artificial beings to humans who have nanobots coursing through their veins.
In VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action players assume the role of a lesbian bartender named Jill. To pay the monthly bills our carpet munching protagonist works at a tavern situated in the dystopian metropolis known as Glitch City. Much of the game involves conversing with customers and mixing up the beverages they request. How much income you generate is dependent on flawlessly dispensing orders, although there is some wiggle room to keep things interesting. Adding optional alcohol to a drink could loosen up someone’s tongue for example. Dialogue is also influenced by correctly deducing what a customer truly desires. That closeted chap who asked for a macho beer may actually prefer a girly cocktail instead.
Unlike other visual novels VA-11 HALL-A doesn’t have an overarching plot. What you get instead is a collection of short stories. Every customer who enters through the bar’s doors will regale you with a tale about their love life, offer titbits of information about the technologically advanced world you inhabit and more often than not they will wax lyrical about what a lousy day they are having. Interrupting the steady stream of text boxes are sequences were you are asked to mix a drink. The process involves dragging ingredients into a shaker and then selecting whether you want to add ice or age your concoction. My, how I wish that whipping up a tasty Mojito were that simple! Even pouring a Shandy is too complex for me, so thank goodness that a menu is provided detailing what components comprise the fictional range of drinks you need to make.
My rating for VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a four out of five. It’s a charming game blessed with sixteen-bit pixel art and an excellent soundtrack. The writing is strong and the moments of mixology are strangely relaxing. Perhaps the act of turning recipes into proper drinks could have benefitted from extra depth, but for what it’s worth they serve the purpose of adding some interactivity into what is mostly a book reading experience. Strategy comes in maximising your profit at work so Jill can meet her rent and utility payment deadlines. Spare cash can be spent on trinkets to decorate her modest apartment and gifts that will ensure she doesn’t lose focus during the course of a shift.
Like a good slice of life anime, VA-11 HALL-A is enjoyable because you’ll have fun spending time with its colourful cast of characters. Over the nineteen-day story Jill gets to interact with a one-eyed cat girl, an adorable android prostitute, the African American version of J Jonah Jameson and even talking corgis. Based on what I read I have no idea how the queen puts up with those annoying mutts! The script is amusingly packed with funny memes and can be emotional in parts too. Given the quality of the narrative and the fact that there are numerous endings to unlock I can certainly see myself returning to Glitch City at some point in the future. Sukeban Games have made their PC debut with an excellent release. I would gladly buy them a beer, for a job well done, but I better not as VA-11 HALL-A’s price list indicates that liquor can cost in excess of $200.