GOTY 2016: The Top 10 Games of the Year - #8

We're excited to announce the Silicon Sasquatch Top 10 Games of the Year! After months of discussion and a marathon five-hour meeting, we've finally narrowed down the ten games that we feel best represent the best and most important that 2016 had to offer.

We'll be counting down through our Top 10 list all week, so stay tuned on Facebook and Twitter to make sure you don't miss a thing!

#8 | VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

Sukeban Games | June 21st, 2016 | Windows, Mac, Linux

In college, I took a class titled “Tokyo Cyberpunk,” where we watched and considered films including Blade Runner, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell. While it was borne of my love for Japanese media and its particular post-apocalyptic aesthetic, I’ve only become more interested in it after moving to Tokyo and experiencing neon-washed nights in the heart of a city that feels just as alive at midnight as at noon. As a game player, beyond the raw athleticism of sports games, I’ve found myself most attracted to stories told in this medium in ways that could only happen with games.

This is all to say that VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is exactly my flavor of crazy. Set in a bleak future mega-city where humans and robotic humanoids live in harmony and both still need a watering hole after the 9-to-5 ends, VA-11 HALL-A is easy to overlook but features more heart and soul than most games I’ve played in the last few years.

Broken into its fundamentals, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel which features a drink-mixing component and over-arching metagame wherein you control player-character Jill and make sure she pays her bills on time. You know, adult stuff. But the fundamentals alone sell the game short, most notably because it is a visual novel and the writing, atmosphere, and world is so solid.

From the very start of the game (wherein the previous night’s party is discussed in detail and Jill lovingly calls your colleague a “Fuckboy” right off the bat) the balance of humor and levity creates a hell of a place to mix drinks and change lives. Each person you serve acts as a small chapter, and as one-time encounters become regulars and friends, the player learns more and more about Jill and the other characters which inhabit the world. Hackers, singers, journalists, private investigators, prostitutes, assassins, heiresses, soldiers, others with less defined roles...all of whom come to the titular bar to escape from the troubles of real life, however big or small. And more often than not, these people brighten the landscape and tilt the story towards poignancy or humor.

The balance of humor and levity creates a hell of a place to mix drinks and change lives

These conversations bring the world to life. When the city is under high alert for a terror attack, the tension comes through. Later on, as the calendar flips through Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the celebration of family — the ersatz family that comes together in a foreign city through friendships — is felt just as warmly. As somebody who has lived that life, it’s a sensation that rings true. In certain sequences (when the tables turn, and when your boss joins you for quiet time at home), the relationships developed throughout the game are felt as keenly as any I can remember in games in the past few years. And even when you get the “bad” ending, the world still moves on and you know Jill will get by.

Combined with a gloriously old-school 16-bit PC art style and music that digitally approximate the varieties of pop, rock, and schmaltz that you hear in Japanese dive bars, VA-11 HALL-A is a wonderfully wrapped up package. The soundtrack will stay on my phone for a long time, the fan art via the official Sukeban Twitter profile will stream on my feed, and the memories of the characters will stay with me for a while. That’s the sign of a great game.  — Doug Bonham