Every so often I check the Nintendo Switch eShop just to see what indie developers are coming up with. It doesn't take much searching to find the indies. Hitting the "Recently Released" or "On Sale" tab will eliminate most of the big name games. What's left are a few genuinely creative titles, and a lot of anime.
It's unfortunate, as a fan of anime, to see the visual style thrown on games that don't really need it. It's the game equivalent of that one kid in school who draws everything in anime style. Even if the project is on the American Revolution, you can bet he drew the founding fathers like Dragon Ball characters. The Switch eShop is like a library of games designed by that kid, making it easy to overlook anything with big eyes and spiky hair.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action deserves your attention, however. It takes an overused style and genre and uses them to tell a genuinely human story.
It's that visually striking yet economically depressing future the movies warned us about. Over the course of the game's story, the armored peacekeepers are exposed for corruption, drones get shot down in the streets, and cup noodles rise to $60. But the story isn't about that, not really. It's about the everyday customers and staff of the VA-11 bar in HALL-A, called "Valhalla" for short.
These people and their stories are seen through the eyes of Jill, a sharp bartender who's developed an amazing poker face. As Jill, you'll spend most of your time looking at busts of other characters and their accompanying text boxes. You'll also mix the occasional drink, an easy process that just involves following an onscreen recipe to add the correct amounts of ingredients. VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel through and through, more concerned with story than challenging gameplay. There are a few times where you're asked to memorize a regular customer's order, and getting them right will lead to secret endings. Otherwise, your time is spent reading.
For what it's worth, it's a very engaging read. The characters feel realistic, even when they're a catgirl or a cybernetic assassin. That's the most important part of a visual novel, and yet one that a lot of these Switch indies seem to forget. It's not enough to have cute anime girls be cute. They have to have personality, enough to make players want to follow their stories through to the end.
VA-11 HALL-A's writer was thankfully aware of this. The characters are visually appealing, but they also have in-jokes, swap heated political views, and drink their sorrows away. The anime-inspired visuals and depressing cyberpunk setting are smartly used as a backdrop. I couldn't imagine the game without them, but they're not the only selling point.
In the end, however, it is a visual novel. The genre will never appeal to a mass audience. And the audience it does appeal to probably already bought this game years ago on Steam. The Switch version doesn't add any new story, unfortunately. As always, it is nice to be able to stop and start at any time, and switch between TV play and handheld. There is the option of touchscreen controls in handheld mode for those who want it.
There's just too many anime games of questionable quality on the Switch eShop. VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is not one of them. In fact, it shows how visual novels with anime-influenced visuals can be used creatively to tell a good story. This is one Switch game to watch out for when it hits the "On Sale" tab.
A code for VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action was provided by the publisher. It's available now on Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Steam.
3.75 out of 5 stars