– Time to mix drinks and change lives –
VA-11 HALL-A (PC [reviewed], Mac)
Developer: Sukeban Games
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
Released: June 21, 2016 (PC), “2016” (PS Vita, iOS)
Price: £10.99 (PC)
Billed as a “waifu bartending” game, I was expecting elements of a dating sim to be more prevalent in VA-11 HALL-A. Then, after playing for a while longer I became immersed in this neon-drenched cyberpunk world, and witnessed some kind of coup taking place in Glitch City. I thought perhaps I was in for a more action-packed adventure instead. In the end, I got neither.
In VA-11 HALL-A you play as Jill, a bartender at the aforementioned bar, guiding the story in a thematically appropriate way: mixing drinks for different customers, all with their own interesting stories and relationships. Certain drinks allow you to add as much or as little alcohol as you like, meaning you can get certain patrons very drunk and uncover extra dialogue – great for replays! Jill is also an easy character to empathise with; between her shifts at the bar, she sits in her tiny apartment, under a kotatsu, spending her time online, slowly filling up her tiny apartment with various memorabilia and posters of the idol *Kira* Miki. You’ll also find that Jill spends entire shifts distracted if she doesn’t buy a thing she wants, affecting your ability to get orders right and how much you get paid. Gamers and anime fans can relate.
Given what cyberpunk as a genre usually implies, and the ominous chords that play on the title screen, you couldn’t be blamed for assuming you were in for a dramatic or dark gaming experience. Instead, VA-11 HALL-A is a slice-of-life simply using a cyberpunk environment as a backdrop to tell the stories of the curious and interesting characters you’d expect to inhabit a dystopian cyberpunk city.
Given that VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel, you’ll be doing a lot of clicking and a lot of reading. This might seem a tad tedious to gamers who don’t usually indulge in this genre, but the dialogue in VA-11 HALL-A really is a treat. You can tell this game was a labour of love for the creators at Sukeban Games, and thanks to the fantastic storytelling VA-11 HALL-A is a highly engaging experience. The dialogue a joy to read and immerse yourself in; it’s crass, humorous and charming. It brings to the forefront themes that any regular user of the internet in this day and age would find familiar and relate to. Also, I love how fellow bartender Gillian is frequently referred to as a “fuckboy”.
This review wouldn’t be complete without talking about one of my favourite parts of playing this game: the music. The neon-drenched, 80s/electronic, J-pop inspired score bridged the difference in making VA-11 HALL-A a good game and a great game. The requirement of having to fill the jukebox with tracks from the OST at the start of each shift was a great touch I really appreciated. I’d go as far as telling you to play the game based off of the soundtrack alone; Michael “Garoad” Kelly has done a fantastic job in creating a score that caters to not only the somber atmosphere of the bar, but also an eclectic range of tracks that cover the more upbeat scenes and emotionally charged exchanges between characters. But even without playing the game I’d recommend listening to the soundtrack on Soundcloud or Spotify. You can also purchase the soundtrack on Kelly’s bandcamp, either for free or a donated amount to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
On my first go, playing through VA-11 HALL-A took me just under 10 hours, on my current playthrough I’m on a mission to get as many customers drunk as possible. The option to get customers more inebriated than required opens up new conversation options and plot paths. On the flipside, if you get an order wrong you’ll end up with a displeased customer who may simply choose not to pay and you lose some of your wages. If this happens enough times you’ll find that Jill is short on cash when rent is due and facing eviction from her apartment. Both instances open up new possible endings and achievements. A huge plus of starting a NG+ is that it allows you to keep all your money so you can fill up Jill’s apartment with as much crap as you can afford and you also get hints for each ending at the start.
I’ll make this simple, if you like:
- Vibrant pixelated anime aesthetics
- An atmospheric soundtrack
- Interesting, unique characters
- Raw, funny and thought-provoking dialogue
…then play VA-11 HALL-A.
The dialogue is a core element of the game and you won’t find an action-packed adventure here. Having said that, I would still recommend VA-11 HALL-A to a gamer unaccustomed to visual novels, as I believe there’s a game in every genre for everyone. If what I’ve written here has piqued your interest enough, definitely don’t hesitate to try it out for yourself.