Developer: Sukeban Games
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
Release Date: June 21, 2016
It’s 207X A.D., and Glitch City is a cyberpunk dystopia. A corrupt Big Brother watches through nanomachines in the very air people breathe. Basic necessities are prohibitively expensive, and the gap between the haves and have-nots only widens with each passing day. Just being outdoors invites the possibility of being mugged or murdered. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name, and VA-11 Hall-A is all about capturing that feeling.
As Jill, a bartender at the eponymous dive, you chat and serve drinks to various colorful characters who populate the aforementioned cyberpunk dystopia. Some are regulars, some are random weirdos who wander inside, and all of them need a fucking drink – in this world, who doesn’t? Your customers run the gamut of cyberpunk (and anime visual novel) archetypes, including a friendly hacker (big-boobed glasses girl), a peppy robot sex-worker (looks 12, acts 24), a grizzled mercenary (grizzled mercenary), and a gene-spliced philanthropist (cat-eared ojou), among others. They’re all juuust cliché enough to feel comfortable while original enough to stay engaging, which is the proper balance needed for the atmosphere VA-11 Hall-A aims to achieve.
In lieu of a large, overarching plot, VA-11 Hall-A is comprised of several relatively small character-focused arcs, not all of which necessarily have big payoffs at the end. There’s plenty going on in the hellhole that is Glitch City, and while the big picture is often important, it isn’t always; everyone’s got their own issues, including Jill. All she can do as a bartender is have conversations and serve drinks, create a safe place for her patrons to relax and talk about their problems. The story is those conversations, irreverent and heartfelt and honest in a way that can only happen with the closest friends or with the assistance of a few drinks. You can’t fix anyone’s troubles, but maybe you can help them take that first step.
If I have any real problem with the story, it’s that it liberally refers to the pre-release Prologue and Demo, which take place during the weekend before the main game proper begins. As far as I know, these are only available if you purchase the game via itch.io rather than Steam or Humble. It isn’t as though the plot is difficult to follow without those, but I could see players being confused when Jill’s internal monologue refers to “last Friday” if they haven’t played the Prologue.
VA-11 Hall-A is a visual novel at its core, which means the player’s main way of interacting is by clicking to make the text scroll forward. However, instead of making arbitrary choices, you mix drinks. It’s nothing terribly complex, amounting to checking recipes on a monitor, dragging ingredients into the shaker, and maybe adding ice or shaking longer than usual. More importantly, it keeps you paying attention; obnoxiously long visual novels like Fate/Stay Night can go for hours without having any choices, but everyone visiting Valhalla pounds them back like a frat party, meaning you’re mixing a drink at least every few minutes.
Most of the time the bar patrons order specific drinks, but light puzzle elements come into play when the orders are stuff like “something sweet” or “bitter but not too bitter”. In theory, there’s nothing stopping you from giving people the wrong drink entirely, but Jill has bills to pay and things to buy. Goofing up an order means no tips and no bonus from Boss at the end of the night, and a lack of cash means Jill’s going to be distracted the next day, thinking about her own problems instead of her customers’. This translates to being unable to remember what people are ordering, which isn’t too difficult to deal with if you’re paying attention, but can lead to a slippery slope of no money if you aren’t willing to load save.
Overall, mixing drinks is a simple but effective way to add personality to the proceedings. Things works best when you’re given the option to serve something the customers don’t know they want, or are apprehensive about ordering. It’s that little extra mile to making VA-11 Hall-A seem cozy when your regular is feeling down and you know exactly which cocktail is going to help them perk up.
The presentation might be VA-11 Hall-A’s biggest strength, full of little touches that add depth to the goofy animefied cyberpunk setting. My favorite example is the drink ingredients themselves: there are only five, each with their own bizarre FutureDrink sort of name. In Glitch City, people don’t order a beer; they order a Beer, which is made from 1 Adelhyde, 2 Bronson Extract, 1 Powdered Delta, 2 Flanergide, and 4 Karmotrine; all mixed. Out of those, only Karmotrine has alcohol. It’s silly in just the right way, where I can answer “Why?” with “Because it’s ~the future~!”
The art and music are top notch, as well. The characters are all distinctly designed, with the usual 5-6 facial expressions apiece you’d expect from a visual novel style game. Some people are bothered by that, but I’ve found that proper writing can add necessary context where facial animation can lack subtlety, so I don’t think it’s a problem. Michael Kelly’s soundtrack is one of the only ones in recent memory that I’ve willingly listened to outside of the game itself, and it adds a ton to the bar’s cozy atmosphere. You’re only allowed to pick 12 out of around 45 tracks during each night of gameplay, and the exact right one for the situation always seemed to pop up.
The one thing I’m really torn on is the fact that VA-11 Hall-A is littered with pop culture references. They’re everywhere, and I’m certain I missed dozens. The writing goes to lengths to prevent them from being especially intrusive, but noticing one is still going to pull you out of the otherwise carefully crafted atmosphere. I found I appreciated finding them more on my second go-around when I was trying to get the endings I missed, but the atmosphere is significantly less important in such a situation.
I’m on a perpetual look-out for games that I can just relax with, games that don’t require a huge investment of effort, games where I can just sit down with a drink and chill for an evening; VA-11 Hall-A is one of those games. If you like cyberpunk, anime style visual novels, and the feeling of being at a comfy bar, you should almost certainly buy this game.