Time to Mix Drinks and Save Lives!
I’ve wanted to try VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action ever since I’d watched Mike Laidlaw stream it on twitch (where I go by a different handle) during one of his Indie Saturday streams. I’m not sure why I didn’t buy it right off the bat back then, though it was probably because I had just looked at my ridiculously large Steam library and decided I should stick to finishing what I already had, as well as games I was supposed to be reviewing before buying something new. Lucky for me it ended up being a game slated for review, so I was quick to volunteer as tribute.
Disclosure: This review was written using a press copy of the game.
VA-11-HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a great indie single-player game developed by Sukeban Games and published by Ysbryd Games. You play as Jill, a bartender at a bit of dump of a bar named VA-11-HALL-A in a dystopian future in Glitch City. You know the sort of bars where the stools, tables, and counters have gum stuck under them, the floor is a bit tacky and you’re pretty sure they hadn’t changed the decor since the doors first opened decades ago. We’ve all been to at least one of these in our lifetime…well, those of us of legal age anyway, or diners for those that aren’t. Some of them can be quite the hidden gems though, like the last one I went to that served a ridiculously good Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Seriously, my mouth waters just thinking about it (great, now I’m hungry -grumble grumble-).
The premise is simple, Jill starts each day by checking her favorite apps on her phone with her cat Fore hanging out beside her. Apparently, Jill has the same sense of humour as a friend of mine that named her dog Fire because she felt it would be hilarious calling that out at the park.
Sometimes she’ll stop off at a store to grab something she’s been itching for before heading to work. Then, just like with any bartender, she needs to make sure that she serves her customers what they want even if they aren’t sure what it is and socialize with them until her shift is done.
When those more cryptic order customers come around, you need to think about what they’re like, what they’ve mentioned, if they’d been in before and what they’d likely want to drink. For example, a gruff man that was chuffing beer the first time he visited probably won’t care for that sweet, non-alcoholic, fruity drink you were eyeballing earlier. The sweet girl that usually doesn’t care for alcohol probably doesn’t want the bitter tasting booze that’ll kick her in the teeth either. Not that you can’t switch things up just for fun though, and doing so can even open up a different dialogue that you might not have seen otherwise.
The better you do your job, the more money you make at the end of the day, which is important since you have bills to pay and Jill is struggling to make ends meet. Fortunately, you have a pretty awesome boss that’ll give you a bonus now and again. Even if it’s not the real bonus that Jill low-key wants from her – if you know what I’m sayin’.
There is a tutorial at the beginning of the game, though either I missed or it skipped explaining how to age a drink or the difference between blending and just mixing. But that was pretty easily figured out as “Age” is just a button click and after a couple trial and errors, I figured out that to blend a drink, you just let it mix until the shaker amps up its speed, then drink is considered blended. Fortunately, you can ‘reset’ drinks over and over before serving them until you get them right. Isn’t it great that the boss is so forgiving about your errors and potentially wasted ingredients? Maybe that’s part of why the bar isn’t doing so great…hmm.
If you’re afraid that you’ll have to remember all these recipes, don’t sweat it! The game prompts a menu when it is time to make a customer a drink, which contains the recipe. There are various sorting methods for you to quickly find what the customer is looking for as well. So far, I’ve only found one secret drink, which is required to get a few secret clients to show up, but that’s something I can leave you to figure out for yourself.
Now, the game is unintentionally misleading by having “Action” in the title, since there really isn’t any that your character gets to actively participate in at any point. Remember, this is more of a visual novel than anything else. Your “dialogue options” really boil down to which drink you create for the customer, and then listening as to whatever spills off of their tongue – which can change depending on what you serve them. The rest of your interactions are with your characters phone/tablet and a store she can stop off at to pick up the occasional item. You hear of some interesting events, but you don’t participate in them.
I suppose if they tossed in some suggestive dialogue and “fade to black” cutscenes, that could imply an entirely different sort of action, but I haven’t seen any propositions yet that Jill wants to accept. From what I’ve seen, she passes on every attempt to get her out of her bartending apron, and I’ve cleared the game twice which resulted in two different endings.
