I hate slamming on a genre, even one that’s enjoyed by a niche group of ardent fans, but when it comes to visual novels, they need to do a lot to keep my attention. Give me a gimmick! Give me something to do other than clicking through hours and hours of scripts in a long, drawn out story. Not that I have anything against reading or slow boiling plots but I want to be involved with the story in some capacity, like Corpse Party or Danganronpa. School Days is one of the most infamous visual novels that I know of and its crazy endings are more than enough motivation to play it through to the end.
Given my feelings towards visual novels, I was a little on the fence with VA-11 HALL-A until I realized how much it has going for itself. With an exquisite cyberpunk setting, an MSX-esque visual style, and eclectic characters reminded me of my most favorite visual novel-like game in the world, SNATCHER. Developed by Sukeban Games, VA11-HALL-A centers on a bar of the same name where the player protagonist is employed as a bartender, dispensing drinks and offering an ear to people’s woes as they live day to day in Glitch City, a technologically advanced dystopian metropolis. As the game takes place in a cozy bar, you wouldn’t immediately know the world was in a bad place without talking to people and catching up on the news. Mixing cyberpunk fiction with basic mixology is an attention getting concept that was easy to connect with, even if the shininess fades over time because of the repetition inherent to the mechanics.
I spent about half an hour trying to find a really good quote about bartenders to kick off this review and the best I offer you are the words of Canadian economist Harry Gordon Johnson: “The greatest accomplishment of a bartender lies in his ability to exactly suit his customer.” The quote is apt because Jill, the young woman whom you play as, lends a sympathetic (and occasionally sarcastic) ear to the men, women, and machines who come stumbling in for a drink to unwind after a long day. Some patrons are regulars, chatting it up with Jill and her coworkers as they tend the bar. The rest are first-timers that have wandered into VA-11 HALL-A because someone told them about it or just stumbled in off the street and unable to hide their disdain. Jill’s professional obligation to serve drinks and listen are rewarded with a paycheck to help her cover rent and other necessities. The clientele is diverse and over the course of the story, you’ll encounter and develop relationships with all sorts of characters, like the hardass boss of a city newspaper, a robotic sex worker, a brain in a jar, shady folk, and chatty soldiers.
The best way to loosen people’s tongues is to serve alcohol. Jill is equipped with a helpful bar book that details each drink in her arsenal and instructions on how to make each concoction. Most of the time, people will ask for drinks by name but the book is also organized for exactly those moments when someone asks for “something fruity” or “gimme a sour drink.” It’s a small bar book and there aren’t enough drinks to fill out the entire alphabet. However, the limited options don’t make the guide any less useful. Each drink is comprised of a series of ingredients and special instructions (on the rocks, aged, blended, or mixed) and as long as you follow the easy to understand directions, you’ll be just fine. Mixed drinks involve shaking the drink tins for a second or two while blended drinks take a little more time. The difference between the two styles is noted by the Switch’s “HD rumble” effect. You’ll know a drink is blended when the rumble is fast and steady. If you craft the drink with the wrong ingredients or leave it mixing too long, it’s OK! Just pour the drink out and start over.
There’s no penalty for messing up and the patrons don’t really seem to care if it takes you a few tries to produce what they’ve asked for. You’ll make money no matter what and can spend it at a local Glitch City market and acquire chotchkies to liven up Jill’s apartment (and help keep her focused and more productive for the next day’s work) or pay off her services and utilities. That said, your ability to serve people when they make vague requests can lead to one of several different games on top of more traditional choices via dialog prompts.. Apart from influencing endings, there really is no overt threat of failure and as a result, there’s little feeling of accomplishment. More like, warm fuzzies for a job well done. Mixing drinks can be a fun enough diversion that break up extended dialog sequences and later chapters try to put you to the test with vague terms and not using proper names. At the end of the day, though, the mixology mechanic is a mostly toothless and repetitive diversion. Spend enough time and you’ll probably learn how to make certain drinks from memory but the limited menu leaves little room for experimentation and thinking outside the box.
I can forgive that, though, because VA-11 HALL-A has a whole lot of personality and charm. The few visual novels I’ve played were from the point of view of high school students and as someone who used to watch a lot of high school-based anime, I needed a change. With VA-11 HALL-A, the characters you meet are mostly regular people trying to come to terms with life in a world much different than our own. They come to Jill with different views on life and are not afraid to show it. Outside the bar, Jill’s time at home is an opportunity to catch up on current events through a news app that broaches topics that are hinted at in conversation. And did I mentioned how much I love the look of the game? It’s just so pretty! Photorealistic graphics are great but there’s something really nice and comforting about the retro-inspired visual aesthetic. The portable nature of the Nintendo Switch is absolutely perfect for this kind of game. Like the title screen suggests, pull the Switch off the dock, pour yourself a drink, grab some salty pretzels, and make yourself comfortable.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.