VA-11 Hall-A, which you should read as Valhalla, is best described as a cyberpunk bartender simulating visual novel. There are two kinds of people, I think. Ones like me, who are immediately intrigued by something like that, and others who think that sounds like the most boring idea they’ve ever heard. This game won’t do much to convert the latter, but it definitely rewards the curiosity of the former.
The game, for the most part, is played from behind a bar. In the eponymous Hall A of the building VA-11, a rundown joint which, for amusing reasons, smells of dog urine and soap, our hero Jill listens to punters’ problems, chats, jokes and, most importantly, serves drinks.
Mixing drinks is the player’s main interaction with the game. Using a simple interface, we work from a book of recipes and combine sci-fi ingredients to make elaborate cocktails and old classics. Never too taxing, it nonetheless does feel like a job well done when it goes right. As a bartender, picking songs from the phenomenal soundtrack to play on the jukebox is also your responsibility.
Elsewhere, the Jill's life has all the trappings of an underpaid barmaid. Struggling to pay rent and furnish her dingy flat, little scenes beyond the flat help bring her to life as a character and build up the atmosphere.
Beyond that, the gameplay is little more than clicking through dialogue or occasionally digging up extra stories on Jill’s phone. Some story beats expand and come closer to home, but expect to be liberating this dystopian future city, or saving the world. Do expect to fall in love with an extraordinary cast of gorgeous, animé styled spriteart characters.
As a game mostly sent reading dialogue, some might argue this could just as easily be a book. Jill is a fleshed-out character, so there are no dialogue trees here. Our only decision making comes from choosing the drinks we serve up.
Reading this story on a page would lose lovingly drawn artwork, perfectly mood-setting music and a serene sense of genuinely tending a bar. Nonetheless, I’d still recommend it as a purely textual work. What text it is!
For all the scifi noir and whimsy, VA-11 Hall-A tells a heartfelt human story. The game has jokingly, perhaps detrimentally, been called a waifu simulator by the developers because you are almost guaranteed to fall in love with at least one patron who walks through that door.
If the thought of entering a cyberpunk city ruled by a corrupt governemt, its streets being dominated by cybernetic “white knights” and the shadows haunted by activist hackers makes you want to step outside and pick up a gun, this isn’t the game for you. If you just want to soak up the atmosphere and experience a story better than games ever attempt, let alone achieve, this is the game for you.
Though, according to my girlfriend, real bartenders would never be allowed to stand around and talk for that long.