The visual novel scene is one that’s growing at such a rapid pace in North America that it is impossible to ignore. Not only are we receiving tons of great official translations, but many other developers are creating games now which take direct inspiration from the genre. They’re also managing to do so in ways different than their Japanese contemporaries which leads to even more fresh ideas coming forth. One of the latest titles in this vein is VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action by Sukeban Games. The name is telling in that it gives a sense for the tone you’ll come to expect while playing. Yes, it is a riff on a certain famous franchise’s “Tactical Espionage Action” subtitle, but there’s no sneaking to be found here. Instead we’re treated to some “Bartender Action” in a cyberpunk dystopia, which is pretty darn cool itself.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a bit of an odd game initially. Players start off as a bartender named Jill who works for the VA-11 Hall-A bar. We’re quickly acquainted with her incredibly strange boss and ho-hum coworker before getting right to work. And what is work like for her? Simple: patrons come up, ask her for drinks, and she doles them out. As far as gameplay is concerned, this transaction takes place when the player flips through a drink handbook and crafts the selected beverage by adding all the proper ingredients together. At times, you’ll also need to toggle ice or age the beverage before mixing or blending everything together. Although it could end up super complex, there are only five main ingredients to use here. The trigger of which drink you’re crafting depends on the specific amount of each ingredient, as well as which combination of them you serve up.
Initially, this gameplay is literally fatiguing because players are forced to click and drag each drink to the mixer over and over again for an additional serving. What VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action should tell players – which it for some reason fails to do – is that there are totally keyboard controls for the entire act of drink crafting. This makes the whole thing much more efficient and reduces wrist strain. Besides, the fun of this game isn’t about actually making the drinks – it’s about interacting with the folks who wander into this hole in the wall bar. It’s also at this point that the experience switches from bar minigame to visual novel. The stereotype that people pour their hearts out to bartenders is alive and well here. As you meet each new visitor they are quick to tell Jill all about their problems. As time goes on, and they visit in the future, you learn more about what’s got them riled up or how to help them calm down. Perhaps providing the right drink shall change their mood.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action’s greatest strength is the lively cast of characters. Right from the get go most players will be laughing at everyone’s antics. The writing is superb at creating a wacky group of people who are interesting to listen to. No two characters seem carbon copies of one another, either. From a robot prostitute to a down-to-earth pop idol, players can always expect someone unique to appear at the other side of the bar. Those who provide skillful service to their patrons will see more aspects of their story revealed, while flubbing their drinks all the time is a good way to lose friends. Most of the time, a character specifies the name or type of drink they want, but occasionally it is up to players to determine the best beverage for the situation. Depending on your booze output, you’ll work toward one of six different endings.
The weird thing is that, for all its standout characters, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action does not manage to drive a particularly interesting narrative throughout. The sub-stories of each character are neat little diversions, but there is little holding everything together. As their issues are spontaneously resolved, it seems like their lives are on fast forward. Jill has her own things to work through, but even our protagonist rarely offers more than good banter with the patrons. It feels as though the game was intended to be a much longer experience but simply had to be completed before really fleshing out storylines. It’s a shame because the writing is quite good and it would have been exciting to see it used more effectively than the end result showcases.
With that said, the developers probably made the right move by keeping the game at the length it is (six to twelve hours for most). By the end, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action feels like it is dragging. That’s not due to the nature of the writing or characters, but the gameplay itself. Maybe it would be different if more characters asked you for “the regular” or left their drink choices entirely up to you. However, for most of the game, things are not left in the dark meaning all you’re there to do is push buttons to fulfill orders. It’s a neat mechanic at the start, but quickly becomes the dullest part of the whole experience. All that you end up wanting to is to hear each character chat rather than be regularly interrupted with a drink mixing minigame. This is required, though, as your pay each week determines whether or not you can get a good ending.
By receiving enough funds (and not spending them all on junk for your room) you are able to pay off various monthly charges that crop up. The biggest one – rent for a month – is incredibly easy to screw up if you’re not paying perfect attention to mixing your drinks. Luckily, the save system leaves room for players to keep innumerable saves in the case that they screw up. Still, this whole mechanic isn’t particularly fun. Yes, it makes VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action more “game-like,” but it never seems necessary. Pure visual novels are doing quite well right now and this experience would have been perfectly fine as one. Even in absence of obvious gameplay, the graphics alone would help it stand out against the rest. The pixel art is gorgeous and keeps the mood from older adventure titles such as Snatcher. There might not be voice acting, but bold character designs and snappy writing convey personality just as well.
There is a lot to dig while playing VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action. The writing, music and visuals create an awesome cyberpunk atmosphere which pulls you into this podunk bar. The problems crop up when players are forced to interact with the gameplay portions, brainlessly mixing drinks and hoping to avoid errors to progress the game to its conclusion. It’s safe to say that if more time had been spent fleshing out storylines rather than programming gameplay elements that the experience would have been greater for it. The concept is great, but in actuality things simply start to drag when you’re stuck brewing drinks all night. In any case, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is still worth a look for the colorful characters it brings to the table and that’s something it gets just right.