VA-11 HALL-A Cyberpunk Bartender Action is the full title of this absolute gem and the name pretty much tells you what it is about. Except that it is also a Visual Novel, which in many cases can scare people off. Visual Novels are not for everybody, as gameplay is usually not the most important aspect and sometimes even can be missing completely. However, this review is about how VA-11 HALL-A will hook you and take you into its world regardless of whether you enjoy the genre or not. All you have to do is relax, get into the game, and give it a chance to show you why it is great.
Time to mix drinks and change lives
You play as Jill, a bartender in a small dive bar somewhere in a dystopian, futuristic city. Our hero’s job is to slave behind the counter and serve drinks for the various colorful patrons that will frequent a shoddy bar like the one she’s working in. The gameplay consists almost entirely of the dialogue that you have with these characters and subsequently, the drinks that you mix for them. That might not sound like much, but it quickly unfolds into a deep and exceptionally authentic experience.
The mixing of drinks
The drink mixing aspect of the game is not particularly deep, however. You get an order and need to use the ingredients and a recipe book to give your customer what they want. It might not be very complicated, but it serves its purpose. Unlike other Visual Novels where you will face various crossing points in the story and decide what action your character takes VA-11 HALL-A does not let you choose Jill’s words. Instead, you influence the story by mixing the right drinks. Sometimes a customer will order something specific and nailing that request is all it takes. Another time, someone might just order something that would cheer them up, and it’s your job to know what. Often they will let you decide how much alcohol to put in the drink, which can have a huge impact. It’s an interesting solution and will feel natural and authentic. Your own personal engagement with the patrons will determine how well you fare. A customer might just order “the usual”, and it is upon you to know what that means
Making drinks is easy and uncomplicated
The changing of lives
Jill is a surprisingly deep character with her own motivations and dreams. They will unfold as she engages in smaller or longer chats with patrons. But from the very beginning, it is clear, that she doesn’t see the job of a barkeeper as one where you simply deliver the drink that is ordered. For Jill, being a bartender means lending an ear to the patron. Sometimes, a customer will want to have a strong drink after a long, hard day and they might enjoy an opportunity to rant a little bit or get an outside opinion on a matter. You will see that our hero is surprisingly good at listening, and characters quickly open up to her. This self-image of a budget-therapist is almost endearing but definitely inspiring. It gives the role of a bartender a distinctive flair and almost makes you want to try the job for yourself.
VA-11 HALL-A’s cast is as diverse as it is unique. You’ll find characters like talking dogs or walking Seinfeld references. Each patron will have their own life and background playing behind the game, and you will get a glimpse at it through the chats they’ll have with our Jill. Not a single character will feel one-dimensional though. They will all have their problems and conflicts in life, specific ticks or features, or maybe a favorite drink that they will repeatedly order. It could be something as cute as our protagonist not being able to serve the drink “Bad Touch” without laughing. Or perhaps it is rather dark like the drug-addict, alcoholic father of one of the regulars.
The Rad Shiba is more of a light-hearted addition
Some people might be more eager to share about their past, while others will carefully reveal only a little. However, the point is that nothing really feels out of place or forced in VA-11 HALL-A. The dialogue will naturally develop from light-hearted joke-making to a deep and philosophical talk about whatever is currently driving a character. It is witty, humorous, charming, and deep depending on the situation. Most importantly, it is engaging and will slowly wiggle a way into your heart, leaving you interested and charmed by each individual across the screen, including your own character.
Atmosphere and Sound
Granted, in a game that solely relies on dialogue and setting, the atmosphere has to be particularly good, or the whole game will just fall apart. Luckily, the excellent soundtrack of VA-11 HALL-A takes a major part in delivering the right experience. It is difficult to describe the exact genre, as the music is a mix of synthwave, electronic, blues, and jazz (and probably more) depending on the track. I can only say that it fits extremely well and will massively enhance the feeling you have while hanging out in this bar and chatting with patrons.
You will also often hear from your patrons about the world outside. Various events will happen that will be explained by different characters in different ways. Each time something newsworthy gets mentioned, you find out how it affects the characters. Something might just be a side note for one, while the other will excitedly tell you about it over their whole drinking session. That, along with the unique futuristic art style will do the rest in terms of atmosphere. Frankly, it is impressive that a game consisting of so little gameplay will do such a great job of delivering the setting.
One of the strongest suits is probably that the protagonist Jill is just extremely relatable. She is fantastically written and feels more like a partner you’re experiencing the game with than your character. However, at the same time, I found it very easy to put myself in her shoes and to share in the experiences she was having.
Jill starts every day with her signature phrase
What does VA-11 HALL-A have? An extremely good soundtrack, a mindblowing atmosphere that will let you appreciate the game’s world and the story. It has organic and loveable characters, interesting and innovative gameplay-elements for a VN, and funny, witty, deep, philosophical, lighthearted, interesting dialogues.
It is simple, if you enjoy good dialogue and a nice, interesting, and engaging talk, then VA-11 HALL-A is the game for you. If you enjoy a good cyberpunk atmosphere from an unorthodox point-of-view, then VA-11 HALL-A is also the game for you. Most importantly, VA-11 HALL-A is the game for you if you can keep an open mind and like to dabble in games that try to do things differently. All in all, VA-11 HALL-A is probably the game for you. And if it is not, it deserved the chance nonetheless. It is definitely worth it.
If you’ve already played the game and want to know about the endings, consider this guide: