I’m sure that most people over the age of eighteen have been to a bar at least once in their life, whilst I’d also wager that they’ve had at least one mixed-drink during those visits too. It’s great, right? You can sit down, have a surprisingly deep chat with the bartender, and down some great drinks that blend together alcohol with a tasty mixer in the process.
VA-11 HALL-A, the visual novel from developer Sukeban Games, bases itself entirely around that concept. You take on the role of a bartender who mixes up drinks and talks to the eclectic folk that make their way into the bar – simple. Whilst I’ll be the first to admit that the concept might not sound like it makes for a thrilling experience, it’s actually one that’s full of charm and works really well.
You take on the role of Jill, the bartender in a bar called Valhalla that’s found in the seedy and somewhat dangerous Glitch City. In true bartender-style, Jill spends her days mixing up drinks and listening to the ramblings of the ‘ordinary’ (and I use that term loosely) folk who make their way into the establishment, with plenty of strange and bizarre tales to be heard. Of course, you don’t spend all of your life in the bar (you get to go home and see your cat too), but it’s where the bulk of the story takes place and where you’ll uncover some juicy and sordid details about the world.
The fact that VA-11 HALL-A doesn’t put you in the role of your typical hero adds an interesting twist to the narrative, especially since it makes the customers you meet feel like the main characters of the tale as opposed to Jill herself. You’re just there to find out the details about them and, depending on what you uncover, play things out to unlock one of the many endings on offer.
It’s always fulfilling to find out more about each character, something which I think is down to just how colorful the cast actually is. Now I don’t really want to go into too much detail about the characters you encounter because it’s always a treat to meet them for the first time, but you can expect to meet the likes of a sex worker who can shoot bullets from her fingertips, a voluptuous hacker who is known to some as the ‘Titty Hacker’, and even a dog who works alongside you at the bar. Yeah, it’s all a bit strange, but it all comes together to help VA-11 HALL-A feel unique and memorable. The interactions with the characters you encounter are great too, with the writing not only showing off each one’s personality perfectly but also helping absorb the player into the tale.
As mentioned, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel so most of the gameplay is based around reading and interacting with other characters. However, it does add a twist to the formula based upon your role as a bartender: your interactions are shaped by the drinks you serve the bar’s patrons.
Sometimes they’ll tell you exactly what they want to drink but other times they’ll just ask for specific tastes, so it’s up to you to go through your recipes and decide what you want to serve them. Their reaction to your choice will shape how your conversation will pan out – this might seem like a small change to your interactions early on, but it’s something they’ll remember and can shape future events in the game.
You’ve got to physically mix the drinks yourself too, so plenty of time will be spent checking through your recipe book and selecting different mixers. It’s a fairly straight-forward system and one that’s made slightly easier thanks to the Nintendo Switch’s touchscreen, though it can still feel a little fiddly early on. As you start to learn recipes and figure out what people might be asking for it can get a bit easier, but expect to have a few mixing-mishaps during your first few attempts.
Visually, VA-11 HALL-A looks like one of the early PC adventure titles, with plenty of simplistic yet attractive sci-fi sights to be seen throughout. The characters you encounter look as colourful as their personalities are, whilst the UI of the drink-mixing is fairly straight forward too. Don’t get me wrong, there’s not a lot of variety to be found in the locales you see in-game and a real sense of familiarity will be felt when you’re at the bar, but it still all manages to emit that cyberpunk-vibe that the game is going for. I’ve got to give a shout out to the music too, with a strong selection of tracks featured on the soundtrack that span different genres. They’re all very catchy and fit the game’s setting well, whilst I’ve even found myself humming the tunes of a few long after playing.
VA-11 HALL-A takes a concept that could’ve potentially been a little dull and executed it brilliantly, with the combination of mixing-drinks and interacting with a host of weird but wonderful folk making for a thoroughly entertaining experience. After just ten-minutes play I found myself totally absorbed into Jill’s bartending charade, whilst finding out more about the world and its characters kept me hooked in until the end – it even kept me coming back to see more of the endings.
There’s no denying it won’t be for everyone, but the same could be said for any visual novel. As far as the genre is concerned though, VA-11 HALL-A is a great addition that’s full to the brim with creative charm.
Developer: Sukeban Games
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, PC