VA-11 HALL-A (Read: Valhalla) is 5 parts visual novel, 6 parts character development, 3 parts charm, 4 parts mixing drinks with a dash of vulgarity thrown in. All of these elements are on the rocks and deeply blended, expertly mixing them to create an engaging and solid experience. Time to mix drinks and change lives!
I was thrown into my bartending gig with a brief introduction from my colleague Gill. The method was easy to understand, simply searching for the required drink via the database, adding the components to the cocktail and mixing it all together. While the tutorial worked to get me using this simple system of making drinks, it omitted some of the finer details. For example, my very first customer asked me for a big beer, of which I found no option to do so; I could only make a normal sized beverage. I found out later that all I had to do was double the amount of ingredients in the mixture, but its omission was strange.
Initially, I struggled with aspects of the job as I had no idea how long I needed to mix or blend the drinks for, and would fail for this reason. As I made more drinks the timing became easier and then it became second nature, but if there was a system that told me what I was doing wrong when I made my drinks, then I would have hit this curve sooner. This is alleviated somewhat by the fact that failed drinks can simply be reset and attempted again. Meaning there is plenty of room to practice and learn, but if you serve an incorrect drink to a customer then it comes out of your wages. To throw some variety into the process, the game sometimes gave orders that were cryptic and relied on knowledge of the drinks or people to make correctly. These were hit-or-miss, sometimes they were clever little puzzles and other times they were just frustrating. One character, for example, ordered a drink by simply saying 17.
Although you play as a bartender, the actual act of mixing drinks is a secondary premise within the game. The simplistic system of making drinks eventually becomes monotonous and almost a distraction from the conversations that it takes you away from. The characters that visit the bar are the real heart of what this game is about. The premise and setting allow for a believable avenue for customers to share their life stories. When the game began, the first few characters were an acquired taste, and it immediately set a tone with its vulgarity and intention to hold nothing back with its writing. The introduction left me with a negative impression, as I didn’t actually want to spend my time talking to these types of characters. Thankfully, VA-11 HALL-A pulled through and what followed was a varied and interesting cast of people.
I not only met lots of different characters, but I also got to watch them grow. We would have conversations that opened up what they were like as people, what motivated them and what it was like to be them. This painted a solid picture of each individual but it also combined together to create a colourful picture of Glitch City and the world we were inhabiting. I got to a point where my character Jill began to form real friendships with her regulars and even began to understand people that had once been quite irritating. This is a real testament to the writing as the quality shone through to create believable and interesting storylines. As a whole, I was surprised to just how deep and meaningful the story became. Hearing about people’s troubles from all walks of life gave time to all different types of problems and emotions. Having such emotional through-lines gave the game a purpose and a lasting effect after finishing.
While the game is primarily a visual novel, it does use a variety of methods to try and shake things up now and again. Mixing drinks is the most obvious method but it also has you in Jill’s apartment before your working day. While this is simply a static screen, here you can access the shop and buy items for the room and you can access Jill’s phone, which has apps that allow her to save the game, as well as look at the news and read blogs. These are great complimentary pieces of writing that further extend on the lore and current happenings in the world of Glitch City.
The one obvious omission from the visual novel genre that VA-11 HALL-A doesn’t have is dialogue choices. Although you play as Jill, she is her own character with her own choices. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, as a bartender it would have been nice to have your own choices, even if they had absolutely no impact on the outcome or direction of the conversations. However, the game does not feel like it loses anything without their inclusion.
The act of bartending also feels right at home on the Nintendo Switch. Dragging ingredients to the cocktail mixer with your finger is quick, easy and intuitive. This coupled with the Switch’s ability to play games in handheld mode made for an optimum experience to play a visual novel style game. The only annoyance is the obnoxiously loud vibrations of the HD rumble when mixing drinks, which attracted a lot of unwanted attention when I was playing. This can easily be turned off in the settings, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this.