For as long as I can remember, I have had this deep fondness for the Cyberpunk subgenre. By setting a timeline in the near future, things don’t get too far out of grasp in terms of realism. The buildings that we live in aren’t likely to change that dramatically, but sure, you can certainly see technology such as robots becoming a bigger part of our daily lives, or the items that we buy or the clothes that we wear changing with the times as they always have.
For me, it has just been the aesthetic that has been the most appealing when artists try to depict this science fiction setting - to them, it seems like a dystopian future needs to include bright neon lights, clean environments, flying cars, and a seedy underbelly rife with organized crime.
Unfortunately, this interesting motif is rarely employed in video games. Outside of games like Deus Ex or Remember Me, there hasn’t been a lot of attention given to what I believe to be the perfect playground for developers to mess around with. The best examples in this subgenre tend to sprout up in Adventure games - Snatcher, Beneath a Steel Sky, Blade Runner, and so on.
A few months ago, I got my first good look at VA-11 HALL-A (or "Valhalla" as it’s otherwise named) when I discovered a trailer for it on YouTube. I was instantly hooked on its unique concept of working in a bar located in the heart of the city. By embracing preceding games such as Snatcher and PC-98 adventure titles like Possessioner, there’s a lot to appreciate for those interested in this space. I had a chance to sit down and play the standalone prologue to the game’s story.
In VA-11 HALL-A, you play as a young female bartender who decides to forego an offer to work at a research institute and instead thought she would be better suited in the field of alchemy by mixing drinks for customers inside this unsuspecting dive bar, listening to different stories they would tell no matter how belligerent they became.
This helps to create a nice foundation that lets the developers have fun with the writing while putting the focus on character development by introducing different people that may play a bigger role in the story once the prologue is over. The game eases you into the role as a bartender by letting you practice making drinks for a bit every morning before you head into work. While it wasn’t immediately obvious what I was supposed to do, I soon got the hang of the mechanics and was able to handle any order given to me by the customer.
There are five different ingredients you can mix together: Adelhyde (a sweet flavor); Bronson Extract (a bold taste); Powdered Delta (a former rat poison); Flanergide (a spicy kick); and Karmotrine (which basically makes any drink alcoholic). While all of these sound a little bizarre, mixing them together does create nonfictional drinks such as the Piledriver or Blue Fairy (the developers are even asking for more drinks to put in the game to help them build up a list).
To add even more variety, patrons may ask for a single drink, multiple drinks, or one big drink for their order. All of this can be served either aged or on the rocks (over ice). Time will tell how complicated this may become, but during my time, I never felt even slightly overwhelmed.
While it sometimes feels like you are just going through orders at a fairly menial pace, I soon realized that I needed to pay more attention to what my customers actually wanted. Sometimes I would give them exactly what they wanted and it would end up having the opposite effect in that they weren’t happy with what I gave them. This one person could feeling down in the dumps and simply asking for a sweet drink, but what they really want is a shot of alcohol to help them forget their troubles, even if it isn’t explicit in the text.
By thinking outside of the box a little bit, new dialogue can actually open up to create new scenarios that wouldn’t otherwise become available. I thought this in particular was a great way to get players to follow the story a little more closely rather than creating a simple bartending simulator.
All of this is brought together by an excellent soundtrack that really sets the mood, not sounding too different from what you would hear from Ghost in the Shell or Armitage III. There are over a dozen music tracks currently in the game all with their own style that has this beautiful electronic ambience that helps set the almost bleak mood that is essential to this style of game while not distracting you from what is going on. It’s easily one of the best parts of my experience.
I had a great time with VA-11 HALL-A. There were a lot of great touches to be had here, whether it’s the anime-inspired character portraits, the fitting soundtrack that is nice to listen to even outside of context, or simply getting a permanent look of the cityscape (I’m a sucker for that type of thing).
I’m especially fascinated with the setup for what could be a very intriguing cast of characters, and was left wanting to delve even deeper into their backstories. I definitely recommend checking this title out if you’re fan of Cyberpunk or are drawn by its many other hooks. You can check out the Prologue for yourself by visiting the official site, and watch a trailer for it below.