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VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (PC) artwork

VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (PC) review


"No One Ever Finds This Place; They Only Find Themselves"

This game should not have appealed to me despite how charming I always found its artwork and its cyberpunk aesthetic along with the wonderful things I had heard. Everything about it seemed opposite to my tastes: I don’t drink nor fancy socializing; anime weirds me out except when it tackles adult issues; visual novels never appealed to me; and I never felt like the kind of person who would enjoy these mechanically lite experiences. Similar to the peer-pressure influence from alcohol, my curiosity piqued over my prejudices to discover something I’ve learned to love after its distaste. Now thanks to VA-11, I now have to reevaluate my previous stance of being able to judge a visual novel by its art. (Perhaps it should be declared, “You can judge a visual novel by its waifus.”)

In all seriousness, it’s the quality of its storytelling--when it’s not a detracting element--and its sense of world-building that makes me cherish every night at the VA-11 despite the game overstaying its welcome. That kind of praise should be a testament that these visual novels are not without their own merits if you can find one you can stomach. If a game like VA-11 can turn an antisocial, sober troglodyte like myself into another happily buzzed patron to share his story, then something must have gone right when every fiber of my being believes it’s awful that I demand more.

Before you simply ignore the rest of the review thinking I will only gush more praise, it’s important to lay out the many issues I have with VA-11. Probably most Visual Novel enthusiasts accept these limitations, yet it would be a difficult sell for someone like me to want to play it. This is because however much the game warrants the player being an active role to feel the sense of discovery it also undermines any value for replaying the game to unlock other endings from its sheer repetition. Even completing one playthrough can become tedious to a fault because the gameplay lacks substance.

The problem with stating this issue is that it’s clear VA-11 knows it has a problem. What distinguishes this game from other visual novels is the indirect means players influence choices other characters make through their drinks. In theory and sometimes in practice, it can be a creative way to get other characters to open-up and add to its world, or it can be something to encourage the player to make everyone drunk to discover the consequence. Unfortunately, the act of mixing drinks is absurdly simple, lacking any sense of challenge or incentives other than curiosity, and the mechanics are a very simplified version of bartending where all ice, all decorative elements, all shapes and rims of glasses are the same. At the same time, I cannot but help to think these complaints would be rather missing the point of what VA-11 as a game is meant to be.

It’s difficult to find fault with a game when it actively discourages anything stressful. When a game begins by asking the player to grab some munchies and relax, adding decisions with lasting consequences or any pressure (failure, time, etc.) feels counterintuitive. The best way to describe this game is it’s meant to be that glass of beer at the end of a long day or the place where everybody knows your name. Familiar, expected, mindless with a hint of the unexpected to never take away from what makes simple pleasures becoming mundane. However, VA-11 also attempts to have its beverage and drink it too by including cryptic orders, extra rewards for no mistakes, bills to pay, distractions for Jill to make players focus on dialogue, and a “bad” ending. The strangest thing is the game never finds more creative ways to challenge players or tax their reading comprehension skills like trick-orders/dares, or ask players to learn drinks by trade like with brand deals of the day, etc. It feels like a game that doesn’t understand what to do with itself other than making another Bad Touch.

What VA-11 does understand, and remarkably well, is a well-executed story of one-dimensional characters told in an interesting manner will often make up for what is a simple story. Clichés get a bad rep not because they are examples of lazy writing; they are supplementary tools bad writers fall back on while good writers will use them smartly to enhance the execution of the plot. It takes the all too common cliché of the sage-like bartender who listens to customer’s tales and makes a genuine narrative built from the perspective of that bartender dealing with problems both in her control and beyond her comprehension. This is the one thing VA-11 handles with the upmost care getting right.

VA-11, the bar, takes place in what is considered an unremarkable location in a meaningless city to the world that is only desirable due to the location being a tax haven and a lace for other corporate interests. Corporate espionages and manipulative systems, political disputes both local and global, criminal and legal activities, human and Liliam (robot) ethical concerns, governmental control in every citizen’s body from birth--these are all far greater concerns that remain outside the walls of VA-11. Patrons never find their way to this location; it’s more accurate to state they become forgotten or lost in this place from the outer world. Each one shares their stories either slowly or only on a need-to-know basis all thanks to a friendly face of a loner bartender, Jill. Her role is as much an observer of the stories that enter her domain as much as a witness to her own growth within nineteen days.

It becomes quickly apparent that the story of VA-11 is not one with clear answers nor conclusions to every question, but more of a locale where everyone discovers his or her own purpose and where he or she makes decisions outside its domain. If the story of VA-11 tells any single story with a beginning, a middle and an end, it manages to tell the story of VA-11 itself. Within these walls, the familiar faces, their guidance and, most importantly for the player, the drinks, all contribute to reveal simple truths these people are either too stubborn to address, too stressed out to think clearly, or too emotionally distraught to accept. It may sound absolutely sappy of a premise, yet the writing communicates this idea quite coherently with every character, even when the slice-of-life narrative gets to be too real for any normies who may be reading.

Normally I avoid critiquing a writer’s style as it’s often a petty concern, yet sometimes the surreal nature of its presence can take me out of the experience. The sh*tposting threads, the newspaper articles and even the jabs at emotionally sensitive crybabies like SoCal Justice do not bother me as they have their contextual places. What does become grating are what I can only describe as soap-opera moments for anime like making constant big deal about the size of knockers, lesbians, and lewd references that are being told in the middle of emotional scenes. Mentioning the time when someone used a cucumber as a sex toy, then making it for lunch the next day, when two characters are having a scene together can be surprisingly jarring. (Who could have imagined?) Maybe I am too old or not in touch with my feminine side to tolerate those moments, but it really takes away the impact some scenes are meant to have like the epilogue.

Despite what are frivolous hiccups to an otherwise polished experience, VA-11 is difficult to explain why it is effective without simply telling others to give it a chance. Some people might have a lower tolerance than others to accept its share of issues, yet others may find themselves surprisingly enamored. Whatever excuses you can think of to experience it or to return, the people there will always know your true intentions with a smile.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (December 12, 2021)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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