VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (Switch) Review
Visual novels live and die by the quality of their writing, and if you’re looking for an unforgettable game with a stellar script, look no further than VA-11 HALL-A.
Originally released for PC in 2016, VA-11 HALL-A is a sleek, stylish journey into a cyberpunk future, with your view set behind the counter of the dingy Valhalla bar as you mix drinks and conversation. You play as Jill the bartender, who just wants to get on with her life while you, the player, are busy trying to figure out what’s going on in Glitch City.
VA-11 HALL-A is a bit different from other visual novels in that you don’t make choices through selecting dialogue. Instead, your main form of interacting with the world of Glitch City is through what drinks you serve to Jill’s customers at Valhalla. It reminds me a lot of the Steins;Gate series in that when you make a choice, you’re not necessarily aware that it’s a choice. If you can correctly serve what a customer wants (even if they only give you vague hints), you’re rewarded through some extended dialogue or people revealing things they wouldn’t have if you’d served them the wrong thing. That being said, what the customer asks for isn’t always the “right choice”, and sometimes you just have to experiment – Jill herself will sometimes give you a hint before you start making a drink. You could argue that player interaction with the world is a little limited, but I would argue that the drink-mixing is much more than you get to do in other visual novels, and it makes for a nice change of pace. For those interested, Gamasutra ran a piece in 2016 about how the drinks system works from a technical standpoint (beware spoilers).
That being said, I did find the tutorial a little lacking, and I found myself needing to look up some hints on how exactly to make drinks – I would’ve been stuck for a long time if this was a brand-new game. All of the menus in the game are navigated using the directional buttons, and the only time you’ll be using your left joystick is to select drink ingredients, of which there are five. The game shows you which ingredient you have selected pretty clearly, and you select with A how much of that ingredient you want to add to the drink.
You’ve got a recipe book which tells you how many parts of what you’ll need to make something, but the tutorial isn’t clear on mixing versus blending a drink, and how “big” drinks work, so I’ll lay that out here: To “mix” a drink, you just let the shaker do its thing before it starts shaking really quickly – once it starts shaking faster, you’re blending it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve mixed a drink for two seconds or five seconds, if it’s still shaking slowly you’ve mixed it, not shaken it. A drink can have a maximum of twenty ingredients, and any drink with over ten ingredients already is considered “big”. You can make a big version of any drink with ten ingredients or less by just doubling the ingredients. If a drink needs ice or to be “aged”, you do that before mixing or shaking it. I wish the tutorial was a bit clearer, but once I had it figured out, I never felt unsure about how I was meant to go about making drinks.
The other main way you interact with the game is through Jill’s smartphone, which you can use to save your game and navigate different apps at the start of each day. More apps are unlocked as the game progresses, but I found it interesting to read the news articles and forums before each shift to get a better picture of the world Jill lives in. You can also buy items at JC Elton’s, and purchasing items to keep Jill from getting distracted at work gives a boost to your pay at the end of that day’s shift. You also need to manage Jill’s money to pay her bills, so while it’s tempting to buy every poster and decoration straight away, you run the risk of not having enough money to cover Jill’s expenses.
There are hints at just a little more going on than meets the eye in VA-11 HALL-A, and every person you interact with at the bar usually has something to say about the wider world outside your little window into it. In short, the writing is stellar, and each new character, whether I loved them or loathed them, left me wanting more. There’s some LGBT+ characters and some interesting social commentary here, too. While the game was first released in 2016, one character’s comments about not being able to make one mistake without being “crucified” remind me a lot of the current “cancel culture” in online spaces. There’s mystery and danger around every corner in Glitch City, and every conversation at the bar gives you another peep behind the curtain. There are characters who are usually vulgar every time they visit, but I didn’t find it over the top or too much to handle; the MA15+ rating is there for a reason and there’s no profanity filter if you’re not a fan of swearing.
I find that visual novels can fall into a trap of over-the-top exposition, but VA-11 HALL-A sets you along to play and allows you to put the pieces together for yourself, whether that’s through your conversations at the bar or the apps on your phone before a shift. I appreciate that the game does this, because trying to discern the truth about something feels like solving a mystery and if you’re interested enough, it’s worthwhile to remember small details and pay attention.
Synth beats are the ambient for your bartending adventure and my goodness, the soundtrack is superb. I adore the jukebox feature, which allows you to choose 12 tracks twice in each shift to play the game to. Not only can you repeat the same song should you find an absolute banger (of which there is no shortage), but you can skip around the tracks while you’re in the middle of a conversation, which is great if you’ve chosen a song you don’t like as much.
The Switch version also includes the remastered prologue and demo, which I would recommend waiting to play until after you’ve completed a few days of the main game. The main reason I say this is that neither include a tutorial, but the prologue is worth playing to flesh out the narrative a little bit. Fair warning, you might not have seen everything you need to give the prologue context until the end of day four of the main game.
Ultimately, Jill is just trying her best to live her life, pay her bills, and look out for the people she cares about and isn’t that true for all of us? Sure, maybe you and I don’t live in cities rife with corruption (at least I certainly hope not) or in a cyberpunk future, but what connects us is just wanting to survive and be happy. There are some really hard-hitting and beautiful moments in this game, as well as a lot of funny ones, and the more I learned about Jill the more I liked her. The world and all of the characters of VA-11 HALL-A are so damn interesting, and I found myself eager to return to the game after every play session. If you’re a fan of visual novels, this is a must play.
+ Strong narrative and characters
+ Great sense of humour
+ Killer soundtrack
+ Mixing drinks is fun!
- Mixing tutorial is a little unclear