We're getting drinks in? Bloody finally, I'll have an 'mmmmm' tea, that's tea with whiskey, preferably more whiskey than t-
Wait, we're not? Aw, c'mon, don't do that to me!
Our screenshots for this one come from the original PC release with the scanlines switched off and the resolution set at 1280 x 720. Why yes, this is one of those fleetingly-rare PC games that runs on Gaming Hell's official, weary, crank-powered laptop. Much as we'd love to test each and every version of the game, when it comes to modern games we're cheap as heck so we've only got one- the Switch version which eventually arrived (had to be bloody Limited Run Games exclusive, didn't it?) so for now we'll briefly discuss what we can when it comes to the ports but don't expect a focus on them. Also, we've done our best to avoid explicit spoilers on this one, but there's a few plot details we allude to, so bear that in mind when reading if you've not played the game.
Oh wow, has Gaming Hell finally covered a full-on visual novel? No foolin', no text adventure nonsense or RPG-lite stuff?
Let's see, shall we? Every now and then I do like to indulge in a little visual novel action, or at least one of the adjacent genres (sound novels like the Higurashi series are absolutely my jam) but one way to sell it to me is to subtitle your game Cyberpunk Bartender Action. That's the pepper, that's the stuff, that's the kind of thing that makes me want to mix drinks and change lives! Throw in the marketing spiel specifically citing PC-98 adventure games as a main source of inspiration (although the borders and character portraits are not nearly as detailed as games like Virgin Angel or X-Girl, but you can tell games like that were used as a reference point) and you have our attention! Released in 2016, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (we'll use the short title from here on out, promise) was first developed as a prototype for the 2014 Cyberpunk Game Jam hosted by devi ever over on itch.io, where it ranked 23rd overall. The Venezuela-based Sukeban Games- basically two people, Fernando Damas / IronicLark and Christopher Oritz / kiririn51- along with Michael Kelly / Garoad on music, decided to build their prototype into a full game, a game of drinks, robots and intrigue, with a prologue chapter being a pre-order bonus (which would later be heavily reworked and included as a downloadable update bonus in the final game). Thus, the stage is set for Cyberpunk Bartender Action.
Set in 207X, VA-11 Hall-A is a hole-in-the-wall bar in Glitch City, a city run by mega-companies like Zaibatsu Corp, rife with crime and corruption but with major social advancements for non-human beings like the artificial Lilim and even a reform program for rogue AI. You take the role of Jill Stingray, the cold and unreadable bartender of a completely respectable and above-board bar, VA-11 Hall-A, serving drinks to customers and lending them a somewhat-sympathetic ear for their woes... While juggling her own problems, like her upcoming rent payments and the impending closure of the bar, and the problems brought about by the corrupt future. One bartender might not be able to make a difference in Glitch City, but maybe they can for their clientele. It's up to you, and your drink-mixing prowess, to decide.
Now, we said visual novel in the intro, and yes, calling VA-11 Hall-A a visual novel seems like the obvious pick, but I'd sooner classify it as a kinetic novel (the distinction being a more linear path through the story) with some light number management thrown in. That's not to say there aren't branching paths, it's just they're a bit more slight than you'd expect from a visual novel, and of course, you have no dialogue options, no direct moments where you have to make a decision from a list to advance the story. Instead, the path you take and the conversations you have depend on the drinks you serve. Each patron who comes in usually wants something to drink, after all, so your job is to serve them! Most customers are straight-shooters and ask for what they want directly, but others ask in more cryptic ways, or say they want something but Jill knows otherwise (usually customers you've come to know well, and getting these kind of requests right can earn you extra scenes and even extra epilogues appended to the ending).
All that said, you really have to go off the beaten path to change things for the most part- drinks with optional Karmotrine, the alcoholic content of the drinks in this world, can be useful for this as you can add as much as you can fit in the mixer, but some character orders are so tepid that even making them big won't get them three sheets to the wind. You'll have to actively ignore orders to alter things radically, but is worth your while to play through again to see what you can change, as you can get some amusing stories and little bits or lore out of characters when they're hammered, and it can sometimes affect the rest of the night too. As an example, when Streaming-chan first shows up with her Nico Nico Douga-esque scrolling chat, you can keep her relatively sober, in which case she'll leave to continue her escapades elsewhere (much to Jill's relief). Get her plastered, though, and she'll fall asleep in the bar, which alters the conversation with everyone else that night (they know they're being recorded) and she'll wake up the next evening and leave.
