VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action by Sukeban Games had an interesting road to us. Starting with a game jam, the original had such broad approval that Sukeban invested the time and resources to make it into a full game. At its core it’s a visual novel, however its main method of storytelling and its decidedly retro gaming presentation gained it a cult following during its development. So, the expectations were a little high as it got closer and closer to release day.
To be fair to the title it was not unearned. Just the prologue version was a solid and unique game, so any extra work put into it promised to yield excellent results. As you can probably tell, I am very excited to dive into this one and I’m not going to waste a lot of time with the pleasantries. Let’s mix drinks and change lives with VA-11 HALL-A.
The year is 207X in the independent city-state of Glitch City. Here, free from national laws and regulations, powerful corporations and criminals reign supreme with the common person squeaking out an existence. One such person is Jill: one of the bartenders for VA-11 HALL-A. She serves all types in her time at VA-11 HALL-A, but this year, this Christmas, will bring the best and worst out of her regulars…and maybe even herself.
No true discussion of VA-11 HALL-A can start without first acknowledging the various references and shout-outs. VA-11 HALL-A has its roots in a lot of 80s and 90s ephemera that shows not only with the game’s aesthetic, but also in its homages to media properties like Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Bubblegum Crisis, Macross, Metal Gear Solid, Die Hard, Blade Runner (which Bubblegum Crisis is an homage for, but that’s another story for another day), and Ghost in the Shell just to name a few. You also get shouts outs to current day gaming culture and figures such as Christine Love and Jim Sterling. Usually having a narrative this packed to the brim with references, homages and in-jokes can get a little awkward. Unfortunately for VA-11 HALL-A, that’s exactly what happens.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t any history or backstory here. Glitch City is dripping with background and history, but there is no disconnecting the oldtaku nostalgia from the main narrative. In fact, without it, there wouldn’t be a story here at all. That will make or break most of the audience, in my opinion. If you either didn’t grow up with this stuff or you want the game to focus more on its original cast instead of its cavalcade of references in fandoms, you will either ignore or not care about the plot. And even then, you can absolutely love the game and still ignore the plot in favor of the fast booze, quips and general fun of so many cyberpunk thematic threads in a single world.
So that begs the question, what is the story here? For that, we should look at our protagonist: Jill Stingray.
Jill is something of a mystery for most of the game. A bit of a smartass, she seems trapped in a job she doesn’t exactly hate, but one that is only barely getting her by. Her approach to her strained financial situation is what can only be described as indifferent hedonism. Her job at the center of most of the cyberpunk insanity keeps her from having to dwell on her situation too much, and in the rare moments of downtime we never get any internal monologues. She is simply too busy finding moments to get caught up in to care and when we do begin to peel back her character, we see her indifference is born from someone running from her past as fast as she can until it finally catches up with her.
This character arc should sound familiar because it mirrors another great cyberpunk protagonist: Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel. It’s an interesting case of a similar character being cast in two different lights. The big difference is that Spike’s past leads him towards nihilism: not even fully confident in his own existence in a world where life is cheap. As his past catches up to him, reconciliation can only end in death, since he doesn’t even fully accept that he survived the events of said past.
Jill’s past, at the very least, gives her an out. While Spike’s nihilism could only lead to an end where he accepted his death, Jill’s hedonism gives her the opportunity to come to terms with her past. It’s an admittedly interesting turn that doesn’t go as deep as it could, but does give our main girl some new dimensions in the latter half of the game. That, in turn, allows for the rest of the cast to react and gain some dimensions for themselves: especially her Boss, Dana Zane, and her friend(?) Alma Amas.
Most of the cast gets their fair share of time to gain depth. Even minor characters like Rad Shiba and Dorothy (whose fanbase continues to shock me…although it probably shouldn’t) get enough time in the spotlight to get fleshed out. Their character development adds to the overall fabric of Glitch City; feeding a massive narrative about life in one of the most popular narrative backdrops of all time. For me, that was the biggest draw story wise. As much as I enjoyed seeing Jill come face-to-face with her past, it’s the fact that she’s one small piece of a much larger puzzle that keeps the story fascinating.
Ultimately, despite the plethora of cyberpunk references and in-jokes, VA-11 HALL-A is a story about day-to-day life. I would be lying if I said it offered anything wholly original, but its structure and using every character and reference it can to give Glitch City a life and internal narrative unique to it stands heads and shoulders about the roughly one-hundred and fifty trillion small Japanese town clones we get in most visual novels. My only regret is that no one story, even the story that was the key focal point of the game, makes full use of its tools.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
While the story is good but also slightly underwhelming, VA-11 HALL-A is an absolute master class when it comes to artistic ambition. That is saying a lot about a game where you spend 90% of your time in the exact same location and a good chunk of that praise goes to the pixel art. It looks great on its own and gives the cast a unique feel that couldn’t have been accomplished with a straightforward 2D style: both for manga style and Western style. Beyond how it looks though, it also gives a VA-11 HALL-A a sense of timelessness and nostalgia that is rare for gaming.
Because of changing technology, audience preference and developer vision, most games (include visual novels) are damned to forever be a product of their time. Even games that tries to evoke a nostalgic feeling by using gameplay or design elements from an older generation can come off as false thanks to it being made outside of that time. Let’s put it like this: a 2D fighter made today might be able to evoke the timelessness of 2D fighters made twenty years ago because of the art style. However, once you play it, that sense is gone. Some of it’s the change in how art is produced for the game, and some of it is just in the evolution of the technology running the product: meaning you won’t play it exactly you played the ones from your childhood.
