VA-11 HALL-A isn’t a visual novel, but saying that seems kind of silly, because it pretty much is. The reason I say it’s not is because… well, it’s not a novel. Aside from a few optional side things, VA-11 HALL-A’s story is told through pure dialogue. I’m pretty sure something that consists purely of people talking can’t be considered a novel, right? Prose doesn’t work that way, right? Perhaps I’m wrong, who knows.

You know it's cyberpunk because there's an X in the year.

You know it’s cyberpunk because there’s an X in the year.

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a totally-not-visual-novel set in the very rough part of a cyberpunk city-state in the year 207X. You are Jill, a bartender who works in Hall A of the V-11 building, or “Valhalla” as it’s most often referred to. You “mix drinks and change lives”, as she puts it, by chatting to your patrons and concocting the drinks they ask you for.

The biggest draw of VA-11 HALL-A is the way in which is tells a comparatively small story. Valhalla feels like the sort of place you’d visit in a big budget, AAA cyberpunk action game, the kind with an epic, high-stakes, bombastic plot. Its customers the types of NPCs who repeat the same single line of dialogue whenever you approach them. You’d only be here at all because you need to speak to a specific character in order to receive some maguffin, or get some info that helps advance the plot, and then you’d never have a reason to return.

But VA-11 HALL-A isn’t that. It’s a small game that tells a small story consisting of what would be inconsequential characters. These characters do have a story, even if that story isn’t quite on the same scale as say, Adam Jenson’s or Cloud Strife’s, but they’re still interesting and a lot more grounded to boot. By being (totally not) a visual novel, the characters are the main draw and the game does a fantastic job of making them interesting and enjoyable, even the ones that only appear a handful of times. Each one has their own stuff going on, and you can help them in your own little way as a bartender would: by supplying them alcohol and listening to their woes. Jill herself also has her own share of guilts and anxieties, a past she’d rather not speak of. However, as you get to know your regulars, and as they get to know you, she’ll begin to open up, willingly or not, about her troubles. You’ll learn exactly why it is she works at a seedy downtown bar, spending most of her free time sitting bored at home with her cat, reading the in-universe equivalent of 4chan and the Daily Mail.

Of course, characters aren’t much if their dialogue isn’t up to the task. Fortunately, for a game that consists almost entirely of dialogue, it’s pretty stellar. There are times when it can feel a little… videogamey, for lack of a better term (such as when a character asks “hey, so I was wondering about such and such…” in order to segue into a particular topic, usually a character’s backstory) but the majority of it feels naturalistic and, above all else, enjoyable. The game has its share of references and in-jokes: a couple of characters like to announce their presence with pro-wrestling quotes, and one character is straight up wearing that red jacket from Akira. The game doesn’t rely on this though and does have it’s own sense of humour, one that fairly often had me giggling to myself. These characters feel like people that know each other, and so, often joke around in a way that people that know each other often do.

Look at how rad this shiba is.

Look at how rad this shiba is.

Spending so much time chatting to and getting to know these characters also means getting attached to them. Feeling thrilled when a particular character shows their face at the bar because you’re excited to spend time with them, or rolling your eyes and sighing when another shows up because you don’t fancy listening to their shit, feels rewarding. Especially when those thoughts mirror those of Jill herself. The characters are the stars of the show here and each feel like they have something to offer, even if it is just being the slightly rude patron who only visits the bar on occasion. The cast of characters is also pretty unique, from the physically 13-year-old, but mentally 24-year-old sex-worker robot girl who takes an adorably large amount of giddy pride in her work, to the talking dog who wears sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. Yes, you read that correctly. His name is Rad Shiba. He’s pretty alright. There was only a single character that felt out of place and thankfully they don’t get too much screen-time so they didn’t sour the experience too much.