However, these opportunities are a little rare, to be honest, and your first time through at least, you're discouraged from going too far away from what your clients ordered in order to get tips and perfect service bonuses added to your payslip (which we'll get to later). A certain level of engagement is asked of the player to want to see these extra scenes, but it does manage to do that job with the characters and the writing, which we'll explore later, but I still would've liked to see more chances to do so. When you are following the requests, the story does its best to vary things up as much as possible, seeing as the actual act of making drinks never really changes in any mechanical way, beyond having to make two drinks one after the other and making them 'big' by doubling the amount of ingredients. There is a certain satisfaction in the act of making the drinks, mind you- as well as the controls such as dragging the artificial ingredients into the mixer with the mouse, waiting for them to blend, and so on, there's also the sound effects used, the little animations for mixing and blending, the unique art for each drink- but it only goes so far. As such, you get people asking for specific flavours and types, then escalating to more specific requests like having a cold or non-alcoholic drink, drinks with specific backstories, asking for one thing then changing their mind, and you even get regulars who just ask for 'the usual'. How quaint!
As far as other mechanics go, there's a couple of things going on here that mix things up. For a start, Jill gets paid at the end of each day, and that money can be used to buy junk for her flat- a PC-9X computer to play a minigame on, a Mega Christmas Tree, a 'massager', etc.. Between days, Jill will sometimes want something, usually related to the previous day's events (like Kira*Miki's single after she visits the bar) and if you get it for her, she'll be focused at work. If you don't, she'll be distracted and will no longer offer relevant flavour text when you're ready to make drinks which serve as a reminder of what was ordered and sometimes offers clues for getting different outcomes- instead, she'll just spout nonsense (and when making a drink, you can't look at the text backlog). There's also three very important bills to be paid for each chapter, each increasingly expensive, and if these go unpaid, her distraction will go on much longer and in the case of rent, lead to a slightly worse ending. On my first playthrough, I was exactly $30.50 off getting a proper ending, which I'm not going to lie, was a little deflating. That was only buying a few non-requested extras, so it certainly is possible to get a 'proper' ending on your first try, but I wouldn't have minded a bit more leeway here- specifically, letting you know how much the next bill is as soon as possible rather than leaving it until the next chapter starts so you know what to aim for sooner rather than later. Getting any ending lets you start a New Game + though where any leftover money and bought trinkets are kept, so you will get a proper ending and epilogues eventually, so that's a mild concession at least.
Before we get to the writing, there's a few other mechanics to discuss. The structure is a particular highlight- each day is split into a part at home before work, then two work segments divided by a break, with between two and four clients per work segment. You can't save mid-work, but you can save at home and when on break (though you can load a file whenever you like). This gives the game a nice flow, splitting days off cleanly so you can play through the story in decent chunks, getting a fair bit of time with the world before saving and quitting. That's something I appreciate with a visual / kinetic novel, giving me a very clear point at which I can call it a night without being left hanging too much. Additionally, there's some extra parts, like a game of Truth or Dare, that allow you to interact with the characters in different ways and help to keep things as varied as possible. One complaint about the structure is that it's very easy to miss the game's demo night- it's behind a plus symbol on the title screen, and if you don't play it, a particular reveal about the glitch girl Anna later in the main game won't have nearly the intended impact, so play that when you can. (The remade released demo / prologue is also hiding there, but it's not quite as necessary- if anything, I found the intro chapters funnier because what happened the previous weekend with the dogs is kept vague, left a bit more to your imagination.)
The writing is the star though, and I will freely admit, I really got into the story of this one. In particular, VA-11 Hall-A manages to avoid a common misstep- it doesn't equate Volumes of Explained Lore with being inherently interesting in and of itself and feel it has to explain absolutely everything. There is at least one Backstory Dump related to Jill in the latter half of the game, but generally you learn about the characters and the world of this game in a more organic way, by talking to people, and it doesn't overexplain things. Some parts are intentionally left vague and unexplained, which is something I like- I don't need to know everything for a world to be believable, and so things like the nature of glitch girl Anna and the exact details of Gillian's past are left a little unclear, something for the player to think about by themselves. Furthermore, big plot threads like the Apollo Bank incident and the ensuing fallout turning people against the White Knights and in-universe concepts like the humanoid Lilims are explained through natural conversation with the clients and the other staff as well as optional info from Jill's mobile phone subscriptions. Jill's somewhat cold demeanour also means while you do hear her thoughts on the people she makes drinks for, you mostly get to form your own thoughts on these characters (except for Streaming-chan, oh my how she hates Streaming-chan), but this also has a big payoff when, without spoiling it, things are flipped around and we learn more about her. It helps that a lot of the characters are inherently likeable, such as the gruff-appearing but polite and articulate bounty hunter Jamie, the sincere and kind to-a-fault Sei and the MVP of the game, sex-worker robo Dorothy who has wild stories if you get her drunk enough, makes the best entrances to the bar, and has one of the sweetest little 'oh, no' moments in the entire story.