Wow that was a wild tangent…luckily, I remember my point.
VA-11 HALL-A approached its presentation and design trying to bring as much authenticity to its presentation as possible. From the designs themselves to the color pallet, it all perfectly evokes how a game would’ve looked pre-Windows 95. The only thing that takes you out of it is, well, the music but we’ll get into it. For now, the approach to visual presentation works very well and makes the bar as relaxing as hopefully the room you’re playing the game in.
One interesting visual note is the user interface. Apart from the opening and ending scenes, the player is never out of a UI screen. There is done for two reasons. The first is to cement the feeling of nostalgia I talked about earlier. Pre-Windows 95, most computer games looked exactly like the VA-11 HALL-A window. It’s a relatively small touch, but one that is important to making the game feel authentic to the nostalgia it wants to connect to. And, as I note in previous reviews, I always love it when these types of small touches are used so well.
Now, the music. Let me be clear from the offset, VA-11 HALL-A has one of the best original soundtracks in gaming right now and easily one of the best visual novel soundtracks made. Michael Kelly (AKA Garoad) went above and beyond to create two OSTs for VA-11 HALL-A that enters the rarified air of being just as good on its own as it is in-game: especially my two favorite tracks Karomtrine Dream and A. Rene. And here is where I pause and applaud Black Screen Records for bringing this fantastic set of music to vinyl. The first pressing has already sold out and that is a testament to the quality of music here. Whenever they open pre-orders back up, and if you have the means to play vinyl and you follow this small corner of the Internet, you owe it to yourself to get a pre-order.
There is, however, one tiny flaw here that is in no means the fault of the composition. There are some tracks in Second Round (OST #2) that are just updated versions of tracks from of Sounds from the Future (OST #1). I understand the rationale behind this as one was created for a game jam I believe and the other for a full, commercial release. However, the decision to include both OSTs in the same game can create a feeling that the soundtrack repeats itself: especially since the player controls the jukebox in the bar and that makes it easier to block four or five similar tracks together.
This is definition of ‘too much of a good thing’. I realize the developers can’t predict every player choice, especially with something as subjective as musical tastes. However, they do have ears and had to realize it could be a possibility that their soundtrack sounds repetitive under certain circumstances. To that end, it may have been a better idea to keep the OSTs separate to their own games. But, to be fair, it’s the least critical point I have in the entire review.
Now, let’s talk about the biggest draw: the gameplay.
VA-11 HALL-A features a simple to learn, difficult to master bartending system. Essentially, you have a database of drinks to choose from and the challenge is both getting the order right and getting it down quickly. This also doubles as the dialogue system for the game as your abilities behind the tap will determine how the conversations go. It’s a brilliant social system marrying the entire idea of a bar and the atypical visual novel conversation structures: making something that is often janky and distorted into something natural.
During a livestream with English-born Chris Tenarium, I said in the chatroom that you will eventually build up a rhythm when it came to this mechanic and it is true. Less than halfway through, you have a feel for most of the drinks from memory. It’s only when the game starts making you guess that you start having issues with time. However, paying attention to what is being said and learning the idiosyncrasies of your regulars goes a long way here. The ‘difficult’ drinks usually come from them wanting to switch things up. And ultimately, you aren’t punished at all for screwing up if you do. The only real challenge is the challenge you put on yourself and how much you want to know about the people who make up this world.
There is one small caveat in there, though. Everything in this section works so well because it is projected through a nostalgic lens: built to remind of you playing old computers games. But, for that nostalgic lens to work, it needs to be played on a computer. Once you take it outside of that box, it will be interesting to see how well it holds up both on a visual and technical level. And I say that knowing full well that this will not end with just PS Vita. We’ll have to see how it works out when so much of this game is dependent on NOT being a console-based game.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action retails for $14.99 and thanks to recent updates, that includes both the Prologue, the Sounds from the Future OST and the full game…at least if you by it on Itch.Io (I can’t speak for Steam). I would love to break down the estimated time you’ll be investing into it for each of the endings, but the truth is that I haven’t kept time playing this one. Once you’ve gotten the bartending system down and the dialogue gets more intimate, you can’t help but to want to see where it goes. It makes all the time you put into it worth it and definitely more than worth the asking price.
However, I must insist that you consider getting the two OSTs separately. As a fan of music and supporting composers in the visual novel realm, that’s just my humble two cents.
VA-11 HALL-A is an achievement in gaming. How it approaches dialogue, its masterful approach to presentation and its unique story about the denizens of one crazy, cyberpunk world puts it in a unique space and makes a strong case for this medium in gaming along the way. Is it perfect? No. Without its in-jokes and references, the story simply can’t stand on its own. And even with that, it only goes so deep with its cast to ensure they all have enough time to strike a chord with the reader. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good game, because it is. There was no time while I played this one did I ever rush the game or feel it was dragging its feet. Everything is relaxed and that relaxation lets you feel right at home with this place and its colorful regulars. So, if you haven’t done it yet, sit back, mix up your finest Piano Man and enjoy your time.