Released on June 21st of 2016: VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action (hereafter referred to as VA-11 to save space and time) is a game that took me by surprise in many ways. Being billed as a “booze-em-up” waifu simulator (“waifu” being slang for a favorite female character), going so far as to call the website “waifubartending.com,” the picture VA-11’s marketing paints is not even close to the final product. What I expected was a rather bland visual novel dedicated mostly to fanservice, lewd humor, and a reliance on an anime style. What I got, however, was one of the most genuine and heartfelt experiences of 2016, a game with astonishing art, incredible writing, and a very personal plot that nobody should miss.
VA-11 is a bartending simulator mixed with a visual novel, a genre that is based mostly on reading text and making text-based decisions rather than action based gameplay. VA-11 has much greater emphasis on the visual novel aspects of the game. Set in a cyberpunk dystopia in 207X, the player assumes the control of Julianne “Jill” Stingray as a bartender in Glitch City in the titular bar “VA-11 HALL-A” as she tries to earn enough money to live her life, while events around her get wilder. The gameplay is very simple by design: a customer will come in, speak to you, and order a drink. You must then make the drink for them, and if you do it correctly, the customer will pay you, and the dialogue will continue. Certain situations may call for the player to go against the customer’s order for their own benefit, and sometimes knowing exactly when to serve a specific drink will lead to bonus dialogue. However, most of the time the game really does boil down to reading the dialogue, and making drinks that the customers ask for. The better you do, the better you get paid, getting bonuses for perfect performance. Money is used for paying for Jill’s personal wants and eventually her rent. Eventually, it becomes a major factor in determining the ending of the game, but besides that, money is not a huge factor in gameplay. It’s a game with low stakes, meant to be relaxing to play and easy to enjoy.
With such simple gameplay, VA-11 lives or dies on its presentation, from the soundtrack to the art to the writing. Luckily, presentation and writing is where it excels. While the gameplay may be very simplistic, what sets VA-11 apart is its presentation. Art is done in a gorgeous cyberpunk pixel-art style, drawing inspiration from anime and other visual novels, but still having its own identity. The soundtrack, which for the most part can be customized to the player’s liking on a jukebox, is stellar in all regards, a mostly relaxed electronic and synth heavy soundtrack, full of heart and charm. Most impressive is VA-11’s writing, with a cast filled with incredibly charming and memorable characters, equally funny and heartwarming dialogue, and a wonderful and intriguing plot. Without its writing, VA-11 would just be a pretty set piece, but thanks to its writing it manages to be something far more. In every regard, the game is a treat for the eyes and ears, and absolutely oozes charm.
To speak of the creators, VA-11 HALL-A was created by Sukeban (Japanese for “delinquent girl”) Games, and is their first full length game. Based out of Venezuela, Sukeban Games was founded by friends coming together and discussing their enjoyment of Japanese pop culture on a blog, eventually turning their interests to creating games. The only other games under their belt are “Sales Pitch” a game made at a game jam in under 10 hours following the theme “The entire game on one screen,” and “Devil’s Journal Tony T,” a still unfinished visual novel crafted for their personal blog’s anniversary. To call Sukeban Games an unknown studio would be an understatement. After attempting Devil’s Journal Tony T, a project which proved to be too ambitious for a beginning project, Sukeban Games then began work on VA-11 HALL-A, and it became their first success. Hopefully it won’t be their last.
There’s much more I could praise about VA-11, but that would be ruining the experience for new players. All I can recommend is buying the game for yourself, and playing through it. It’s a rather short game, only taking 6-8 hours to complete, and those 6-8 hours are well worth the time.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action is available on Steam for $14.99.
Official Website: http://waifubartending.com/
Final Score: 92/100 – Excellent