In spite of the gloomy setting and some of the darker turns the story takes, especially with regards to Jill's past, there's a certain warmness to the writing. Even in this dystopia, with people arguing about the pros and cons of mega corporations and dealing with massive price hikes on even the most basic meals, many of the people in this world still care about others. Yes, some like Donovan D. Dawson and Ingram are perhaps more self-interested than others, but others like Stella Hoshi, Dana and, to an extent, Jill, really let their concern and care for others shine through the gloom, and the writing manages this without making it too sappy or saccharine. It managed to elicit an 'oh, no, this is really sweet' from me more than a few times, and while the darkest of the backstories, involving Jill and her ex-girlfriend's sister Gaby, has these brief moments where it comes off as a bit 'off' or perhaps too much (mostly when the Caps Lock and !? come into play), it manages to stick the landing the day after it happens with some nice twists on the formula the game's been using from the start. The only downside is to pull off a lot of its warm moments, the game uses a lot of the same patrons throughout. That's a plus as you learn more about those characters and the kinds of drinks they enjoy, but given that this is a hole-in-the-wall bar, a few total strangers to flesh the world out in other ways would've been a nice addition. There's a few, mind, like the brain-in-a-jar Taylor, and there's also those mobile phone updates you can pursue if you like, but a few more people to meet once and never again would've helped.
A few other criticisms on the writing are small but worth mentioning. In particular, Jill sometimes uses words that don't feel like they gel with the setting, specifically 'bloke' and 'twat' that, to my West Midlands-raised ears, are so aggressively British that they don't fit in with the rest of Jill's lexicon, but that might just be a problem I have. However, slightly more noticeable is use of nods to other indie game developers, specifically name-dropping YIIK: A Post-Modern RPG, Christine Love and having three secret patrons from 2064: Read Only Memories. These can work when done well- the 2064: Read Only Memories patrons fit like a glove with VA-11 Hall-A's setting and aesthetic- but the YIIK references, including a purchasable item, a news article and two patrons who cosplay as characters from the game, are extremely ill-fitting. While I'm sure they meant well, they just take you out the setting quite a bit, although I will freely admit this effect is amplified playing VA-11 Hall-A as late as I did, due to YIIK getting completely roasted upon release. This is distinct from, say, the backer weapons, portraits and masks in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night in that they're in the background or not part of the main game- here, they're front and centre. While I know why they're there, as both games are published by Ysbryd Games, it's a little off-putting and not just because of YIIK's reputation, but it's a missed opportunity for more world-building- wouldn't it have been more fun to create an original video game popular in this game's world? It was also disappointing to find out that Virgillio Armarndio, a client who is incredibly pompous and buffoonish and is subjected to some of Jill's funniest putdowns, is literally just a James Stephanie Sterling bit. Of course, the writing brings the character to life in his own way in the game, but knowing this does take you out of the little world the game creates. In fact, this backfired somewhat, as the Girls Frontline x VA-11 Hall-A collab caused confusion when it included a nod to Christine Love similar to the original game! A story-focused game like this can stand by itself without real-world references, if you ask me.
All that said, I would say if you're up for a kinetic novel that's got a bit of a different theme, some interesting mechanical wrinkles and a killer soundtrack, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action- I lied, had to get one extra use of the full title in here, you know- is a pretty solid pick. There's definitely some areas I would've liked to see worked on- the amount of time in advance you're informed of your bill, perhaps a few more one-off patrons, more opportunities to mess around with ingredients- but it was a fun ride in any case, and one where I really got into the story and setting, especially with the character development given to some of my favourites in it! That's pretty rare for me, to be honest, given my arcade rat inclinations, but this one worked for me. The convenient way days are split up allow you to enjoy the game at your own pace too, which I appreciate. Fortunately, the game has a sequel, N1RV Ann-A: Cyberunk Bartender Action ~Trouble in False Paradise~ (another mouthful of a title, huh) in development at the time of writing, so I'll be interested to see how they change things up and improve the cocktail they've made with this one. Even without the promise of a sequel and our own caveats, VA-11 Hall-A is worth a visit on its own merits. A solid 4 out of 5 on TripAdvisor, then.
