By: Brian Gunn
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is the first commercial game from developer Sukeban Games. It’s an odd little visual novel with a bartending twist. Do these two flavors mix together well, or did the concoction blow up in their faces?
For the most part, VA-11 Hall-A plays out like other typical visual novels, with simply advancing text forward the main goal. However, it frequently has a brief drink mixing mini-game to keep you on your toes, and this controls fairly well. All you really need to do is rifle through a catalog and drag some icons around.
VA-11 Hall-A‘s visual style is a blend of anime and pixel art, wrapped in a seedy dystopian cyberpunk world. The majority of the game takes place in a dingy dive bar, and despite the 2D pixel aesthetic they manage to sell that atmosphere fairly well. There are also lots of neat tricks, such as everyone being slightly off color to simulate cheap lighting.
Music wise, the game falls into many of the same trappings of titles set in this sort of time and place. Expect lots of catchy synth. It’s well done but nothing particularly stood out. However, if you do end up getting into it, the game allows you to set up a playlist at the beginning of every work day, so you get to focus on the songs you like.
VA-11 Hall-A stars Jill, who’s basically a standard visual novel lead. She’s kind of middle of the road and bland, with a bit of a loser streak, and for some reason all the game’s various “waifus” are drawn to her.
She’s a bartender at the titular bar, a seedy cyberpunk haven for the various weirdoes and strays of typical sci-fi tropes. Each day she’ll perform the tedious work of making drinks for these folks as they tell Jill their life stories.
The game is split between a few phases. After her shift, you’ll need to do a bit of managing Jill’s life, which is mainly just hanging out in her apartment. You can buy stuff to spruce things up, though you’ll need to manage her money to make sure she can pay her bills. You can do things like browse the internet during this to get a feel for the world.
As to what effect this section has is vague, but it can be a nice pacing break. When you return to work, the bulk of the experience begins. A customer will approach the bar, usually tell part of their story, and then order a drink. Thus begins the mini-game in which you need to combine a few different ingredients, choose how to handle them, and then toss it at the customer.
There’s a variety of ways you can make things that may or may not suit a client’s taste, like doubling the alcohol or serving it on the rocks. Often characters will not be too specific and you’ll need to read their mood — for instance, the person having a bad day might want something stronger than the curious newcomer.
Sadly, this bartending mini-game feels a little too constant. It’s never really fun or complex, with often the only test of skill being if you can remember how a repeat customer likes their drinks. The story will then likely be what grabs a player’s attention. It’s very much a slice of life for the most part, as you weave in to various subplots depending on who’s being plied with drink.
Romantic interests sadly fall into the typical anime stereotypes, including a cat girl and one that’s creepily young looking. I found most of these aspects off-putting, especially when it came to what amounts to a sex-bot that basically has the appearance of a child.
Ultimately, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action stands out more for its presentation than its story or gameplay. It has an interesting world, but it falls into too many tropes and typical grody aspects of “waifu” games.