Even as the real world spins closer and closer toward a future of corporate rule and cybernetic implants, it seems some of us still love a bit of cyberpunk escapism. Proof of that is well obvious in the releases of Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell last year to cinema screens. Video games, too, have done their part to contribute a bit of lowlife hi-tech to the ol’ cultural zeitgeist - the ongoing Deus Ex saga, or indie hits such as Observer and Read Only Memories are particular examples. But how many games offer to put you in the role of a backstreet bartender in a dystopian urban sprawl where machines have turned the nature of society on its head? Not enough, I say. Forget hanging with the leet hackers and the script kiddies! Pulling pints and greeting the weird and wonderful regulars of a dingy drinking hole in the underbelly of an urban wasteland feels far more exciting. I mean… depending on your worldview, that is. Perhaps ‘far more unique’ is the better description?
In any case, VA-11 Hall-A - that’s right, “Valhalla” - is an anime-enthused cyberpunk visual novel (or in its own words, a ‘waifu bartending’ simulator) that allows you to live that very dream. I will admit I’m a little late to the party on this one - having come out in 2016, VA-11 Hall-A has already been out, gotten hype and won itself a fairly ardent following that has fallen for its blend of vaporwave cyberpunk drama, Japanese pop-culture charm and mixology. It’s a simple enough premise, though. You play as Jill, a down-to-earth bartender who spends her days working at the VA-11 Hall-A bar in the future metropolis of Glitch City, serving any clientele that comes by and lending an ear to their problems. In turn, you advance a story that primarily revolves around the interpersonal relationships Jill builds with this menagerie of reprobates. With the likes of cyber-enhanced bounty hunters, obnoxious 24/7 streaming vloggers and even talking, hawaiian-shirt wearing corgis being just a few of the oddballs turning up at your door, you’re also going to have her hands pretty full. But to negotiate such curious individuals, you do have at least one weapon in your arsenal: the power to serve them whatever drink you choose to put together (as long as it’s on the bar menu).
Play - or story flow, given this is primarily a visual novel - is broken down into chapters, with each entry representing one of Jill’s daily shifts at VA-11 Hall-A as various regulars turn up, chit-chat and ask for drinks. Once they do, a little interface pops up with a recipe menu, which Jill can use to look up the cocktails requested, and mix them. Sadly, there’s no real-world booze on offer - this being a dystopian future and all, even the likes of beer has to be concocted from fictional chemical oddities such as ‘Karmotrine’ and ‘Flanergide’. But challenge does occasionally come from the orders themselves, with some requiring drinks that are ‘sweet’, ‘bubbly’ etc., instead of asking for something by name. As mentioned, the choice is yours on what you want to provide in return. Offer visitors their requested drinks and your rapport could build with them, allowing them to open up a little more. Get them wasted instead, and alternative conversations could happen too. Or you can go completely leftfield and offer them something other than what they ordered, if you want to make Jill that kind of bartender (i.e the kind that unlocks secret endings, or gets the sack).
It’s a gameplay dynamic that also serves as a critical component to getting the most out of this lengthy VN. This is a tale whose story is told primarily through the chats Jill has with the customers who turn up for the evening - dialogues that one by one flesh out the world of Glitch City like a jigsaw, as well as the connections between its bar-hopping inhabitants (including Jill herself). Everything from draconian law enforcement, corporate hackers and the blurring line between android and human feature as plot points throughout this garrulous piece. But the game does make every effort to avoid being a grim experience, and more than relies on a keen funny bone to keep things engaging. Ranging from the deft, absurd and the sexual, the sense of humour that pervades throughout is frequently entertaining. This is especially so if you have an appreciation for Internet or Japanese pop culture - besides all the anime in-jokes, Jill even surfs a 4chan-inspired message board in her spare time. And when the writing is at its best, it’s also very easy to feel the sense of camaraderie Jill has with the day-to-day faces she interacts with, particularly her workmates. Her mildly unhinged ex-pro wrestler boss Dana is awesome, as is mild-mannered fellow bar-keep Gillian, who often suffers cheeky taunts from Jill and the occasional wrestling move from Dana - usually to hilarious effect.