For serving up a neat kinetic novel in an fancy cocktail glass, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is awarded...
In a sentence, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is...
A nice bit of heart in the dystopian future.
And now, it's that time, folks!
To begin, some notes on the prototype for the Cyberpunk Jam and the original Prologue... What we could find, anyway.
The 2014 prototype, made in Ren'py, is fortunately easy to find on Sukeban Games' itch.io site, and obviously for something made in a game jam, is very different from the final game. For a start, you play as Gillian rather than Jill, serving early versions of Dorothy, Jamie and Alma, and the interface is completely different. Character portraits are huge but don't animate or have multiple faces to show moods, and there's no accessible recipe book to refer to when making drinks (for the first few, Gillian will give you the recipe in his internal monologue). What's striking about the demo is how freeform it is- characters will directly comment on the ingredients in the drinks you make, and because you don't have the recipe book some of Gillian's directions get considerably more vague. When making drinks for Jamie, for instance, there's an honest-to-goodness mathematical formula for making one of the requests, and you can alter this to the point of creating an all-new drink on the spot! Ultimately, I think this kind of freeness would've made the final game less accessible and less feasible to actually develop for a first project, but it's interesting to see things play out a little differently. It is most certainly worth checking this prototype out even if you've beaten the game already.
After this though, it gets really muddy on what happened when, especially since a lot of it doesn't exist anymore, but I'll do my best. First, there was the Prologue chapter you could buy on itch.io before the game's full release, although I'm struggling to find an exact date. This covers the events immediately before the final game starts, with VA-11 Hall-A hosting a free bar over the weekend for the Seifar Toy Company... Which is staffed mostly by dogs. Corgis, specifically. The bartender (unnamed and vague in this version) meets dog after adorable dog, as well as Betty and Deal and, of course, Dorothy shows up. This is a lot closer to the final game, with mostly graphical fix-ups and changes (in particular the interface is mostly grey rather than blue) but the recipe book is still missing at this point and, because it's a free bar, you don't earn money but a score for your service instead. Unfortunately, this original version has seemingly vanished- it's no longer available from Sukeban Games themselves as they remade it and included it as a free extra in an update patch to the final game, putting Jill in the role of bartender and changing a few things so the story matches up with the finished product. The only footage I could find had commentary over it, so the trailer here will have to do.
Closer to release, there were two more demos released. The first was at PAX East 2015, held from the 6th to 8th of March 2015, and released to people who bought the Prologue chapter after the event ended that involved serving glitch girl Anna- this was included as an extra in the game alongside the Prologue chapter, under Anna - Demo. Also, at PAX Prime 2015, held from the 28th to 30th August 2015, there was another short demo which was apparently just the first Streaming-chan scene in demo form. Again, these are no longer available but seemingly are way closer to final- they have the recipe book, in particular.
Just a brief word on the ports of the game, mostly when they came out and controls.
Bear in mind we only have the Switch version to hand, but we'll do our best!
Surprisingly, the Vita was the first system to get a port, back in 2017 (for America) and 2018 (for Europe)! Fancy that. Two companies get the credit for the porting job here- Wolfgame (on the title screen) and Poppy Works (on their website and the PSN store page)- and this is indeed a port with a few differences in screen layout simply due to the lack of screen real estate and a mouse. Just from the screenshot on the left, you can see the layout changes they've had to make, with everything condensed and squished to make it all fit. According to this review, this port does have touch screen support but it's a little inconsistent (you can't tap to progress text) and is apparently missing a backlog and text skip feature which seems like a pretty big omission if it wasn't patched in. Still, nice to see it on the Vita at all, really!