Interestingly, for a game so focused on dialogue, there aren’t actually any dialogue choices. There is still player choice however, and this is where the gameplay comes into… play. Jill is a bartender after all, and her job consists of more than chatting with patrons. In the far off cyberpunk future of the 2070s, alcoholic drinks are cocktails of fake future cyberpunk chemicals. All the drinks you can serve customers are made up of a mixture of Adelhyde, Bronson Extract, Powdered Delta, Flanergide and Karmotrine. Various combinations of these ingredients as well as occasionally ageing, blending and/or serving them on the rocks make up every drink. There’s no real challenge to the actual making of drinks, though that comes in the form of making sure you actually serve the correct drink. Folks aren’t going to always be explicit, perhaps instead asking you for “something classy” or “the usual”. Making sure all your patrons are happy by the end of your shift will net you bonus pay, which helps to ensure that Jill has enough money to pay her bills. Karmotrine is the alcoholic component of these cocktails, and many drink recipes list it as optional, and this is where the bulk of player choice comes into play. For such drinks, you can opt to not include alcohol at all, or load up as much booze as the game will allow. A customer might be a little more loose-lipped if you get them drunk quicker, or they might end up going home earlier due to not being able to handle their booze. You could also take a turn for the amoral by choosing to serve alcohol to the minor that managed to find her way to this back-alley bar.

It’s definitely an interesting way to deal with player choice, especially in the type of game that almost unanimously relies on simple dialogue options. It makes it feel much more… natural. When presented with dialogue options, knowing what you’re able to say ahead of time, you can make educated guesses as to what the “correct” choice to make is. But with creating drinks, it’s a lot more subtle but still has results. You can’t always be sure what will happen when you make your “choice”, much like real life!

Outside of the mixing booze and chatting up customers that encompasses the majority of the game, there’s also small sections each day of Jill hanging out at her apartment, and you can do a handful of minor activities. You can head to the shop and purchase little trinkets (such as posters, old video games, a Megachristmas tree…) which will stop her from becoming too distracted and affecting her performance at work. There are also a couple of sites mentioned before that you can browse on your phone: The Augmented Eye, a news outlet that primarily deals with celeb gossip and other such asinine topics, Danger/u/, analogous to 4chan, and the blog of a local robot pop-idol. Here you can read about the various goings-on in this dystopian world, topics that will occasionally be brushed upon in conversation with your friends and customers at work. It’s a good way to do some subtle worldbuilding, as well as reinforce the idea that VA-11 HALL-A is a small, inconsequential side-story in a much larger epic.

Visually, the game definitely has a striking look to it, wearing its clear influences on its sleeve. A 90s/early-00s retro-anime aesthetic, and great pixel art reminiscent of Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher and Policenauts or many other Japanese adventure games from that time. Along with the blue, purple and pink colour palette and the incredible soundtrack create an atmosphere unlike any other game I’ve played recently. The soundtrack, aside from being excellent, is also utilised in an somewhat interesting way. Being a bar, VA-11 HALL-A of course has a jukebox which, at the start of your day and after your mid-shift break, you can fill up with songs from the soundtrack to play sequentially or randomly throughout your day serving drinks and making small talk. This is how you will experience the majority of the surprisingly large catalogue of songs, so it pays to switch it up.

All in all, VA-11 HALL-A is a small, intimate story featuring unimportant, but charming characters that feels like it’s something happening way behind and off to the side of something much bigger and grander, but ultimately irrelevant. And it’s this feeling of inconsequentiality that makes VA-11 HALL-A’s story so fresh and enjoyable. Despite all I’ve said, it’s pretty much a visual novel and even if visual novels aren’t for you, you should probably give it a try. It’s much shorter than most Japanese examples of the genre, clocking in for me at around 8 hours. I’m of the opinion that there’s a game of every genre for everyone, and maybe this is that visual novel for you? Regardless, it’s undoubtedly one of my favourite gaming experiences of the year.

Note: This review contains spoilers for the 2007 game, BioShock.

It’s almost six whole years since Irrational Games came out with the fairly ground-breaking BioShock, way back in August of 2007. That game, billed as a spiritual sequel to Irrational’s PC classic System Shock 2, took somewhat of a step back in the RPG department, but for console gamers, there wasn’t anything quite like it at the time. Skipping over the wholly unnecessary sequel developed by 2K Marin, and it seems fitting that Irrational will be closing out this console generation similar to how they opened it.

You play as Booker DeWitt, an actual voiced and developed character, unlike the previous game’s blank slate, Jack. The underwater city of Rapture is swapped out for the floating city of Columbia, where you are seemingly tasked to “bring back the girl, and wipe away the debt.” Gameplay-wise, it’s business as usual; if you’ve played BioShock before, you’ll feel right at home, though there have been a few significant changes to the way the combat works in Infinite. There are a standard array of weapons, which all fall into the typical shooter archetypes: a pistol, machine gun, carbine, shotgun, etc. However, this time around, you can only hold two weapons at once, meaning you might want to think more carefully about how you enter an engagement, and be mindful of your ammo counts a bit more often than you necessarily would be in the first game.