The developers teasingly included the term waifu in the games website address, but for any of you that might be getting your hopes up in regards to that, I feel that I should let you in on the fact that it was only a joke (which they state on their site) and that there are no romance options in the game. So instead of some sort of sexy, sassy or suave romantic dialogue, your character discusses various topics with customers, such as the pitfalls of journalism, poverty, segregation, corrupt government, the pain of loss, acceptance of self, expectations versus reality, etc. Basically, there are some pretty interesting conversations that come up if you put in the time to play the game past the first few days. (It even passes the Bechdel test, if you choose to apply it in a game context and don’t tunnel in on the early conversation with Dorothy.)
It’s not hard to figure out which drinks some of the games made up cocktails were inspired by, such as Brandtini (Martini), Piledriver (Screwdriver), Fringe Weaver (Dream Weaver), etc. I can understand why the game opted to use their own names and ingredients though since it gives them more freedom and simplified the recipes.
Just imagine trying to create an in-game mix system with real drink recipes, yikes!
The ingredients sound like you’re in a chemistry lab: Adelhyde, Bronson Extract, Powdered Delta (previously used for rat poison?!?!?), Flanerglide and the alcoholic component Karmotrine. Adelhyde sounds to me like I’m planning to knock someone out and a lot like Aldehyde. I really should stop over analyzing things in my head. It’s a problem.
I found the graphics quite fitting with the setting and the very minor but still present animations helped keep the game characters feel alive, while their changes in expression helped you gauge the situation relatively easily without distracting you too much from the text. The characters themselves were well developed and the more you got to know your clientele, the more in depth they become. That’s right, just like onions, they have layers.
The storylines’ means of world building is pretty interesting, but it does require you to pay attention to the subtle details throughout the game. If you’re simply speeding through conversation, or perhaps neglecting to read the news, you’re not going to really follow what’s going on in the world, or catch the subtle hints the game tosses you as you play. There were numerous “Aha!!” or “Are you…??” moments that I ran into because I happened to recall another person’s story, or remembered an article I’d read from the Augmented Eye.
I appreciated that you could look back in each client’s dialogue by hitting your scroll wheel if you missed something in the conversation and that you could setup your jukebox before each shift up to 12 songs, which you can skip through as you see fit.
There are 7 different possible endings, secret dialogue that can be unlocked, songs you can discover and secret characters you can meet if you serve certain characters the off-menu drink at the right time. You get to save before you start your shift as well as during your break, which is pretty great, particularly since it offers you a pretty ample amount of save slots to do so. Which makes it a bit simpler to get certain achievements if you need to start a particular day over.
I also liked that you could customize your apartment later in the game as well, even though I wish you could preview them before buying.
Note: The achievement for having matching decor is probably best left for when you’re on a New Game Plus save, as is the one for beating the mini-game within the game. Unless you don’t mind risking the “Bad Ending”.
Once you’ve completed the game, it creates a new Heart save for you starting from Day 1 as a New Game+, which lets you keep all the items you purchased from your previous play through as well as the money you had left over. This gives the game a bit more ease of replayability because you don’t have to be afraid of saving up to pay your bills as much so you can toy around with the clientele a bit more to find dialogue you hadn’t seen before or bling out your apartment.
Overall, I really enjoyed this game, which was made apparent by the fact that I spent an entire weekend playing it straight through. Now keep in mind, it’s not for everyone. If you’re someone that finds speaking openly about sexuality offensive, then this game will likely offend you, as one of your regular clients is a sex worker that’s very open about their work life. It’s not a shooter, a fighter or anything fast paced like that either. You aren’t the one rushing to save the damsel in distress, or punching the bad guy, that’s for others to do. You’re the bartender that people come to you so they can unwind and unload. It’s like you’re the tavern keep in a D&D campaign, prepping brews as the adventurers’ blabber on about their last epic quest. (Ooooh, that would be a good game too.)
It’s a visual novel, which means you’re going to do a lot of reading between periods where you actually get to do anything (e.g mix drinks). But who knows, maybe if you give it a try, VA-11-HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action might just open your eyes to a whole new genre of entertainment that you can enjoy. After all, we don’t have to just stick to one type now, do we?
If this feels like the game for you, it’s available on Windows, OS X, PS VITA, iPad and Linux and for the reasonable price of $19.99 Canadian (or $14.99 USD) on Steam as well as through their official site if you’d like to purchase it directly for a DRM-free copy.