VA-11 HALL-A, previewed here in its demo version, is a game that came out late last month for PC and Vita.* It bills itself as “cyberpunk bartender action”, as you can see in the above screenshot. Not sure about the “action” bit, but the description is otherwise apt, because you play as Jill, a young bartender working at a small out-of-the-way bar called VA-11 HALL-A (pronounced Valhalla) in a slummy neighborhood of the futuristic dystopia Glitch City. In this future, humans are enhanced with nanomachines and extremely human-looking robots called Lilim mix with the population. The city’s population has to deal with constant shortages, and protests are dealt with violently by the authorities. Jill, however, is only concerned with getting to work, paying rent, and keeping the lights on. She shares her duties with her boss Dana and her co-worker Gillian (above, left and right respectively), each of whom have shady and mysterious pasts.
Jill goes to work every night, tends bar, and has conversations with her customers and with Dana and Gillian. Some customers only drop by once or twice, while others are regulars, but all of them ask for mixed drinks that Jill has to prepare using the setup on the right side of the screen. Sometimes the customer will ask for a specific drink, but at other times they’ll just ask for something strong or sweet or bitter or girly and let you interpret the order as you see fit. Fortunately, the player can refer to a drink guide that contains recipes, but a few orders are actually pretty hard to get right the first time around, and serving customers different drinks can change the conversation or get the customers drunker or less drunk depending upon how Karmotrine (basically the future version of alcohol) they consume. Jill’s performance at work also affects her paycheck and her ability to pay the bills back at home, where she returns after work to rest with her cat Fore and to read the news, blogs, and messageboards on her cell phone. Or her iPad, or whatever that thing she’s holding is.
This drink-mixing mechanic makes VA-11 HALL-A feel a little bit like Papers, Please, the big indie hit from 2013 that put the player in the role of a border agent trying to make ends meet in an oppressive Soviet-style state. VA-11 HALL-A, however, is a lot less of a traditional “game”, at least in the way a lot of people would define it, and a lot more of a visual novel. The drink-making parts of the game aren’t timed, and the player can reset and start over if he screws up with no penalties. The real focus of this game is on the relationships between its characters. A lot of the people hanging out in Valhalla have personal issues that they’re working through, and some of the characters that show up are pretty memorable and interesting. Characters that comes to mind right away are Sei, a member of the city’s security force who first visits the bar in her full uniform, complete with intimidating helmet, and Dorothy, a cheery android girl who works as a prostitute and has no qualms about it (or about talking about her work in detail.) One of the most interesting characters in the story, though, is Jill, who as it turns out is running away from something in her past that catches up with her during the game.
VA-11 HALL-A is a good game that I’m happy I bought and played, but there are some caveats in this case, because this isn’t a game for everyone. You might be thinking this game is inspired by Blade Runner, and you’d be right, since it’s in a dystopian cyberpunk setting full of human-like androids. But VA-11 HALL-A is also soaked in references to anime/manga/Japanese game culture (is “culture” the right word for it?) If I weren’t an embarrassing weeb nerd myself, I definitely wouldn’t have understood some of the hidden jokes in the game’s many conversations. Someone who’s approaching this game without that kind of background will be missing out a bit in that regard.
Even moreso, though, VA-11 HALL-A is an adult game. There’s nothing remotely pornographic or lewd or anything in the game graphically speaking, but a lot of the conversations revolve around fuckin’. Especially when Dorothy is around. And Dorothy’s status as what amounts to a sexbot with a personality, combined with her appearance and the reference in her name, may make some players uncomfortable (like this reviewer for PC Gamer, who was clearly creeped out by the whole thing, though to be fair the game does address all this.)† So if that rubs you the wrong way, you might want to give VA-11 HALL-A a miss.
But if VA-11 HALL-A is about anything, it’s about the nature of love and friendship. That might make this game sound cheesy or cliché, but it really handles the subject well and does so in an interesting setting and with interesting characters. So even though VA-11 HALL-A felt like it ended way too quickly (one playthrough only took about 10 hours, which is standard length for some genres but short for a VN) I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys VNs or who thinks all the stuff I described above might be interesting. The soundtrack is also really good and goes a long way towards creating the game’s cyberpunkish but also strangely cozy atmosphere. And considering the fact that the developer, Sukeban Games, consists of two guys living in Venezuela, one of the most politically unstable countries in the world at the moment, VA-11 HALL-A is actually pretty goddamn impressive. Let’s hope they make it through the crisis and go on to top their achievements with an even better game.
*I was going to start this review with a lot of bitching about how at least I have this game to play while waiting for Zero Time Dilemma, which I was supposed to have last fucking week but someone fucked up and Amazon promised they’d ship the game in an email but they haven’t done anything for the past five days. But then I thought that sounded too bitter/angry. Then I wrote about it in this footnote instead.
†This review is kind of interesting to me because it’s a take on the game from a totally different perspective from mine – aside from the whole sex issue, the reviewer just seems to not like visual novels considering her comments about how the game is “boring”, and VA-11 HALL-A is basically a visual novel.