It's pretty in Columbia.

It’s pretty in Columbia.

The magical powers, called “vigors” this time around (which require salt, as opposed to EVE), are pretty similar, with the biggest change being able to hold down the button to make a trap version of most of them. Traps were their own specific plasmids in the original BioShock, so being able to easily create traps with the regular fire and lightning vigors in Infinite lead me to using traps a hell of a lot more than in the previous game. There’s some decent variety in the vigors available, though I found myself sticking to a core few more often than not. The lightning vigor, or “Shock Jockey” is always useful, and the Bucking Bronco vigor lets you easily hit and briefly incapacitate large groups of enemies quickly, and with a few exceptions here and there, I didn’t find myself deviating from this all too often.

Combat is as interesting as always.

Combat is as interesting as always.

Gone are the gene tonics from before, with character buffs coming in the form of gear, pieces of loot that you can find that provide a variety of random effects. Having a 70% chance to ignite enemies with a meleé attack, receiving brief invulnerability whenever you use a health recovery item, or your weapon having a 40% chance to instantly have its magazine refill without reloading are some of the effects which can definitely help you out of a sticky situation. Using the Charge vigor to instantly lunge into an enemy from a good distance away, then have him explode into flames upon impact never ceases to be incredibly satisfying. Also, available to buff yourself are Infusions, which are usually found a off the beaten path and each one allows you to increase your shield,  health or salt capacity, giving you a little more option for your character than in the older games. You could be like me and try and evenly spread them across each stat, or you could min-max your character and raise your shields super high, at the expense of your health and salt reserves.

The only thing I found to be disappointing about the combat in Infinite was the weapon upgrades. Each weapon has a number of upgrades available to them that can be bought freely from vending machines throughout the game, but the only upgrades available for any of the weapons are standard damage, magazine-size, reload and recoil buffs. Compared to some of the more interesting upgrades in the previous games, as well as the fact the appearance of your weapons don’t change after each upgrade, there’s no real feeling of progression here. It’s only a minor gripe, however, and the combat in Infinite is as fun as ever. It’s interesting and there’s enough breaks throughout the game that it never starts to feel overwhelming or repetitive.

The story is absolutely where BioShock Infinite shines, however. I obviously can’t delve too much into details without encroaching on spoiler territory, but if you go through Infinite expecting a massive plot twist (this is a Ken Levine game, after all), you’re not going to have that one particular “would you kindly?” moment from the first game. Although there is a particular twist that stands out, it’s a combination of a number of things that come together to create a fantastic and absolutely satisfying conclusion to the story. The game is also absolutely littered with references and foreshadowing, which can make a subsequent playthrough an almost equally great experience.

Elizabeth is one of the best companions in video games. Ever.

Elizabeth is one of the best companions in video games. Ever.

The characterisation is also top-tier, with Elizabeth being one of the best and most realised video games companions of… well, ever. After first meeting her about an hour or so into the game, she remains by your side for the majority of the rest of your 10-12 hour experience. Outside of combat, she will occasionally find and give you money, and can also be used to lockpick various safes and doors that lead to hidden areas. The game will often remind you that in-combat, you won’t have to deal with her as she can “take care of herself”. This is because the enemy AI simply ignores her, which can lead to somewhat of a disconnect with that game, but it’s something I managed to get over fairly quickly. She will often find and throw you health, salt and ammo in battle, and her special ability lets her use “tears” to call in objects from… somewhere. Again, spoilers. These can range from turrets and cover as well as just general supplies like ammo or med kits. As useful as she in combat though, she’s also just a joy to be around. Irrational have very successfully crafted a character that you grow attached to and care about throughout the course of the game.

Irrational Games have created absolute masterclass in video game storytelling with fantastically crafted character arcs that leave you wanting so, so much more. This alongside gameplay that is as competent as ever means that BioShock Infinite is not only going to be one of, if not the best game this year, but one of the best games this entire generation.

Full disclosure: This being a personal site and all, it is highly likely that any and all reviews I write on here may not be completely objective, whether it be because I have a particular fondness of the genre, developer, etc. So, bear that in mind.

