N1RV Ann-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action Returns – Preview

Pour drinks for the cyberpunk city of Saint Alicia in the sequel to VA-11 HALL-A.

N1RV Ann-A is a game about the kinds of conversations that are happening just offstage in every cyberpunk story – early William Gibson novels, games of Shadowrun, etc. Behind the scenes, everyone gets tired sooner or later. That person’s day-to-day might involve the kind of office politics that involve hiring a squad of deniable, eccentric mercenaries to plant evidence or make somebody disappear. For now, though, all they want is a drink, a quiet moment, and a few minutes of real, unguarded conversation.

That’s what I was thinking of as I came out of my demo of N1RV Ann-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (subtitled “Trouble in False Paradise” in its trailer) at the Penny Arcade Expo a couple of weeks ago. The sample scenario in the PAX demo was a short conversation between Sam, the protagonist and bartender, and a middle manager at a biotech firm named Olivia.

It was easy to imagine Olivia, in any other game, as the mysterious client for a group of mercenary player characters, hiring them to take out a competitor’s network or kidnap someone for leverage. At the moment, though, Olivia was just a tired office worker grabbing a drink at the end of the day. It was an unusual twist on a sort of stock genre character, and it made me genuinely curious as to where it would go next.

N1RV Ann-A is a standalone sequel to 2015’s VA-11 HALL-A. It’s set in a gleaming future city full of fashionable people living their lives, all told through mildly-animated pixel art with a synth-pop soundtrack that evokes the cyberpunk anime and manga of the 1980s and 1990s. If you told me the whole thing was based on a lost episode of Bubblegum Crisis, I’d have no choice but to believe it.

Like VA-11 HALL-A, N1RV Ann-A is a visual novel with no actual dialogue choices. You can occasionally pick the type of reaction you want to have, but you can’t pursue actual conversation trees. Instead, you mix drinks for your customers, and their reactions to what you serve indicate where your interaction will go next.

You play as Sam, who works at the upscale bar N1RV Ann-A in Saint Alicia, a wealthy city on an artificial island. Saint Alicia was created much like VA-11 HALL-A’s Glitch City, as a new plot of land on which corporations could set up their offices outside of international regulations.

Unlike Glitch City, Saint Alicia actually looks great on the surface, but you don’t have to dig down too far to find its dark side. Even besides the genre-standard corporate backstabbing, Saint Alicia is heavily infiltrated by organized crime. Even Sam is at odds with Leon, the father of her son Tony, over Leon’s career as the head of a small-time yakuza family.

As in VA-11 HALL-A, the goal in N1RV Ann-A is to get to know your regulars and build a rapport with them through serving them drinks. The bar gets an assorted crowd of corporate clients, artists, and partiers through its doors, each of whom has a story to tell Sam. Your success or failure in serving them determines how much of that story you get to hear.

The trick is that there are a lot more potential drinks on the menu in N1RV Ann-A. There were exactly five mixers in VA-11 HALL-A, one of which was actually rat poison. N1RV Ann-A has a few dozen, and they’re all comparatively typical bartending staples: whiskey, rum, bitters, lemon juice, orange rind etc.

You’ve got the ingredients to mix just about any drink you can imagine, to try to fulfill the occasionally oblique requests of the regulars at the bar. In the PAX demo, Olivia asked for something strong, so I made her a Long Island Iced Tea, which she proclaimed to be “too weak” (Olivia apparently has an aftermarket super-liver).

Each customer is treated like a separate mission, which can be replayed for points, additional dialogue, and the potential for opening additional, secret conversations. Happy customers can also give Sam tips, which you can turn around and spend on decorating the bar, paying Sam’s bills and raising her son.

It should probably be said that while N1RV Ann-A does feature a brand-new story, UI and characters, the minute-to-minute gameplay is essentially a more elaborate version of VA-11 HALL-A’s. Sukeban’s programmers have promised that it’s a big improvement on its predecessor in many ways. To go by the PAX demo, however, this is ‘just’ another swing at an irreverent, deftly-written cyberpunk visual novel. N1RV Ann-A’s differences are mostly those in setting and theme, looking down at a cyberpunk dystopia from above rather than up from below.

According to Ysbryd Games’ PR department, N1RV-Ann-A doesn’t currently have a release date. The plan is for it to come out at some point in 2020, but Sukeban Games is headquartered in Caracas, Venezuela. Among other things, the frequent power outages have been a problem, slowing down development on both N1RV Ann-A and an as-yet-unannounced second project. Still, Sukeban has been on the road for much of September, showing the game off at both PAX West and the Tokyo Game Show, so hopefully we’ll see N1RV Ann-A next year.