A bartender can often be a kind of therapist for their patrons, listening to their troubles while serving them drinks, or at least that's what we've been led to believe by countless films and TV shows over the years. But what about games? VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is one such game that puts you into the shoes of a bartender, and the game very much fits into this image of bartenders being an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. Since we didn't cover the first launch of the game in 2016, we've been playing the recent Switch port, and have closed our tab ready to share our thoughts.
You play as Jill, who along with her colleague Gill and boss Dana helps run the VA-11 HALL-A bar, colloquially referred to as Valhalla (which we'll do in future to save confusion). The game takes place in a dystopian cyberpunk future - as evident by the name - and Valhalla itself is a dive bar in the metropolis of Glitch City, which is rampant with crime and corruption. It's a bleak premise, but what Valhalla excels at is offering personality and humour within this less-than-ideal future, finding the joy in human interactions rather than worrying about the bigger picture things going on.
This is a topic that is addressed overtly in the game, but it's also evident from the fact that you make friends of the people that come and go from the bar throughout your time in the game - some closer than others - and they're as much of a support to you as you are to them. The game is all about talking with each of these characters and learning their stories, which in turn gives them a reason to keep coming back to Valhalla as a sort of safe haven in the city.
Essentially Valhalla plays like many other visual novels in the sense that your interactions with other characters come in the form of text underneath a picture, 95% of which takes place with you behind the bar (although there are a handful of other scenes where you get to step away from your job).
While you're clicking through text to progress the story, you're regularly stopped to make drinks, which comes from mixing five ingredients in different quantities, choosing whether you want them aged and/or with ice, and either mixing or blending, which is decided by how long you keep the shaker active for. This might sound complicated, but it's all a simple case of assembling components using the left stick, while the directional buttons navigate a recipe book on the other side of the screen.
When you wake up each morning you have the option to save the game, but also to buy things that Jill wants, which will stop her getting distracted at work (although bills need to be paid too, hence it's a balancing act between spending and saving money). If you do this Jill will remember the orders after they're said to help you know what drink you need to make, but if you don't then you won't be able to see what people have ordered once they've initially ordered it, so you need to pay much closer attention to what's being said. Then come those who order 'the usual' or have a favourite drink, which you'll need to remember as well.
When you're in your room you also get a chance to find out more about the world via online message forums parodying the likes of Reddit and Tumblr, the news source of The Augmented Eye, and blog posts. You can even customise the table and wallpaper in your room, and spend time with your cat called Fore.
A big part of what makes Valhalla's story so compelling is that the writing is exceptional, making each of these characters unique and eccentric. We wouldn't quite use the word "believable" since everything from the talking corgis to the augmentations make this game larger-than-life in every way, but they're all memorable and remind us of the cast of a sitcom, where they often clash heads and come together. Whether it's the sex worker Lilim (Valhalla's word for robot) Dorothy, the tough but sweet Sei, or your hacker friend Alma, there's always someone to talk to with something meaningful to say, with stories that interweave as you progress.
While these guys are all very much weird and wonderful, at the same time their troubles are all intensely relatable a lot of the time, whether they're pondering philosophical questions or dealing with very human emotions like loss, loneliness, and fear. In fact, unraveling your own experience as Jill is the core of the story, and this only comes from learning from your peers, gaining the courage to face what's inside.
As for visuals, it's got both a retro and a futuristic vibe in the sense that it emulates an old-school PC-98 style while also displaying this idea of the future reminiscent of old films like Blade Runner. It's a great design that allows for plenty of neon colours and cute character models, and complements the simplicity of the bartending gameplay nicely.
When all's said and done Valhalla left us really satisfied after we put it down, and it offers something unique in the visual novel space. It's not really about bartending in the strictest sense of the word, as the serving of drinks is more of a side order to the main course which is the conversational nature of your role, talking to all of the characters who you help and who help you. It's a great story that's perfect for the Switch, and now all that's left to do is wait for the sequel N1RV Ann-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action to roll around.