(Bar)Fly on the Wall
Ah, the common trope of the humble bartender. Always there to listen to the woes to whoever strolls in and needs to throw back a drink of their choosing. It’s not uncommon for this trope to rear its head in storytelling in general, and for said individual to be the stalwart rock that dispenses useful advice to the protagonist and supporting characters. Though we really don’t get to see life from their perspective all that much.
That’s where VA-11 Hall-A (pronounced Valhalla) comes into view. This visual novel/bartender simulator developed by Sukeban Games puts you into the cyberpunk setting of Glitch City and gives you a slice of life type of story about Jill and her fellow staff members. Published by Ysbryd Games, this game is currently available on Steam (PC) and Vita and will be releasing to PS4 and Switch on May 2, 2019 at a price point of $14.99. The Switch version was played for this review.
Dubbed “The guinea pig of the world,” the crime-ridden Glitch City serves as a playground for mammoth corporations that also happens to see a lot of technological advancements. Citizens walk around with nanomachines in their bloodstreams, a security force known as the White Knights roam the streets, and automatons called Lilim walk amongst the population. All while serving as a dumping ground for rogue AI.
Not only that, but runaway inflation is made obvious by the outrageous pricing seen throughout. Sukeban is based out of Venezuela, so bringing the non-futuristic aspects of their own lives simultaneously fits right in with the cyberpunk aesthetic and adds a tragic personal touch.
While all of that may seem like the trappings of an exciting action game, it merely serves as atmosphere and world building for the cast to bring up in casual conversation. The bulk of the story takes place in the titular bar, as Jill and her small crew navigate the cold December nights slinging drinks to weary folk in a vaguely Japanese-inspired setting. While they are a chain bar owned by a mega corp that’s on the verge of closure, they still have to serve patrons in the meantime.
This is where the story’s slice-of-life nature is at its most obvious. You’ll find yourself going through Jill’s routine and her interactions with regular/random patrons and her coworkers. Her boss Dana is the headstrong manager with a heart of gold, and her male coworker Gillian serves as the extra help with the somewhat trope-y “mysterious origins” angle going for him. Since the story is the focus here, it’s best for you to play it yourself to watch it unfold.
That’s kind of the point of visual novels. Even though slice-of-life type stories do fall into the “no real overarching plot but things unfold” category, VA-11 Hall-A manages to hit some emotional and poignant spots throughout the gameplay and story. Trying to stay spoiler free for this is pretty difficult, because it’s honestly one of the best things about this game. The writing here does a great job of giving most everyone some level of depth that gives you a reason to be invested in the loose storytelling. There are times where things do drag, but it’s not bad enough that it becomes an issue in general.
Characters actually have some dimension to them, and their dialogue is well-written to boot. Yeah, they sometimes spout exposition for world building purposes. But most of the main cast and some of the regular patrons feel like they’re just people getting by in their day to day lives. I will point out that some of the more mature content can venture into territory that could make some people supremely uncomfortable, especially with the character of the Lilim Dorothy. But, thankfully for her, she makes up for her weird circumstances by having a stalwart attitude mixed with an adorable disposition. There is a brief prologue that helps flesh out the beginning of the story that you’ll have to select at the title screen, but it’s honestly best to get familiarized with the gameplay before you jump into it.
I’ll Have Something Strong
Considering that visual novels are usually pretty light on gameplay, VA-11 Hall-A doesn’t stray too far from this, but also manages to mix things up a little bit in this department. Like anyone else in life, Jill has a daily routine that she follows. Your day starts with her sitting in her tiny apartment with her feline companion Fore. Throughout your playtime, this serves as the hub for notifying you of the bills you need to pay and the various trinkets that the game tells you to buy so she can focus at work.
She’s also able to check her smartphone and keep up with the news, blogs, and imageboards that inhabit her world. You can save here, but you can also do that on her breaks at the bar. This section is also where you can shop for things in her apartment. Once you feel you’re ready, you can head to work.
This is where you’ll be spending most of your time in the story. More often than not you’ll chat with your coworkers, set the bar’s jukebox playlist, and get going with your workday. While navigating each night, it’s key to pay attention to what your regulars and random patrons want to throw back. You’ll get a feel for what the former wants, but most everyone is usually pretty straightforward with their order. Sometimes they’ll want something based on mood or drink ingredients, and other patrons can be flat out cryptic with their order. Busting out your trusty recipe book is your best friend here, as it’ll give you a chance to get a bead on the patron’s desire.
Once you know what you’re mixing, you’ll be selecting ingredients with the left thumbstick and begin mixing or blending based on what the recipe calls for. I’ll admit, it took me a little bit of time to get into the groove they wanted me to be in after Gill gives you the rundown on how to mix drinks. But once I got the hang of it, it was like second nature. It also helps that the Switch version gives you the option of touchscreen control in handheld mode if you so desire. The use of vibration feedback is also helpful here, as you’ll find yourself counting vibrations for mixed drinks and letting it go for blended ones.
If you screw up an order, you can reset and try again as often as you need. Some recipes will give you the chance to double up on the strength of the drink, which can let you squeeze more information out of a patron. The better you perform, the better your pay will be at the end of the night. Perfect service will give you a nightly bonus, but there are times where Dana will give you some extra money for story related reasons. While the gameplay is relatively simple and there are times where it’s not always clear whether or not you gave the patron what they wanted, it’s competent enough to not impede the flow.
Much like 2064: Read Only Memories, the interface and graphics are done in a late ’80s graphical style that wears its cyberpunk aesthetic on its sleeve. While they do work with in the limitations they set for themselves here, it’s impressive to see the level of detail put into the sprite and background work. Considering that actual graphical settings are sparse and action is told secondhand, they can get away with it. There isn’t much in the way of actual motion due to the aesthetics of the game, but it’s not like it detracts from the overall package. Regardless, the effort put into the graphical style here is obvious and I totally dig it.
Though there are some liberties taken from the sound side of things, namely in the music department. Sound design is in line with what you’d expect in a retro adventure game, though I did find myself drowning out the constant dialogue beeping throughout my playthrough. General sound effects are relatively natural, and nothing could grate on the nerves save for the dialogue beeps.
However, composer Garoad’s work for the game’s soundtrack here is fantastic. It does lean quite heavily into the retrowave aesthetic that 2064 had done, but it’s not quite as biting as you’d think. Instead, it’s more of a casual but occasionally bumping set of tracks that give you a reason to mix up what’s in the jukebox as often as you’d like. The soundtrack is available for listening on Spotify, so if you want to blast it out of your car speakers it’s well worth doing. Without going into too much detail, it’s one of my favorite pieces of music so far this year.
I have a lot of reasons to love this game, but I know that the genre it occupies is still pretty niche to most people. That doesn’t stop me from recommending it as a worthwhile game to play through. One advantage of the genre is the fact that it’s easy to port to multiple platforms. I mean, just look at how many times the Ace Attorney games has been ported to various platforms over the years. While they may be limited in scope from a game perspective, they rest somewhere between curling up with a good book and having a relatively laid-back gaming experience.
This is why I can feel good about giving a solid recommendation for this title. Sukeban did a fantastic job with building a cyberpunk world that feels organic, writing characters that are believable and (mostly) easy to love, and giving us a gameplay experience that would give those who are reluctant to the simple flow of visual novels a legitimate shot. I really enjoyed my time in Glitch City, and I think you will too. The low asking price is all the more incentive to hike up to the bar and tip back a solidly mixed story.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Ysbryd Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.