A review of VA-11 HALL-A (PC, Vita)

Time to mix drinks and change lives

Have you ever wanted to work as a bartender at a cyberpunk bar in the future?  Then you’re in luck.  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 below screenshot.

v1

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.

v6

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.

In my playthrough, I fucked up and didn't have enough money in my account to pay the electric bill.

During my playthrough, I fucked up and didn’t have enough money in my account to pay the electric bill.

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.

Maybe it's better if you don't get the reference here.

A not-so-subtle reference to a certain famous novel.

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.

This is a real line in the game, not making it up

It makes sense in context, I promise

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.

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*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.

Valhalla I am coming

That famous line from Led Zeppelin’s famous “Immigrant Song” (their best-known, but not only, song they wrote about Vikings) is what I thought when I saw the title of the soon to be released VA-11 Hall-A, a visual novel by the studio Sukeban Games.  Valhalla, which is what I’m calling the game from now on because I don’t feel like copy-pasting VA-11 Hall-A more than once, is a VN set in a cyberpunk dystopian future city where there are nanomachines and probably robots and cyborgs that was certainly inspired by Blade Runner.  In this world, you play as Jill, a bartender working at a hole in the wall sort of place officially called VA-11 and unofficially called Valhalla who has to mix drinks and deal with the characters who come in out of the cold for booze and a conversation.  The gameplay, aside from being mostly or almost entirely a VN, includes a drink-mixing mechanic that’s vaguely reminiscent of a way less complicated form of the border agent work in Papers Please – you have the choice of mixing drinks properly for your customers or of giving them bullshit drinks, and your choice in this matter seems to affect the dialogue.

Your only customer in the demo, which gives you a brief taste of the full game.

Your only customer in the demo, which gives you a brief taste of the full game.

Valhalla is being released on June 21, but I played the admittedly very short demo that gave me at least a taste of the sort of gameplay I should expect.  And I’m honestly intrigued.  Not only do I like good visual novels, but this particular VN involves the consumption of alcohol, which I also like.  Moreover, Sukeban is an unabashedly weeaboo studio (no, it’s not Japanese, but Venezuelan, strangely enough) so that’s another natural connection for me to make.  The weeaboo thing can cut both ways – I’m hoping the final product will not be too self-indulgent or memetastic.  But the brief demo suggested that this probably won’t be the case.  Unlike some other western VN projects that crop up and get public attention, Valhalla – at least so far – doesn’t feel like a cheap knock-together of mediocre art and writing.  And the Venezuelan team that put together this demo/game seems to have an excellent grasp on English – either they’re fluent speakers or they hired native English-speakers to edit their work.

In any case, I’m interested in this game.  I need something to play while I study for the bar exam and wait for Zero Time Dilemma to come out.  Expect (well, maybe expect) a review of the full version of Valhalla in the near future.

Seven questions that apparently need answering

One of my favorite things about having a blog (now that I’m actually writing on it again, I mean) is that you can occasionally see what kinds of search terms bring people to your articles and posts.  Some of these terms are pretty mundane and expected.  My post on Shin Megami Tensei IV’s alignment system has gotten a lot of views from people search google for ways to get on the various paths to achieve certain endings (by the way, sorry that I don’t actually tell you how to get on each path in that post – I’m a really useful writer like that.) The terms there are pretty standard – “smt iv chaos route”, for example.

However, some search terms I find are just puzzling. Some of them are quite understandable in meaning and purpose, but I have no clue why Google decided one of my posts could answer their search query because they sure as hell weren’t anything I ever talked about. Others are truly bizarre. Since I can’t imagine these people got the answers they were looking for at my blog, I thought I’d take a selection of these search terms out of my stats page and address them one by one.

1) how early in a.m. can i get fried chicken at piggly wiggly

I have no idea. A better question would be why the hell you’re getting fried chicken at Piggly Wiggly when it is injected with something that they refuse to specify on the box. Also, if you have a Piggly Wiggly nearby, I’m willing to bet you also live near a Publix, and Publix fried chicken is about a thousand times better. Go to Publix instead.

2) why ummayyad consider as irreligious

This might have been directed to my now dead post about Damascus, where the Umayyad Mosque still stands (hopefully, at least.) Damascus was also the center of the somewhat short-lived Umayyad dynasty, which ruled most of the 7th-8th century Islamic empire following the death of the last of the “Four Good Caliphs”, Ali. The Umayyads were the first to establish a traditional father => son dynasty over the empire – initially, caliphs had been chosen by election and thus were pretty smart and capable guys (hence the “Good Caliphs” tag they are honored with.) The Umayyad caliphs, as tradition goes, were a bunch of no-good dirty bastards who enjoyed wine and women and all that sort of thing. That’s probably why they were overthrown in the 8th century by the Abbasid dynasty, though a branch of the Umayyads did escape to Spain to rule al-Andalus for a few centuries. But that’s your answer.

3) can you have more than one of the same demon in your party smt 4

Not sure whether I did address this, but the answer is no, you can’t.

4) anime that religious people really hate

This is an interesting one. I’m not really sure of a good answer, though. Maybe Neon Genesis Evangelion, that one’s pretty blasphemous. I’m more interested in why this guy is looking for anime that religious people really hate. Is he trying to upset a religious person? Maybe he’s religious and is looking for a reason to stop watching anime.

5) young lucifer over a camel and everything burning

Okay, this isn’t a question. I suspect he was directed to my blog because of all the Shin Megami Tensei posts I’ve written, but I wonder what exactly this guy was looking for – maybe some kind of fantasy painting? I’m no Roger Dean, so you’d better check out his website instead. I’m not into fantasy art, really, but Dean’s stuff is much less “dragons and huge-breasted bikini armor women” and much more “otherworldly landscapes.”

6) the bad about abu dhabi

I did write about Abu Dhabi, back when this was also a travel blog, but I never addressed any of its bad sides. So here are two reasons not to travel there:

– It’s harder to buy booze. If you’re a tourist you’re naturally going to be drinking at hotel bars and such, which is totally fine since UAE law allows that. Unless you have a letter from your employer, though, as I understand it, you can’t buy any from the special shops they have. And if you have a Muslim-sounding name, it’s totally impossible even with such a letter. Still, you can get a friend to buy beer for you instead.

– It can be a bit boring. Abu Dhabi isn’t nearly as flashy as Dubai. On the other hand, it is building up, and the rulers of AD are doing their best to bring more attractions to the city, even if some of those attractions are gaudy and fakey-seeming. Maybe they think westerners like that sort of thing. Maybe they’re right.

7) i hate pickled foods

This is also not a question. In fact, unlike the lucifer guy above, I have no idea what this searcher was seeking out. People with similar opinions, I guess? In that case he’s out of luck, because I love pickled foods. Better visit a different blog, guy.

So that’s all, I guess. I’d like to think I’m providing a sort of public service here, but let’s be honest, this was totally worthless. But at least it was entertaining for me, and that’s all that counts.