Review: VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
Visual Novel On The Rocks, With A Twist
TL;DR: It’s good. Buy it if you’re cool with lots of reading. Snag it if you want at its Steam page.
Visual novels, for me, largely fly beneath the radar. So often, the stories weigh heavy with anime cliches, painful author-insertion fantasies and thoughtless fourth-wall breaks. While VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (hereafter referred to as Valhalla) isn’t without its share of these tropes, there’s a depth of soul and character present here that defies the standard boundaries of the style.
Our story takes place in a future timeline that, thankfully, avoids the worn-out post-apocalyptic Dystopian setting so thoroughly bastardized by The Hunger Games and its clones. Ours is the role of Jill, a 27-year-old bartender at a hole-in-the-wall bar called Valhalla, a woman of simultaneously sophomoric humor and acidic observation, and our goal is nearly Pong-levels of simple.
We mix drinks and change lives, and in so doing we experience some of the most beautiful, personal stories outside 40-hour RPGs. I’m not kidding when I say this game had me on the edge of tears here and there. Moving on:
There are only a few game screens present in Valhalla, the primary being a Shadowgate-like view port from behind the bar and the secondary being a more artistically-simplistic view of Jill’s apartment where we can catch up with the news on her phone or purchase items for the apartment or, once in a while, use at the bar.
At work, customers appear one after another and make drink requests between bouts of well-characterized banter. Mixing drinks is 99 percent of the gameplay involved in Valhalla, and messing it up is far more difficult than getting it right as Jill tends to give the player a hint about what the customer asked for when the mixing menu pops up.
Unless she’s distracted, a side effect of failing to purchase some miscellaneous item or meet a bill payment during the month. These events, while easy to avoid as the apartment segment of the game pops up a notification telling you exactly what to buy, provide a touch more challenge by replacing Jill’s hint with some internal-monologue musing about things she shouldn’t have bought or her current situation.
Regarding the interface, I have only small nitpick: The quit button takes you, not to the desktop or to the title screen, but to the publisher/developer credits. It only takes a few extra seconds, but quitting the game in fullscreen is kind of a pain in the ass. I would’ve liked a ‘quit to desktop’ option.
A selection of 24 mixed drinks is available, all made from the same five basic ingredients with options of aging or ice, mixed or blended. When it’s time to make the drinks, the bartender’s menu pops up and the player can search for drinks in a number of ways: by name, flavor, style and so forth. It’s a nice little database that puts instructions right in front of you, and even if you mis-click and put in the wrong ingredient, you can always reset without penalty up until you serve the drink.
One might ask why such a simple mechanic exists at all, and I would answer that mixing a drink here and there provides a welcome breather between dialogs, allowing the conversation to sink into the player’s mind for a bit and break up the tedium of too much reading. Additionally, players paying attention can learn a bit about the customers based on what style of drink they tend to prefer.
Other than that, gameplay elements are at a minimum, which is fine because the system here lives to serve the story.
… is actually less about the protagonist or the world as it is about the lives of her customers. Yes, Jill has her own devastating arc, and a greater world-tale revolving around a weak government, robot/human interactions and an ultra-powerful corporation exists, but those things largely exist to service the stories of our customers and friends. A cavalry of interesting characters barrels in and out of the bar on the daily, including but not limited to:
- Donovan D. Dawson, news editor and discount J. Jonah Jameson
- Sei: A peacekeeping soldier with a delightful outlook on life
- Alma: A computer expert and Jill’s friend, relationship failure extraordinaire
- *Kira* Miki: A pop idol with a saccharine disposition
- Dorothy: Manic pixie dream girl, kind of
- Jamie: Cool-headed, friendly bounty hunter
- Art: Detective and stick in the mud
- Stella: Requisite cat-girl
And plenty more. Each person has an arc that rises and falls fairly neatly, although some of them seem to be of little consequence: I enjoyed interacting with Kira Miki, but only happened to see her twice during the course of the game, and Jamie’s arc seemed incomplete somehow, closely tied with that of other-bartender Gil, whose arc also seemed incomplete. My understanding is there are multiple endings, and I’ll get to that, but from a single playthrough only a few of the arcs tied up with satisfying detail.
Thankfully, Jill’s is almost one of them. The story of how she came to work at Valhalla, her past, the explanation for her encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything; each has its origin, and each is explained nicely. Without going into terrible detail, the story as a collective has its melancholic moments but, for the most part, rides a neat little wave of optimism with many characters experiencing some sort of personal crisis, only to have others at the bar pull them out of it.
Tonally, there are numerous references to Internet culture, specifically Reddit, anime fandoms, neither of which are my strong suit, but the humor isn’t lost despite that lack of familiarity. It can feel incongruous to the setting from time to time, but these largely exist outside of the work/dialog setting and do not impact the experience negatively. There is, however, a fourth-wall-breaking character later in the game who I could have done without. Fourth-wall breaks are when Deadpool does it, and … no, even when Deadpool does it, it’s kind of tiresome about half the time.
