VA-11 HALL-A is a cyberpunk interactive fiction with an over-arcing plot that you unlock by serving new customers. Sukeban Games, the creators, were at PAX East and I was fortunate enough to watch the demo played and then get a cute badge with a cyborg corgi on it. While the premise is simple and the mechanics a little choppy in the prologue and demo, it’s overall fun and anyone that likes both anime and interactive fiction will get a kick out of it. So far, only the demo and prologue are available for download, so that’s all I’ll be able to go into in this review.
The game takes place in Glitch City, which is a “city that shouldn’t exist”. It’s filled with criminals and those of questionable character who are kept in check by nanomachines. Because everyone living in Glitch City is so unhappy, they tend to frequent the local bars, such as VA-11 HALL-A. You play as Jill, a young bartender who is either learning to bartend or is a veteran spirit slinger, depending on how well you can follow directions.
The actual bartending is easy once you get the hang of it. You choose from five ingredients: “aldehyde”, “bronson extract”, “powdered delta”, “flanergide” and “karmotrine” – karmotrine being the alcoholic ingredient, and combine them in the way the game tells you to. Mixing or blending the drink takes a few tries to get right because you have to watch how long you let it mix but there’s no timer to help you out. If you provide a bad drink, though, the customer usually doesn’t seem to care. Because it’s interactive fiction, there’s no score or penalties, the actual bartending is more of a way to drive the story on.
In the VA-11 HALL-A demo you spend most of your time serving a girl who looks like a 12 year old, though you spend a good chunk of dialog making absolutely that she is over 21 (the attention to preventing minors from drinking is appreciated, but you also serve a drink called “Bad Touch”). As you serve and converse with her, she appears to distort in front of you, much like a computer glitch. Most of the conversation is centered around nanomachines and “nanomachine rejection”, and because this technology is used to control Glitch City’s inhabitants, it’s likely it’ll be featured more heavily in the full game. The dialog is slightly awkward, but it did a good job creating an intriguing story that pushes the player to want to play the full game.
In the prologue you are working a weekend during which the bar has been rented out by the Seifar Toy Company, a corporation that makes toys for dogs. You quickly find out that Seifar is run by dogs, and so everyone being served is a corgi. If nothing else, this should be the reason you play VA-11 HALL-A, for the corgis.
Each customer gives you a few lines of dialog that reveals something about their company, or their slightly racist views on other dogs, and it’s pretty clear that these guys can’t hold their alcohol. I should mention that all these dogs are Pembroke Welsh corgis, as they have a strained relationship with the Cardigan corgis working at Seifar and most of those are at a different location. The lines of dialog start repeating as you go through the second and third days, but it’s simple enough to skip through them while serving the drinks.
In between the furry customers, you chat with an android driver, Deal, who’s been hired to get everyone home safely, or the company’s vet, Betty. Both of these characters introduce more complex themes of ethics in using cybernetics, how robots are treated in Glitch City and how exactly one comes to work for a bunch of dogs. These conversations are better-written and draw you into the story a little more. If Deal and Betty show up in the full version, these two characters would be interesting to interact with in more meaningful ways.
Overall, the game seems worth the $5 they’re asking for right now to pre-order it. The storyline is intriguing, the soundtrack is well-done and the dialog is pretty amusing, even if some of it’s a little awkwardly written. The demo and prologue both hinted at themes that might be included in the full-version, which would certainly elevate the game to something more than a cyberpunk bartending simulator. If you’re a William Gibson fan, I definitely recommend going to http://itch.io and giving them a few dollars to play the demo and prologue. According to Sukeban’s blog “This game will be more expensive once it’s out, so if you want to get it for dirt cheap go now to itch.io”, so go sooner than later. I mean…corgis, that’s all I really need to say, right?