VA-11 HALL-A begins by inviting newcomers to grab a drink and snacks, brilliantly setting the tone for a very uniquely paced game. A Megaman-esque establishing cut-scene then establishes the sleazy cyberpunk Glitch City: your new home and workplace. However, this seemingly bleak looking future has more mirth than meets the eye.
Players step into the shoes of Jill, a veteran bartender struggling with debts and fears. When not at work she’s lurking on conspiracy websites or buying useless tat for her apartment. (Notably nicer than the accommodation found nowadays: where’s the real dystopia?).
Buying these items can improve Jill’s mood and purge distractions from her mind allowing her to focus on her prospective clientele. It’s also important to keep enough cash to pay bills, a tragic reminder of the economic frailty of part-time work.
A unique cocktail of characters
Jill’s sarcastic repartee with the bizarre customers is the main highlight of the game. These customer encounters are brilliantly barmy even when the banter threatens to become tediously self-aware or overly wacky. From an aggravated news editor to a jolly robotic prostitute the cast of this game is unforgettably odd.
At times it feels like a boozed-up Phoenix Wright. A range of topical discussion points come up here, a refreshing change of pace considering how fearful games seem to be to get politically. The drinks you choose to make will affect the way the plot progresses adding an instant and desirable replay factor.
Gorgeous pixel art adds to the delight of seeing the cast expand as you get deeper into the world. However, the more vague drink requests can irritate. If a cyborg wants a non-alcoholic cocktail then just ask darn it!
Mixing drinks for these barflies is a matter of simply following your instruction manual whilst paying attention to smaller changes that may be requested. On the rocks? Better add ice. Bigger drink? Double those ingredients. The balance between well shaken and blended is a matter of good timing and the utilisation of the Switch’s underused HD Rumble provides bizarre satisfaction when nailing an order. A particular highlight is the inclusion of a plum floating in perfume in a bowler hat, a Simpsons highlight immortalised in videogame form. Finally!
In VA-11 HALL-A what’s your poison?
It’s the smaller touches that make VA-11 HALL-A feel so special. Setting a playlist of moody (and sometimes rubbish) synth and techno beats. Using your smartphone during breaks to save the game, browse the web and pay your bills. Further context for the world beyond the barstools is provided by a seedy 4-chan aping conspiracy website and news blogs you can visit. These details make Glitch City feel truly alive and fascinating.
To create such a rich world from such a self-contained location is a remarkable achievement, a brilliant blend of Blade Runner and Cocktail. It’s approach to world-building brings to the excellent Subsurface Circular, another terrific sci-fi text adventure. Both trust their audience to put together clues to learn about the environment in which the stories are set.
With a considerably lengthy running time, VA-11 HALL-A’s limited gameplay loop may grow repetitive but the wonderfully creative characters and stories will keep players invested. If the Kojima like promise of “Cyberpunk Bartending Action” doesn’t whet your appetite then you should try another pub. If it sounds appealing then pull up a stool and check out the menu. There’s sure to be something to your tastes here.
Now Jill at the bar is a friend of mine
She gets me my drinks for free
And she’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there’s someplace that she’d rather be
-Billy Joel describing VA-11 HALL-A
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