|VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
|June 21, 2016
|Visual Novel, Light Simulator
VA-11 HALL-A (Valhalla) is a pseudo bartender simulator and visual novel set in a 1980s dystopian future by Venezuelian developer, Sukeban Games. It released earlier this summer after going through a grueling development hell cycle due to completely changing their game engine and having to work around Venezuela’s recent social collapse and daily rolling blackouts.
I was completely captivated by the game’s art direction (a nod to old PC-98 games that you just don’t see every day) when I first saw screenshots and played the short demo in early 2015. The developers had been mostly quiet after the initial announcement of turning the demo into a full game, only occasionally announcing minor development progress and updates confirming that they were, in fact, not dead.
The game takes place in the year 207X in “Glitch City”, a city where giant corporations and criminal activity are law. In this future, mostly everyone has nanomachines in them. Many also have some kind of artificial augmentation, and androids, called Lillim, live among people. There are two stories going on in this game. One revolves around Jill, the player character, and her life as a bartender. The other is the power struggle between lower-class citizens and the police-like organization called the “White Knights”.
Jill doesn’t get involved with much outside of her work and all the information about what’s going on outside the bar comes from second and third hand sources. Customers will come in and have different views on outside events and the player can’t always take everything said at face value. Sometimes people will come in and just talk about nothing, either having no opinion on the events going on or being completely unaware, and it creates a charming and realistic quality in how these characters were written. Much of the exposition is naturally delivered to the player though, admittedly, there are some slip ups where the dialog feels forced to explain things or otherwise leave the player completely clueless.
The art style is what first really drew me to this game. It is heavily inspired by games like Policenauts and Snatcher, as well as late 80s to early 90s sci-fi anime, with atmospheric influence from Metal Gear Solid and films like Blade Runner and Escape from New York. The character designs are unique and mostly memorable. A few clash a bit with the style, but overall they are great.
The sprite work is fantastic and the animation, while limited, gives a great amount of expression to let the player understand how the character behaves. On the other hand, the UI is pretty dull, but I believe that is probably the intent. It works just fine for the setting and gets the job done, but it does get boring after having to see so much of it. If anything, it gives the scenes where the UI changes some significance.
The soundtrack is pretty great. There are lots of fun tracks for an upbeat workplace, as well as some quieter songs for a more ambient feeling that fit the 80s sci-fi feeling the game is going for. My biggest problem is how the music is handled. The player is required to fill the Jukebox with songs before their shift starts, which will play through the rest of the night. Only on a few occasions does the music change on its own to fit the mood or character.
Theme music that might resonate with a character is lost and tonal shifts between the music and what’s being said happen often. Frequently, a character might talk about how they were neglected or abused (or something) and the music would be cheerful and happy, or they might be having a good day and the music will be gloomy. It’s nice to give the player the ability to choose the music they want to hear, but it also hurts the impact of many conversations. A game like Hotel Dusk handled this kind of thing pretty well.
The last thing to go over is the gameplay, which, to me, is the weakest part of this game. The main goal is to make enough money to be able to pay Jill’s rent on time while also buying things to keep her focused during work. The player does this by successfully mixing drinks for customers, a task which is extremely difficult to unintentionally screw up, and getting paid by how well they do it at the end of the night. The bartending aspect of VA-11 HALL-A mostly amounts to reading what the customer wants, looking up how to make the drink they want, and making the drink by following the instructions. The only real difficulty is if Jill is not focused, since she won’t remember what the customer wanted and will require the player to have paid attention during the conversation. There are a couple instances when a customer will vaguely ask for something but they are scarce.
I often found myself getting really interested the dialog only to groan in annoyance when the customer would break conversation and ask me to get them a drink. I honestly feel the game would have been better without this mini-game (if it can even be called that) and just a straight visual novel with dialog options. I guess that would ruin the bartending aspect of the main character, not that it’s at all immersive to begin with, but there has to be a better way to do this.
My final complaint would be that for a game with the tagline of “waifu bartending”, there aren’t any romance options available. There are alternate endings depending on drink mixing service and how close Jill got to a character, but the goal of hooking up is not there (which sucks because I wanted Alma x Jill to be a thing).
Even with my nitpicking, I thoroughly enjoyed VA-11 HALL-A. It is a unique visual novel that was created under unique circumstances. Jill’s story is very touching as she goes through a difficult point in her life and the characters are fun to be around. The game is surprisingly long for a small indie VN (my playthrough was around 15 hours) and is available for $14.99 on Steam with future releases for the Playstation Vita and iPad/iOS later this year.
Review copy purchased by author