– – –

I’ll be completely honest here: up until about a week or so before launch, I had no idea what Gotham City Impostors was. Sure, I had heard of it, but apart from the name, I was completely clueless. Based on the name alone, I figured it would be some sort of MMO-type game, and I still maintain that the name and premise would work well for that kind of game. The premise is pretty simple: a bunch of wannabe vigilante Batmen go against a bunch of wannabe Jokers in standard multiplayer shooter scenarios. Neither Batman, the Joker or any other legitimate characters make an appearance here, it’s all regular Joes trying to emulate them, albeit it, a little more… violently.

GCI is a 6v6 multiplayer first-person-shooter, and features everything you’d expect from a modern example of the genre. Customisable classes, a progressive levelling system, persistent unlocks, etc. Ever since Call of Duty 4 set the bar, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a FPS that doesn’t feature these tropes. However, that’s not to say this game is just another Call of Duty game with a Batman skin; GCI has it’s own set of quirks and features that make it stand out from the crowd.

For instance, the game features some pretty deep customisation options. Sure, the equipment customisation is fairly recognisable: choose a primary weapon, secondary, attachments, etc, as well as items that function very much like Call of Duty’s perks system. However, GCI also lets you customise the appearance of your character, including ways that dramatically change the way the game is played. The biggest of these is through changing your body type: there are five different body types to choose from, effectively ranging from tiny to massive. Smaller body types get increased movement speed, but are much more frail, meaning they can’t take as many hits. The inverse is true of the larger body types. The largest body type “Mighty” is a huge bullet sponge, but movement speed is painfully slow.

The thing that sets apart the gameplay of GCI from other similar titles is the various gadgets that are unlockable. During the game’s “initiation” you are introduced to the grapple-gun, which you fire at any surface, high or low, and then make your way towards; the glider, which allows you to glide in the air, with height boosts attainable from various open air vents and trampolines scattered throughout the map. The glider also lets you do a divebomb attack whilst in midair, which does damage respective to how big your character is, with the “mighty” body type doing incredible damage on a successful hit; the roller skates, which give you increased movement speed, but makes movement harder to control, along with various ramps that provide speed boosts; and the spring boots, which you charge allowing you to jump at greater heights. These gadgets allow for a much greater increase in mobility to that found in more traditional shooters which greatly changes the pace of the game and help to set it apart from its peers.

Graphically, the game is… okay. On the console versions, the resolution is obviously limited, and some of the textures seem to be a little muddy. The frame rate can also be a bit spotty as well, with the game clearly struggling during some more intense moments. The biggest issue however, is that the game only runs at 30FPS (with occasional drops as mentioned). For a title whose speed of gameplay is just as, if not faster than say, Call of Duty, the poor framerate on the console version severely limits how enjoyable the game plays. On the PC, graphics are obviously much sharper with the increased resolution. Unfortunately, resolution is pretty much your only option when it comes to the graphics. Much to my dismay, there wasn’t even a FOV slider, which made my time with the PC version rather un-enjoyable.

That is, if I was able to get into a game. One of the biggest flaws with the game at present is that the matchmaking is, to put it bluntly, completely fucked. The game doesn’t support joining games in progress and, from what I can gather, lobbies never merge. This means that you will often find yourself sitting for ages in a half-empty lobby waiting for it to fill up with enough people to start the match. This problem is exacerbated on the PC where the player-base obviously isn’t anywhere near as large as it is on the home consoles. Monolith have stated that this will be addressed in a future update, but the fact this problem made it into the final retail version to begin with is incredibly disappointing.

My biggest problem with the game however, is simply the core shooting. It just doesn’t feel… right. For a game that is so fast-paced to be running at an inconsistent 30FPS is just simply not acceptable. Even though this problem is essentially eliminated if you’re playing on a decent computer, the controls themselves just aren’t particularly tight either. On PC, sprinting doesn’t stop you from aiming-down-sights, so if you started sprinting with ADS-ing, you’re going to automatically aim down sight again when you stop, which results in a great deal of unjust deaths.

At this point, I’m not even entirely sure if I would recommend Gotham City Impostors, even to fans of the genre. The sheer premise of the game, along with it’s great deal of original gameplay mechanics and absolutely absurd humour is something to be lauded, but the core game itself simply… just isn’t that fun. I probably had more moments where I was frustrated than where I was genuinely having fun. Or maybe I’m just jaded from these past few years of Call of Duty. Luckily, there are demos for the PSN and XBLA versions, which essentially let you play the full game for an hour (in-game time, not overall, which is nice). Although an hour is barely enough to scratch the surface of the impressive amount of customisation the game offers, it is enough to get a good sense of how the game plays and whether it’s something you want to play more of.