A visual novel with a bartending twist, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action was first released in 2016 as the debut title from developer Sukeban Games. It has now made its way to both the PS4 and Nintendo Switch, allowing console gamers a chance to see if the blending of visual novel and bartending sim produces a pleasing concoction.
Structurally, VA-11 Hall-A plays out like other visual novels, with simply advancing text forward the main goal. It does frequently break that up with a brief drink mixing mini-game to keep you on your toes. This controls reasonably well, allowing you to use buttons or the Switch’s touch screen.
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 it manages to sell that atmosphere fairly well. There are also lots of clever tricks, such as everyone being slightly off colour 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. While nothing particularly stood out, the game does allow you to set up a playlist at the beginning of every work day, so you at least get to focus on the songs you want to hear.
VA-11 Hall-A stars Jill, who’s a pretty 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 weirdos 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 also do things like browse the Internet 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 customer’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, a 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 be what grabs a player’s attention. It’s very much a slice of life for the most part, as you weave into various subplots depending on who is being plied with drink.
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 fails to capitalize by using too many genre tropes and questionable aspects of “waifu” games.