VA-11 HALL-A, or Valhalla, is a self described “Cyberpunk Bartender Action” game. This isn’t far off, actually. The core gameplay loop involves you listening and talking to clients to the bar in which you work at, the British Trademark Company owned VA-11 HALL-A, which is very Shadowrun-esque, and serving them with drinks that they may request. In this position, you learn more about the world you’re placed in through your clients, maybe it be about the area in your immediate vicinity, the town – Glitch City – where you work, or about other locations in the world.
I’d like to begin by complimenting the game’s graphics and soundtrack. It’s graphical style fits a comfortable and stylish middle ground between pixel-art and anime. The art style allows for full-detail views of characters within the bar, which is essential for a character-driven game like this, where emotions will play a real part of the game. It also allows for a cute chibi art-style within Jill’s (the main character’s) apartment. The soundtrack also sounds great, from the heavy and harsh tracks like Base of the Titans, to the more chilled, but seedy tracks like Underground Club or Those Who Dwell In Shadows. With the context of a jukebox in the bar, you can play whichever tracks you want, if you have them unlocked, whilst serving customers. The presence of music may even trigger reactions from your clients.
The main chunk of information you get from customers are mainly to aid with world building, before engaging in personal arcs. By playing as Jill, who obviously knows her stuff when it comes to the world she lives in, you can get a natural sounding conversation going between client and bartender with it being easy for you to pick up information without the immersion breaking questions that would be nonsensical for Jill to ask. And, unlike other visual novels, that rely on the promise of sex scenes to keep some players invested, the narrative here is strong enough for the game to not need to fall back on such scenes. Not to mention you feel obliged to replay the game in a ‘New Game Plus’ mode to obtain all of the endings.
The characters present are also very well written, and actually very fun to hear from. From an innuendo spouting android sex worker to an honest authority figure who wants nothing but good, each and everyone of them has you hooked on their every word, all of them being interesting enough for you to want to learn about them, whether Jill reflects your attitude or feelings towards the character or not. Another thing I noticed is that the cast is relatively diverse too, but in a way that feels natural. Many games that try to be diverse end up being pandering messes, but VA-11 HALL-A lands this spectacularly. Sexual orientation, for example, is a big example. They only come up when necessary, or naturally in conversation. They’re never rammed into your face in a way that screams “we’re diverse!” nor is the game marketed as such.
These characters may also have links to others in some way, shape or form, and this very much compliments the narrative. A character may enter and seem like a terrible person in some way, shape or form, but you could expect another character to enter later on and say things that will link to the previous character, maybe parts of stories that coincide or they’ll be explicitly named. These extra insights can add a whole new perspective on the character in question, making them a lot more morally grey than they would have been at face value.
The developers also seem to want to provide some kind of commentary on certain subjects, such as hacktivist groups, and anon forums (such as 4chan, for example), but seem to want to avoid making a definitive, be-all and end-all statement on anything, which is sensible. This ‘food for thought’ mentality is very much respected, and allows for a player to maybe gain a new perspective on issues, or interpret their own conclusions from actions that occur within the game. This reliance on the player to interpret a message that isn’t explicit really helps make the game accessible on many levels. An example of this is a thread early on in the game on /dangeru/, the games anon forum. The main userbase is female, and begin to abuse a male who was posting on the forum, with no real reason. This can be interpreted in a great deal of ways, especially when compared to the typical stereotype of users of anon forums being considered misogynist and needlessly inflammatory. Again, one can draw their own conclusions from these events, and none of them are going to really be wrong.
Some of the issues that they address are also done in an angle that’s very rarely seen. A character, for example, has a sibling who has transitioned into a trans-male. The transition is fairly recent, and the character in question is clearly having trouble breaking her hardwired and habitual references to the sibling, accidentally referring to him as a female, or by his original name. When someone transitions, this is also an element of it: the effect on those around you. It’s very rarely discussed or even mentioned, but it being here is a refreshing change to the now common ‘transition story’ arc of most characters who are trans within gaming.
An issue lies in its minimal gameplay, however. Whilst the story is good, the gameplay is generally lacking, with you only having to mix drinks, which you do so with a manual that drops down and stays up on the screen. It’s not very challenging because of this, and the game could have maybe benefited from a play style similar to Papers Please, with you having to manage space and room with the manual taking up room in your work station, and having to manage the station to mix drinks. The only way of making the game difficult is by not buying items and becoming distracted, where you need to actually pay attention to orders, and memorise them. The system works, however, and mixing drinks is still fun. Not to mention it barely detracts from the high quality writing and story, which is where your interest should lie.
Another problem comes from certain orders. Some of them can be frustratingly cryptic. Some may ask for a specific drink, a type, or a flavour, which is completely reasonable. Other patrons may also be cryptic in their orders, maybe ordering a drink by asking about it’s trivia, for example, “I want a drink that was made in honour for a dead friend.” Thankfully, this information is provided to you before you are given the order, or will be covered in the manual. However, you get some more frustrating orders, such as “I want a 17.” This seems obvious at first, but the obvious answer isn’t the answer. After finding out the answer from a peer, and trying it myself in an alternate save, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by how you only have one chance to fulfil an order in such a cryptic way, as well as getting in the way of a pure “flawless service” run, and I wouldn’t be able to get another chance to try this until I get to that point again in New Game Plus.
So, in summary, VA-11 HALL-A is an awesome example of how a game can be carried by a narrative alone, just like how many visual novels do, but do know that when you buy VA-11 HALL-A, you’re not buying a game, but effectively a visual novel. You should be deciding on whether this game is a worthwhile purchase on whether you’re more interested in narrative and world building than gameplay or not. Regardless, if the game is ever on sale, it’s well worth picking up regardless, thanks to having a narrative that is well worth experiencing.
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