You'd be forgiven for not knowing this is actually the second time VA-11 HALL-A has graced a PlayStation platform. It released to relatively little fanfare on the PS Vita – and only the PS Vita – but now, at long last, it's found a new home on the PlayStation 4. Venezuelan developer Sukeban Games’ marvelous visual novel is here, and it’s here to stay.
For those out of the loop, VA-11 HALL-A is a cyberpunk visual novel with gameplay centred around acting as a bartender. You are Jill Stingray, a bartender at an establishment in the midst of its death throes, as your parent company has decided to shutter the business. In the seedy underbelly of the dystopian Glitch City, you mix up drinks for a revolving door of colourful characters as you grapple with your personal demons, and the perils of existence.
The narrative is largely conveyed through text – this is a visual novel after all – but these segments are broken up by gameplay built around crafting drinks for your patrons. This is executed with a simplistic menu that requires you to mix various quantities of components together to craft different beverages. Other factors like if you need ice or how long you mix for create different concoctions.
The “recipes” for the drinks are generally pretty easy to keep track of. Certain ones – namely beer – will come up frequently enough that you’ll memorise how to make them without the game’s help. Otherwise, there’s a handbook that you can access whenever you make drinks, so it’s not a big deal at all if you forget. It is worth stating, though, that once you start remembering how to make some of these drinks by memory, assuming the role of Jill feels all the more authentic.
Outside of a couple one-off minigames, the drink crafting is pretty much all there is as far as gameplay. That being said, Sukeban does a good job of striking the right balance with how often you have to make drinks. Over the course of the 19 in-game days you experience – about 6 or 7 hours if you don’t rush through the title – you’ll usually mix in the ballpark of a dozen drinks a day. This allows for a good balance between storytelling and gameplay deviations, and is balanced just enough to not make any one facet of the game overstay its welcome.
While the gameplay is just fine – the UI definitely lends itself to the PS Vita more comfortably – the real star is the writing. Every single character in the game is interesting and well written, with many of the themes you’d expect of cyberpunk being explored through the lives of them. Topics like the rise of AI, mega-corporations, the fallout of consumerism, and more are all on display. Alongside the sublime writing, the neon aesthetic gives the game a distinctive and truly phenomenal style.
The game deserves applause for the way it approaches contemporary issues as well. Topics such as sexuality, gender fluidity, suicide, domestic abuse, and so on are all brought into the fold. Each topic is given the respect and attention that you’d hope for, all the while avoiding the common trap of coming off as preachy when discussing subject matter such as this.
Not to be outdone are the more lighthearted character touches, such as Jill’s inability to contain herself from laughing whenever she serves a patron a drink dubbed the “Bad Touch”, or a private detective who is a cheeky Seinfeld reference incarnate. Each character brings with them wonderful anecdotes, silly moments, and some levity, but things run deeper. Not a single character – excepting maybe a talking corgi in sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt – is one dimensional. Moreover, there is usually a dark past or some deep-seated misery that is just itching to spring forward. And as a bartender, it's your responsibility to hear these people and help them through their problem as much as they help you through yours. By the end of the title, pretty much every character that strolls into VA-11 HALL-A has a full arc, but it’s up to you to find them. Some of the character endings can only occur if you give the correct drinks at the correct times. Adding a wrinkle to this is that the correct drink is often not the drink the patron is actually asking you for. You have to be able to read the moods and personalities of those you serve, another really charming element to the title.
The strong personality of the characters extends to the music of the game as well. A couple characters have what essentially amounts to their own fanfares, and robotic pop idols pop up here and there as characters in the game. Music plays a rather significant role in the development of a few of the characters, in addition to the traditional score being marvellous. Provided by Michael Kelly – who goes by Garoad – the soundtrack is a cyberpunk enthusiast’s dream.
A charming visual novel about tending a cyberpunk bar, VA-11 HALL-A is a genuinely fantastic title. A focused, neon-drenched art direction, paired with incredible music and razor-sharp writing, the game is great if you’re new to, or curious about, visual novels. The writing’s deft handling of darker or more taboo subjects makes for a compelling title with a varied cast of characters that each bring something unique.