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“Cyberpunk bartending action.” These are three words that I would never expect to hear together, much less as a description for an RPG. But for Sukeban Games, this was the theme choice for their 2016 release, VA-11 Hall-A, GameChat’s chosen game for our MonthChat series for the month of July.
VA-11 Hall-A centers around a bar of the same name and Jill, a struggling bartender, as she deals with moody patrons and drunk Corgis. How you are able to interact with your customers depends on your drink mixing abilities. At the end of your work day, you chill with Jill in her sardine-can-sized apartment as she scrolls through online message boards and store catalogues with her sassy cat-friend “Fore” at her side. You assume the role of drive-by therapist as customers file in, order drinks, and chat about their problems. As you bartend, you form relationships with patrons, some coming back multiple times, inviting you out or attending bar holiday parties.
Our discussion group for this game consisted of five gamers. Some of us liked the unique drink mixing mechanic as well as the different characters you encounter throughout the story, but agreed that the gameplay could feel a bit monotonous a few hours in. While the storytelling was colorful, some felt that there were too many characters ducking in and out of the conversations. This made investment in the protagonist, and those closest to her, difficult. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:
Me: “Did you feel connected to Jill, as the main character?”
Frank: “I found it difficult to really get a “grasp” on Jill.” He did mention that something happened later in the game that eventually sparked that connection, but it may have been too little too late. “… I wish that would have happened sooner (referring to a certain late progression in the story), because that’s sort of when you got interested.” Before that, he found himself questioning his purpose.
Madeline: “I felt that Jill was thin enough as a character that you could put your own opinions together of what she was. But it was kind of limited because you never get dialogue choices.” Madeline also pointed out that it didn’t help that, as the game is first-person from Jill’s perspective, you were never able to read her body movements or facial expressions to obtain a sense of how she’s feeling when responding to the customers. “Mostly I felt a lot of what I feel when I’m at work, when (working at a hospital) I have to be in a patient’s room and they’re talking, having to be in the room and standing there listening to them, cleaning equipment.”
A few of us pointed out that the game succeeded in presenting characters that never really had a handle on their situations and the game never really forced them to obtain control. The game was about listening and not about fixing. But to some, this “no clear answer” approach could be frustrating. Chris said, “You had these characters coming to Jill with all of their problems, but what was I supposed to do with this? Why do you want me to care if I’m just sitting here, serving drinks?” He continued, “You can see it as the real life of a bartender to listen to people’s problems but, playing a game, I kind of want a little more interactivity.”
We also discussed the story’s pacing and threads of Jill’s, and others’, stories that we never really felt were weaved completely into the narrative.
Frank: “It seems that there were several stories that came to a crescendo very quickly at the end of the game.” This was especially true with a character revealed only during the last quarter of the game, who’s story seemed rushed and not entirely complete. There were also several loose story threads that were only tied together once certain achievements were obtained in gameplay that granted bonus game endings.
All in all, our GameChat group found VA-11 Hall-A an interesting trip through the bartending side of Cyberpunk that, even though it contained possibly innovative gameplay, failed to connect the player to the world they were playing in.
Frank: “The stories were somewhat interesting, but some were just too out-there and obtuse with some of the side characters being ‘time-wasters.’ Some of the backstories with Jill didn’t get cooking until the latter half (of the game), so it took about 10 in-game days to get things ‘cooking’.”
Madeline: “It did feel a little monotonous at times, but any job is going to feel monotonous—so it ends up being up to the devs how much they want it to be realistic or if they want it to be fun for you, the player.”
Chris: “I stopped at day nine, because it just got to the point where … it felt monotonous and boring. To me, there was nothing that was really engaging to keep me going.”
So, how is it?
While VA-11 Hall A provides interesting gameplay mechanics and characters, the pacing of the story and lack of challenge as you progress makes the game fall short of a better rating.