Good libations and frank conversations: You should be playing VA-11 HALL-A

What is it?

An anime-style bartending simulator where you get to know a colorful cast of characters while mixing Piano Man cocktails in a cyberpunk dystopia 

Play it if you like…

Narrative-led games, fantasising about life as a bartender, Hideo Kojima's Snatcher

  • Format: PC/Vita
  • Price: $14.99/£10.99
  • Release date: PC: Out now, Vita: Late 2016

A wise man once said alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems. As the bartender of a piss-scented watering hole in the wall called VA-11 HALL-A (affectionately known as Valhalla by locals), it's your job to solve your patrons' problems through the healing power of mixology. And boy, do they have a lot of problems.

Glitch City is a cyberpunk dystopia of the highest order, a metropolis governed by corporations and enjoyed by the elite, where the have-nots live in squalor and attempt to eke out their neon-drenched existence one day at a time. Nanomachines control unruly citizens. A mysterious hacker is causing mischief on the internet. A terrorist organization is attempting to reclaim the city for the people (so it says), one bombing at a time. Corgis haven't just gained intelligence; they can talk, they run one of the world's biggest cybernetic corporations, and they're also kind of racist. But at the center of it all are the citizens who reside in this city, full of hopes, worries, and humanity - even if they were created on an assembly line. And they all want to get wasted. 

So they come to you. You're Jill, a young woman who's found herself working at this crummy bar, happy to work for tips so she can pay rent and maybe buy a few retro games or a poster every now and then. You'll sling cocktails of all sorts, flipping through your bartender's manual as the bar patrons make specific requests ("One Gut Punch, please") or make general suggestions for sweet or bitter drinks that you can either fulfill or totally ignore. Crafting these drinks is a simple process - just drag the required ingredients into the shaker in the middle, choose ice or aging if required, click mix and serve immediately, or wait a bit for the shaker to blend your drink for you. It's incredibly low pressure - your customers won't get mad if you take too long or decide to start over - so you're free to take your time and make the right drink decision.

This is important, because as you listen to friends and strangers wax on about their home and work lives, or their fears about the current political climate in Glitch City, you won't get to make any dialog choices to steer conversations one way or the other. Instead, the story is dictated entirely by the drinks you serve. So you can listen to their request and give them exactly what they ask for, which will take you down a certain narrative path, or you can read between the lines, pick up on how they're really feeling, and give them something a bit stronger to take the edge off - which has the potential to lead you somewhere totally different. Remember what a regular customer's favorite drink is, and maybe he'll be a bit more forthcoming with some juicy info. With multiple avenues to explore and several endings to uncover, there are a multitude of reasons why you'd want to go back and play through the game again, and see how your aptitude for tending bar molds and changes the people around you. 

And you'll want to, as the writing here is genuinely stellar. You'll meet a ton of colorful characters, and have incredibly frank conversations about the role government should play in the privacy of its citizens, how media is evolving to capture the attention of a society with an increasingly shorter attention span, and yes, even sex. There are times when VA-11 HALL-A gets silly (it's billed as a 'waifu bartending simulator', so it wears its anime and visual novel aspirations on its sleeve), but it's also incredibly honest, sincere, and not afraid to tackle sensitive subjects with surprisingly disarming candor. It's the kind of game where you can't wait to see who comes in next, where even the most obnoxious and jerkish characters are still fascinating to talk to because the game doesn't treat any one person/robot/rad shiba as purely good or evil.

VA-11 HALL-A is the video game equivalent of poring over a really good piece of genre fiction. If you're into books like Neuromancer or dig games like Hideo Kojima's cyberpunk masterpiece Snatcher (astute fans will notice more than a few references to the latter), you should check it out. Just bring a few cold ones - you might get a bit thirsty while you play. 

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David Roberts
David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.