VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action Switch Review
The year is 207X and the citizens of Glitch City only know a life where civil liberties are a relic of the past. Corporate capitalist overlords pump the public full of nanomachines designed to strip agency, while militarized police roam the streets brutalizing anyone that does not conform to their definition of order.
There’s a hole in the wall offering refuge from this futuristic dystopian nightmare, just make sure to pay the bar tab before you leave. Welcome to VA-11 HALL-A.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, pronounced ‘Valhalla’, is a visual-novel-meets-barkeeper-simulator that garnered a cult fan base following its 2016 release. Now, developer Sukeban Games has brought their indie darling to the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. There’s no new content to be found in these ports, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth revisiting. I enjoyed playing VA-11 HALL-A years ago on PC, but I loved it on the Switch. When a game literally comes with a disclaimer to drink while playing, no control scheme suits the occasion better than having a wine glass in one hand and a joycon in the other.
While the game is set in the far future, its protagonist Jill Stingray is the emblematic millennial. If your pastimes include living paycheque to paycheque and using alcohol to keep your regrets at bay, her life might hit close to home.
The narrative is relatively light on plot, with the bulk of the story delivered through Jill’s day to day routine as a bartender. One moment you’ll be serving a cocktail to an android sex-worker, and in the next, a bounty hunter will be divulging the morality behind his profession. It’s about living in the moment, where people bounce their thoughts and feelings off Jill as the alcohol she serves elevates them just enough to bring them down. The clientele isn’t just paying for drinks, they’re here for a professional stranger willing to listen to them.
Midway through the story, one of the regulars, Alma, comes into the bar visibly bothered and barely acknowledges Jill. She mutters something under her breath about wanting a strong drink. Jill and the player are left wondering what exactly her deal is. Typically Alma is upbeat, playfully mocking Jill’s middle school poetry she found on an old blog or something along those lines, but not this time. She doesn’t order something strong normally either. Suddenly, making a drink comes with a sense of immediacy cause you want to find out what the deal is. Once the drink is finally plunked down in front of her, Alma takes a swig and proceeds to put her sister on blast for all the times she's taken advantage of their family’s kindness.
After Jill has talked Alma down from wanting to strangle her sister, she, in turn, notices Jill is upset about something too. So Alma returns the over-the-bar-countertop consultation and helps Jill sort out her own problems.
This is all going on while the jukebox blasts synthwave tracks in the background. The playlist can be customized to your liking, so of course, I chose all the songs that sound like they’re straight out of a John Carpenter album. Jill and Alma poured their guts out to each other as the accompanying soundtrack bounced from one tonally ill-fitting track to the next. It’s a bar though, and the background music in a bar is rarely suitable for the alcohol-fueled confessional.
It’s the details surrounding a conversation that makes VA-11 HALL-A work. How you come to read a patron’s body language, recognize their habits, what drinks they enjoy, and how to help solve their problems. There aren’t any literal dialogue choices to be made but when it all comes together you feel as much a part of the conversation as Jill is.
Sometimes the clientele overshares in a way that hurts the narrative though. When Alma is first introduced you know right away that there’s already an established friendship between her and Jill based on how they speak in familiar terms. It makes sense why the two would confide in each other because they’ve built up that trust.
It feels unnatural though when every character immediately unloads an enormous backstory in a way that few strangers would. Sure, the alcohol helps, it’s called “liquid courage” for a reason after all. That doesn’t quite apply here though because there’s very little trust built up between Jill and her patrons before a heavy conversation. Someone might stroll into the bar for the first time ever, and within two sentences they’re already confiding in Jill every detail about their life.
VA-11 HALL-A’s campaign will take you between 13-15 hours on a first playthrough. Going in as blind as possible is your best bet as the story is what you’re here for. There’s a total of six endings to uncover, and thankfully most of them are pretty easy to get. There's not too much to stress over in terms of gameplay mechanics either. Patrons will ask for a drink, you'll follow the cocktail guide's instructions, and serve the fruits of your labor. Your performance will be rated though, and serving the wrong order enough times means Jill won't get paid and will be kicked out of her apartment for failing to make rent. It's pretty tough to screw up that bad though, so don't worry about it too much.
I do take umbrage with how some of the endings are unlocked due to their morally dubious nature. One ending involves giving a character a larger serving of alcohol in their drink in order to get them tipsier. Any bartender worth their salt would never give someone a double or tall drink unless the customer asked for it. It feels completely at odds with Jill’s character too. I don’t think there was any ill-intent on the part of Sukeban Games, but it is a bit unsettling to me.
There’s also some social commentary I wasn’t a huge fan of. Naming a totalitarian police force “The White Knights” is pretty suspect in particular. It can be interpreted in a multitude of ways of course, but my general rule of thumb is anyone that drops the term “white knight” should be taken about as seriously as lonely guys that go to bars just to start fights.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a perfect example of the fact that a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Mixing drinks isn’t mechanically interesting, and it fumbles around with social commentary in questionable ways at times. However, those moments between Jill and Alma were enough to elevate the whole game for me. It truly does feel like you’re sat at the barstools with your friends, chugging some brewskis, shooting the shit, and (mostly) having a good time. You might be making out with a toilet come morning, but hey, in life there’s no reward without risk. So if you’ve yet to play VA-11 HALL-A, or if you just want to revisit it, prep your finest glass cleaning rag, because it’s time to mix drinks and change lives.