Available on Steam | PS4 | Switch | Vita
Take on the Role of a Futuristic Bartender in this Cyberpunk Adventure
VA-11 HALL-A takes place within the fictional Glitch City and the year is 207X. Corruption, crime and poverty reign supreme. Humans and Lilim (humanoid robots) co-exist in relative harmony, and the trigger-happy law enforcement known as White Knights ensure that everyone abides by the rules. It all sounds like a classic cyberpunk tale: everyone is injected with nanomachines, people barely scrape by and the government makes sure that it stays that way. But you won’t experience much of this bleakness or the city itself, as the game unravels in a secluded bar conveniently named Valhalla.
In VA-11 HALL-A, you take on the role of bartender Jill and partner up with wise-mouth Gillian and their caring boss, Dana. Gillian initially comes off as your typical pretty boy, but reveals a much more complex personality as the plot unravels. On the contrary, Dana, though jolly and cool, seldom exhibits anything about herself or her past. Numerous questions regarding her pop into Jill’s mind throughout the story: was she an actual wrestling and MMA fighter? Did she really own a pet bear?! And how did she get a futuristic prosthetic arm like that? Maybe it’s because of the pet bear!
Similar and even more puzzling questions surface when meeting the various, often eccentric customers of VA-11 HALL-A. Among them are humans, the previously mentioned Lilim, people with augmentations, and even talking dogs. One of the customers is Donovan D. Dawson, an egotistical owner of the local newspaper, The Augmented Eye. Another is assassin Jamie, whose visual appearance was clearly inspired by Adam Jensen from the reboot of Deus Ex. And if you’re a fan of Akira, the cyberpunk anime masterpiece from 1988, then you’ll immediately recognize the Shotaro Kaneda look-alike, Mario.
Though we rarely see her during conversations, Jill often expresses funny thoughts and observations in parentheses. Likewise, her clients often make observations on Jill and that gives us a greater insight into her personality. As the story develops, it turns out that Jill herself deals with a painful past and skeletons in her closet. Past events will inevitably come to the fore, and you will laugh and cry along with her, as Jill faces the consequences of past actions.
Some of these conversations even make Jill reconsider her own behavior. When the newspaper owner mentions that being called “boss” feels too impersonal, it leaves her thoughtful. Later she asks her own boss, Dana, if she’d prefer to be addressed by her name.
VA-11 HALL-A doesn’t shy away from sexually expressive and deeply philosophical topics and definitely caters to a mature audience.
Much like real life customer service, you will eventually take a liking to some of these characters and become genuinely interested in their lives. Others will annoy you so much that you will inevitably go — “Oh great, that guy again” — whenever they visit the bar. And if that’s a returning customer, then you will also need to know their regular drink of choice.
It’s an unusual, yet very compelling manner of telling a story and developing its characters. And even though none of the characters in VA-11 HALL-A are voiced, the writers did an excellent job at conveying the tone and emotions of characters by text alone. All of them will chit chat about their day, their work, aspirations and much more. But generally, people become more talkative when they get drunk and that’s exactly what Jill facilitates.
Once a customer makes an order, it’s time to mix drinks and change lives,at least according to Jill. Mixing consists of several short steps. First, you must find the cocktail in the book of recipes, either by name, flavor, or type. If a customer asks for a sweet, yet cool drink, try searching for drinks with ice in the sweet category. Or, to calm an angry customer, try giving them a Fluffy Dream.
Most of the time, customers know exactly what they want, but you’ll occasionally receive an obscure order. They might ask for a drink by giving away only several vague keywords: a cocktail in honor of a good friend, for instance. If that’s the case, then you’ll have to deduce the correct cocktail by various factors: like description. Each recipe features an eye-catching description, like the one for Brandtini: “8 out of 10 smug assholes would recommend it but they’re too busy being smug assholes”.
After you find the correct drink, you must add ingredients based on the recipe, including Karmotrine which determines the strength of a cocktail. Add the indicated amount into the mixer or double up for the big version of the drink. Then, add ice or age if necessary and mix the concoction; doing it for several seconds will mix the cocktail, whereas slightly longer will blend it. It’s important to differentiate between the two based on each separate recipe.
Blend a cocktail which is supposed to be mixed and it will go bad, and vice versa. But so long as you don’t serve the wrong drink to a customer, you can always try again.
If you got the correct cocktail, then its price and often additional tips will be added to Jill’s total. And if you think that prices on drinks are high right now, then prepare for the future. In VA-11 HALL-A, drinks cost upward of $80, with some of the premium being over $300 and more.
After serving a couple of customers, Jill will take a break during which you can save your progress. Each shift usually features around four customers, making VA-11 HALL-A perfect for playing in short sessions. Once the shift ends, you will be presented with a brief “results” screen showcasing your earnings, tips, mistakes and, of course, Jill’s cut.
After each shift, Jill relaxes at home by reading and browsing apps on her tablet. You can interact with the tablet by reading news, following a Reddit-like page and much more. And whenever Jill reads anything of interest, she always discusses it with Fore, her black cat. Reading the news often reveals additional information about celebrities and even customers of Valhalla. They also reference to other cyberpunk media, like Metal Gear Solid.
When describing a movie called Cyborg in Heels, the article mentions the name of a fictional actor, Quinton Hayter. This name will resonate with fans of the aforementioned series, as the actors Quinton Flynn and David Hayter voiced Raiden and Solid Snake, respectively. Even the game’s sub-title – Cyberpunk Bartender Action – is derived from that of Metal Gear Solid: Tactical Espionage Action.
Earned dollars can be spent on various items that bring joy into Jill’s life. Tangible items, like figurines and posters, appear in the room after purchase and provide it with more character. Purchasing new things helps Jill stay happy and focused on work, and the game informs you whenever Jill is interested in anything particular. But life isn’t easy, and Jill must also act like a grown-up and cover bills, as well as certain subscription fees.
Kind of like what life is right now; you work hard to cover bills, pay for Netflix and Spotify, and try to bring a little joy into the life by purchasing a new gaming console. Eventually, Jill gains access to a Nanocamo App, which allows her to customize the room with different cool color themes. Despite its bleak setting, VA-11 HALL-A employs a surprising amount of bright tones in its palette. Every scene features neon-like colors: green, purple and yellow.
A tasteful soundtrack further contributes to the already wonderful cyberpunk thematic. Whether at home or at work, you may choose from a wide assortment of songs from the electronic and synthwave genres, with some relaxing jazz elements thrown in.
It might not be for everyone; VA-11 HALL-A features a lot of reading, which may put action-driven players off. But with multiple endings and a NG+ mode, which retains all of your items and money, the game offers a good amount of replay value. And for anyone who enjoys a deep narrative in the style of a digital novel, set within a bleak cyberpunk environment, the game will deliver many enjoyable hours.