PAX West 2019 Hands-on: N1RV Ann-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

A few years ago, a little indie visual novel called VA-11 Hall-A popped on to my radar. A cyberpunk tale told through the eyes of a bartender, this first release from Venezuelan studio Sukeban Games quickly made it into my list of favorite visual novels. The game was heavily character driven, mostly focusing on the day-to-day life and issues facing the people living in the game’s dystopian setting, rather than the world itself.

About a year ago, Sukeban announced that they were working on a sequel, and this year they brought a demo of said sequel to PAX West, as well as their head writer, Fernando Damas. We had the chance to go hands-on with a short snippet of N1RV Ann-A, continuing our adventures in mixing drinks and changing lives.

The demo had me talking and mixing drinks for one customer, and was only about 10-15 minutes long. While it didn’t present much in terms of story (there’s really only so much you can show in a visual novel demo), it did a great job in communicating the new setting and mechanics.

Unlike VA-11 Hall-A‘s gritty and dark Glitch City, N1RV Ann-A takes place in Saint Alicia, a much more wealthy environment. The customers are more high-class, and the bars here actually serve real alcohol rather than the synthetic drinks of Glitch City. Damas told us they wanted this game to be a contrast to their previous, exploring the other side of the world that they’ve created.

Damas also mentioned how they worked to implement everything they originally wanted to do in their original game here in N1RV Ann-A, as they “didn’t really know how to make games back then.” The most obvious example of this is in the game’s bartending system, which has been drastically expanded compared to VA-11 Hall-A.

Rather than a simple five ingredients that you have to combine according to a recipe book, here in N1RV Ann-A you’re given access to a full bar, as well as much more freedom in how you create drinks for customers. While there is still a recipe book that you can reference, you can also get creative and create your own drinks to match what a customer is asking for.

To do so, the game expands on the “qualities” of the drinks. In the original game, each cocktail you could create had different qualities such as “sweet” or “bitter,” and the game would hint at what drink you had to make by having a customer mention these qualities. In N1RV Ann-A, Damas told us, these qualities are applied to the liquors and mixers themselves. By learning what quality each ingredient adds to a cocktail, you get more freedom to create custom drinks that appease your customer and advance the story, rather than sticking to recipes.

Unfortunately this wasn’t obvious to me during the demo. The customer I worked with ordered two drinks during my time with the game, a beer and then “something sweet, but not too sweet.” Drawing on my experience with VA-11 Hall-A, I immediately jumped into the game’s recipe book, flipped through some drink descriptions, and settled on a Long Island Iced Tea. Luckily, the customer enjoyed it!

Sukeban is also aiming for this game to be a longer and more in-depth experience than the original. Damas mentioned that the game will likely be around 20 hours long to experience everything (although he did say you could blast through it in around six hours if you’re just shooting through a single route). He also said that the game’s story will dive more into expanding the world of the now “Cyberpunk Bartender Action” series.

Overall, N1RV Ann-A feels less like a game-changing sequel and more of a logical expansion to the original. I really like the expanded bartending options (and I’m really looking forward to experimenting with different cocktails), and I’m excited to see what the story here brings to the world that Sukeban have crafted. While the demo had a few minor typos and graphical glitches, it seems like it’s nearing ready to go, and I’ll definitely be there day one when it launches.

N1RV Ann-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is aiming for a 2020 release for Switch, PS4, and PC via Steam.

Screenshots courtesy of Ysbryd Games.