Speaking of tone, I sincerely hope you, the player, are cool with the LGBT community. I would like to point out that I would expect those in the typical demographic for this game won’t be bothered by it, nor should they be, but there are plenty of LGBT characters in this story and it’s only once, briefly, made into a big deal in the playthrough I had. If you happen to feel strongly against those things, firstly, stop it; secondly, you’ll have a tough time with a tale as open-minded as this. I can hear the Twitter trolls calling it an SJW game from miles away, and that nonsense is asinine.
And yes, there are plentiful open, candid discussions about sex and sexuality throughout the game. I don’t necessarily find those talks appealing or unappealing on their face, but the fact that they (largely) fit into the characters’ normal speech patterns and thought processes makes it feel a little bit more progressive, and that’s fantastic. They serve as a slightly more intimate bridge into well-structured people’s minds. As I write this from America, my country faces an uncertain period in its civil relations, and the fact that women can speak openly about such topics without being cast down is refreshing. I should point out that there were no explicit images in my playthrough, where lesser games would have gone with titillation.
There is some small leaning toward the male characters in the game coming across as screw-ups compared to the more pervasive female characters, but I believe that to be a common trait of the genre and, like any male with even a thimble-full of security, found it perfectly acceptable and in keeping with the characters as we know them.
The primary dissonance I found from these tactful practices occurs as the playthrough draws to a close. I was pleased to see the story largely avoided turning into fetish fiction or softcore erotica, as so many visual novels seem to naturally do, but near the end I found the game became quite a bit, let’s say, hornier. It felt somehow dishonest to the world built previously, as if the high-minded language and eloquent deliveries got bored and decided to loosen up the subtlety. One particular few minutes of the game saw two dildo references in proximity, and something about a cucumber, that I found to be beneath the style and skill employed to that point. It isn’t a matter of taste or tact; I simply felt blurting out these references to be out of character, particularly during what should have been a very poignant finishing sequence.
Couple that with a few dangling strings — I never figured out who Anna was, or that much about Virgilio, or Art, really — that arise likely from a combination of multiple story threads and my limited time to play, and the end of the game struck me as sudden and rushed.
God dammit, let’s talk about the music.
Valhalla offers the player a customized jukebox with page after page of synth songs to plug in for the work day. Apart from being instrumental in at least one achievement, the jukebox doesn’t seem to have any effect on gameplay, so go through that track list and plug in 12 tracks full of amazing.
Giddy, bubbly and non-invasive, the tracks written for this game are the kind of superb backdrops that make reading a heap of dialog spicier. Some of the tracks reek of anime title sequences, but here and there you can find some 80s-riffic synth jams that will have your toes tapping. There are a few downbeat tracks, too, and a casual listen will find them being largely interchangeable, but that’s exactly what we want. The soundtrack is the kind of bubblegum cyberpunk beat we need, with my particular favorites being “Commencing Simulation” and “Digital Drive”. All of the tunes are expressive, moody little pieces that give Valhalla a touch of extra personality.
Visually, the pixel art largely exists in ultra-simplistic fashion, with large, expressive and detailed character portraits on top of NES-grade backdrops. This isn’t Shovel Knight or Owlboy; particularly when the game runs in fullscreen, there’s a bit of pixelization that mars the visuals slightly. The bar interface is sleek and compact, and the character portraits–
Let’s talk about the character portraits. Valhalla gives me a Phoenix Wright flashback with the beauty of these images, mostly. Every character (mostly) is visually distinct, with plenty of expressions and reactions that aren’t limited to the usual array of [Neutral face/mad face/happy face/sad face/love face] even if there aren’t that many different poses. The Boss seems to have fewer character portraits than some of the others, but at the same time, her expression always seems to fit her mood because of how well-written her character is.
The prize winner of portraiture here, though, is Dorothy Haze, who communicates so much with a simple narrowing or widening of the eyes. The smug expression she wears when she’s setting another patron up for a punchline is simply wonderful. She’s a larger part of the story than one might initially expect, so her ability to convey feelings through the detailed artwork is welcome.
Oddly, the main character appears in character portrait only occasionally, and I find something about the face of her shape odd compared to the other characters. She doesn’t seem as expressive as most as the cast, perhaps because she’s only in front of the camera for a moment here and there. Still, I felt somehow that the moment of seeing her in front of the bar could have been a powerful one, and to some degree it was, but the less-detailed art hurt the experience a bit for me.
Other highlights of character art are the voluminous Stella, whose hair is a sight to behold, and Streaming-Chan, who has her own special little thing going.
But I find myself rambling. Should you purchase Valhalla? I think so, yes. It’s non-essential, but shines pretty brightly in a genre that’s so often full of trash. I’ll probably play through it again, not immediately, but after a while to see if I can find other story threads.