The early chapters carry this human touch especially well. After a few days of serving drinks and mingling with the bar regulars, the game soon reveals that Jill’s life isn’t quite as easygoing as it seems. Her willingness to live out a humdrum life as a bartender is really a means to escape some deep emotional trauma from the past; trauma that does, like in all budding dramas, come back to visit her. The ultimate climax of the game is primarily in how she handles this angst, but some of the steps along the way - from New Year’s parties to post-work beer sessions with her boss - provide some genuinely poignant moments. Beneath the goofy one-liners and the cute anime graphics, there’s often a kind of hazy melancholy to VA11:Hall-A’s narrative - one that sits perfectly with the dream-like atmosphere delivered by its aesthetic and synth soundtrack. It might be a curious mishmash of visual novelizing and cocktail mixing, but VA11 Hall-A does nail its cyberpunk setting, and at times, even manages to attach a sense of sentiment to what’s often classed as a cold, unfeeling genre of fiction.
Of course, if you’re the type who hates the idea of emotion or light-heartedness within your dystopian fiction - or even care for visual novels, for that matter - it’s very likely VA11 Hall-A won’t offer much for you. The initial promise of the bartending side of things actually wears out its welcome pretty quickly, with drink mixing becoming little more than a repetitive chore of dragging and dropping the right ingredients over and over again. The fictional nature of most of the cocktails particularly adds to the monotony - if the game had some kind of dynamic system for building your own mixers, it certainly would be more interesting. Given that the game also offers a side challenge in ensuring Jill makes enough money to buy things for her apartment and clear rent every week, it’s also bloody frustrating when you mess up a recipe. Your pay gets penalized in such situations, and the boredom of the gameplay itself cause these easy mistakes to happen. Unique as it might be, VA11 Hall-A’s actual bartending is severely lacking in fun, often leaving just the quality of the novel itself the sole justification for its playthrough.
As previously mentioned, the main story is probably enough for any ardent VN fan to enjoy. I say ‘probably’, because with all the lengthy chapters, and the sheer amount of characters Jill meets throughout, there’s an awful lot of moments when even the writing itself becomes an obstacle. While the reader will naturally grow to adore some of the colourful individuals that turn up, there are a good chunk who are either given no time to develop an interesting backstory, or are a bore when they are. Spicing up a drink order may occasionally make things more interesting, but not often enough to make it feel like you have genuine control over the story. Thus, persevering through some of your patrons’ monologues is sometimes done in the hope that one of your favourites eventually turns up to make things fun again. And if they were intending to nail that part of the bartender experience, then - hats off - Sukeban Games have got it spot on.
There’s also the matter of the sexually liberal nature of VA11 Hall-A’s narrative - certainly not a bad thing in itself, and also something it shares with spiritual sister title Read Only Memories. Like ROM, VA11 Hall-A features characters from all across the sexuality spectrum, and there’s a lot of frank dialogue and humour that goes with such. Some will drone on about their sex lives, while others will constantly pitch outrageous jokes that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Some of these characters, too, will make readers uncomfortable: a sex robot designed with the mind of an adult and the body of a 14 year-old is one such example, even if she’s often the funniest character in the game. There definitely isn’t any visually explicit material in VA11 Hall-A to speak of, but there are definitely moments when the game’s dialogue tries far too hard to be edgy. It’s a shame, too - the main story arc definitely does feel maturely done on the whole, making the occasional lapses into obnoxiousness all the more apparent, and baffling.
Ultimately, whether or not you’ll enjoy VA11 Hall-A largely depends on your sense of humour, and a love for visual novels as well as uncommon gaming experiences. This is a game that is as niche as it comes, and even the bartending aspect - arguably it’s main selling point - swiftly loses its charm. For the VN fan though, there’s just about enough characters and punchlines that don’t, making this an anime cyberpunk oddity that’s worth the time for anyone inclined to give it a shot. Or a dram, for that matter. Maybe even a pint too…