A proper console port wouldn't show up until 2019 (!) when the game launched for Playstation 4 and Switch, receiving a physical release for both versions in Japan too (the Western physical release was exclusive to Limited Run Games, sadly, but the Special Edition came with a bunch of goodies- a double-sided poster with one side having the boxart from the Japanese release, a sampler soundtrack, an artbook with character creation commentary, and a Dorothy magnet, which you can see on this very cool and hip Twitter account). The layout is much closer to the original PC version and, like the Vita port, has button shortcuts for some menu options (expanded to include drink category-shifting via the shoulder buttons). Unique to the Switch version is HD rumble support for actions like adding ingredients and mixing, full touchscreen support so you can play the entire game with just the Switch screen if you so desire, and if you want to use the JoyCons detached then you can shake them to mix a drink (shake softly to simply mix, shake more vigorously for blending). That's a nice little touch. What all these ports have in common- including the Vita port- is there's no added extra content like you saw with the console ports of Undertale. So, you're free to pick whichever version you desire, you're not missing anything picking one over the other.
Next, let's have a look at a pretty wild mobage crossover- VA-11 Hall-A x Girls' Frontline.
Girls' Frontline (known as Dolls' Frontline in Japan due to an IP conflict) is a mobile strategy RPG from Chinese developer MICA Team where anthropomorphised firearms called T-Dolls duke it out in semi-real time tactical battles, released across 2016 and 2018 in a staggered release across the world. It is, indeed, one of many 'x but cute girls' mobile / browser games out there in the wake of 'warships but cute girls' juggernaut Kantai Collection, including 'trains but cute girls' (Station Memo), 'household appliances but cute girls' (Kaden Shojo) and 'warships but cute girls but different' (Azur Lane). I've served my time in the Gacha Mines, thank you, so I am too used to the pain of rolling the bones for cute girl JPGs to ever get into them again beyond Arknights (even if the acquisition of characters in this isn't strictly gacha) but hey, the aesthetic in this one is nice and muted, and some of those character designs are pretty good.
Anyway, from the 6th to the 26th August 2019, there was a Girls' Frontline x VA-11 Hall-A collaboration with a full story mode and playable Jill, Dana, Sei, Stella, Dorothy and Alma complete with chibi sprites and even alternate costumes (Dorothy gets a Mega Santa outfit, Jill gets a Model Warrior Julianne costume). They even incorporated VA-11 Hall-A's drink-mixing mechanics- Jill can mix drinks with earned items to grant buffs to other T-Dolls on your team and the other VA-11 Hall-A characters retain their preferred drinks so they get even more of a boost. It's a pretty neat way of doing a crossover like this, but I'm afraid I won't be able to share too much seeing as I'm not going to be playing this one. Instead, I can send you a few links- the Girls' Frontline Wiki has info on the characters you can earn and who drew the art (it's also the source of the banner image at the top here), and GamePress has a look at the event with plenty of detail, and finally Fernando Damas wrote about the collab in a rather interesting post that reassures players with reservations about this kind of game, as a fan of Girls' Frontline before the collab was worked on.
A few more bits and bobs for completeness- here's the super-slick PV made for the collab.
And here's the full collab campaign story- probably more decipherable to those who've played both source games, but it's here for you to peruse.
As a final bit of fun, what happened when VA-11 Hall-A was found by a mangaka.
Kenya Suzuki, the creator of Please Tell Me! Galko-chan- a little slice-of-life which mixes dirty jokes and sweet-natured warmness courtesy of Galko, her nerdy friend Otako, and clueless rich girl Ojou, a series that says you can't judge people from appearances- included a shoutout to the game as a character's t-shirt after he beat it for the first time, and Fernando Damas reacted to that panel here. According to an interview with God is a Geek, after finding this out, Christopher Oritz noticed Kenya Suzuki followed him on Twitter, and so they got in contact with each other for collaboration artwork!
First, a future version of Galko visits the VA-11 Hall-A bar in a special one-shot Please Tell Me! Galko-chan episode, seen over here.
In kind, Ortiz did this piece with Galko and Otako swapping costumes with Alma and Jill, in this tweet.
Finally, the Japanese physical PS4 and Switch releases of the game have reversible covers drawn by Kenya Suzuki, seen on the Playism page.
Kenya Suzuki has also put together an artbook, VA-11 Hall-A ENTANGLEMENT! which includes the Galko-chan one-shot and all his previous art based on the game.
I just need to figure out which mangaka to do this kind of thing with. Can we get Keiichi Arawi to draw the Gaming Hell mascots somehow?
It's always safe to keep playing video games, I know that much.
Will Ed ever get his 'mmmmm' tea, or will he forever be gasping for a drink? Go back to the index to find out!