By Josh Speer / December 4th, 2017
|Release Date||June 21st, 2016 (Steam), November 14th, 2017 (Vita)|
|Genre||Simulation, Visual Novel|
|Age Rating||M for Mature – Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco|
I clearly remember the first time I played VA-11 HALL-A. It was PAX Prime back in 2014, and I took a meeting with publisher Wolfgame mostly on a whim. Honestly I didn’t even know the name of the game nor the premise, but I am always willing to give indies a chance. I sat down at a hotel adjacent to the convention center, met with my contact and tried out the demo. Suddenly I found myself thrust into a strange world full of cyberpunk dystopia, bartending and well animated characters. It was utterly unique and strange, but also caught my attention. So much so that I’ve patiently waited 3 years for VA-11 HALL-A to release on Vita (it did release on Steam, but the appeal of playing it on my Sony handheld made me pass on the first release). Now that it’s finally made its way to Sony’s little handheld that could, what did I think of VA-11 HALL-A?
The first thing I noticed about VA-11 HALL-A was the quality of the writing. It sets the tone adeptly while slowly introducing you to this eclectic band of characters. You play bartender Jill, a quiet and typically calm woman prone to fits of inappropriate laughter and holding onto a few painful secrets. As the game progresses, you get a very good portrait of each character sketched into your brain, with no two the same. Besides Jill, there is also shady co-worker Gillian (AKA Johnface) who at times seems a bumbling goofball and other times shows dangerous hidden facets; Dana, cybernetic armed bar owner and possibly wrestler of bears, who has a bad tendency to get stuck in things; Alma, the beautiful and flirtatious hacker with commitment issues and family drama; Dorothy, the pluckiest Lilim (think android) sex worker you’ve ever met with a vocabulary that will melt the ears off the soft hearted and who will give you a great time for the right price; and one of the best, Sei, member of the White Knights who upholds the peace and goes out of her way to help those in need. There’s plenty more besides that, but those are some of my absolute favorites. You’ll find it hard not to become attached to some of this cast, if not all of them.
VA-11 HALL-A‘s main plot revolves around the fact that the titular bar is soon closing, and down on her luck bartender Jill is trying to make as much money as she can to pay her rent. It quickly becomes far more involved and complex, thanks in part to the many conversations you strike up bartending each night, as well as due to messageboards you can read in between jobs at home. The latter is entirely optional, but you’d be foolish to ignore these messages, as they do a great job of painting a picture of the world the game takes place in. Though you might occasionally forget, VA-11 HALL-A takes place in the futuristic Glitch City, a place where the taxes are high, pollution runs rampant, food is nearly unaffordable, nanobots are inside everyone and the people in charge of the government are bumbling idiots at best and corrupt thieves at worst. It’s surprising that this game originally released in 2014, cause there are still many parallels to the world we live in today. In many ways, I see VA-11 HALL-A as a dark mirror image of the world we live in, and a cautionary tale of what state our world might soon find itself in. Having said that, it’s not all darkness, as there also seems to be another recurring theme in the game. Namely, no matter how hard times are, you will find hope and light in the kindness of others. That might seem peculiar in a game full of cybernetic Lilim, mercenaries, talking brains in jars, Corgi businessmen, mysterious hackers and sleazy newspapermen, but the game is portrayed so subtly that even the worst seeming characters have hidden depths that redeem them. Despite the game being cyberpunk noir, there is a lot of hidden light in between the black and gray overtones.
I’ve talked a lot about the setting and characterization, but you’re probably wondering about the gameplay itself. Basically it’s a mix of visual novel, with lots of reading, followed by drink mixing. Sometimes your customer will give you a very precise order, and all you’ll have to do is check your database for the drink name, mix the ingredients, and serve it. Other times, the game will mix things up, either by asking you for a big version of a drink, wherein you need to use double the ingredients, or even ask for incredibly vague orders you have to decipher yourself. The worst offender for cryptic orders is Virgillio, but other returning customers will keep you on your toes as well, so it behooves you to pay close attention to what people say. Overall, mixing drinks is pretty easy once you get the hang of it, and you’ll be bartending like a champ in no time. I’m happy you can do so with touch controls, as it’s pretty intuitive to drag ingredients into your tumbler, add either ice or age the drink, then mix or blend it to perfection. The only complaint I have regarding the touch controls is the lack of consistency when they can and can’t be implemented. For example, you select messages from your phone using the touch screen, but can’t scroll them up or down with the D-pad. It’s not a serious hindrance, but you’ll eventually end up using exclusively touch controls just to avoid confusion.
While the game itself is pretty linear, there are also several different endings you can get. One involves not being able to pay your rent on time, whereas the others all involve mixing the right drinks for the right people. In my 15 hour playthrough I only got the worst ending, but I’m already playing again to try and get a better one. My only complaint is that you really need to make use of a guide to get some of the drinks right for specific endings and I wish there was a speed reading option for subsequent playthroughs. Other than that, the game offers a robust experience, with a single playthrough taking at least a dozen hours or so. Considering there are 6 endings in total, you’ll be spending a lot of time at VA-11 HALL-A in order to platinum the game.
Though I briefly touched on the art earlier, I need to reiterate how great it is. It’s all detailed and colorful, and characters don’t just come across as still portraits talking like robots. They burst with personality exemplified by a variety of quirks. They will bat their lashes, cry like children, shriek in panic and much more. Honestly, games like this are a prime example of why I don’t care about how realistic graphics are in games. So long as they draw you into the game and make the characters breathe, that’s all that matters to me. The only complaint I have regarding the graphics is that the load and save times can be a little long, but that’s a minor issue.
I also need to spend some time talking about how great the music and sound design is. While the art and writing are both on point, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective without a resonant soundtrack. Luckily, VA-11 HALL-A‘s sound is incredible. What was unique about it was that every night, you get to pick 12 songs that play in the jukebox. There’s a wide variety to pick from, and they range from cheery to menacing to seductive and more. There’s tons of tunes, and I found none that felt out of place. While you would think that being able to pick the soundtrack would result in upbeat songs for dire scenarios and vice versa, I found this wasn’t a problem. In part that might be because I always made an effort to listen to the songs briefly before placing them, and tried to start out calm, working up to engergetic, then plateau with something mellow and moody. All I know is the music was always perfect for the mood, and it was always a delight to listen to.
In summation, VA-11 HALL-A was well worth the wait on my Vita. It drew me in much deeper than I would have thought possible, making me actually care about the lives of these characters. Kudos as well to Sukeban Games for subtly tying in themes of consciousness, sexual identity, depression, true friendship, love and much more. For $14.99, VA-11 HALL-A is a game every Vita fan should own. It’s full of heart, drama and hope. My only hope now is that the world of the game gets expanded in the future, as I would love a sequel or something similar from the developers. VA-11 HALL-A is the bar I desperately need in my own life, and after playing it, you’ll feel the same.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
oprainfallre-reviewSukeban GamesVA-11 Hall-AVitaWolfgame