VA-11 HALL-A Review — Conventional Stories in an Unconventional World
Sukeban Games and Wolfgame's VA-11 HALL-A is a must-play on PlayStation Vita, offering a break from high-stress action settings into something more mundane.
Glitch City is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. A dark, sci fi-punk twist on both New York City and Tokyo, Glitch City — and for that matter, the rest of the world — has fallen into a state of disrepair. Glitch City may even be worse-off compared to the rest of the country, with the entire city under the heel of mega-corporation Zaibatsu Corps. And there is no messing with Zaibatsu Corps. — they own the White Knights (the privatized ‘police’ force that watches over the city) and (probably) control the media. However, a growing resistance is mounting. Hackers are taking down security across the city, while gunshots echo through the streets. Liberation from tyranny is abound.
But in Sukeban’ Games VA-11 HALL-A, none of that is your problem. You are just a bartender living in that world, eager for your tip payout at the end of the night and maybe a nice potted plant for your apartment.
First released exclusively for PC in June 2016, VA-11 HALL-A explores the life of Jill — a young, sarcastic female bartender just trying to get by in Glitch City. While unrest is spreading among the denizens, Jill spends her nights working at the titular VA-11 HALL-A, a bar that notably reeks of dog piss but shares good company. And through this setup, VA-11 HALL-A manages to remain conventionally unconventional. While most any other game would dive into the gunplay, action, and adventure of the raging revolution, VA-11 HALL-A instead focuses on the day-to-day life of a standard NPC-type character as the world around them changes.
As you may expect, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel — however, it does have light puzzle elements (if you can even call it that) by way of mixing drinks. Patrons (often recurring characters) will wander into the bar, and it’s up to Jill to serve them to the best of her ability. The patrons will range from detectives, to Editors of the local newspaper, to overdramatic sex robots designed to look like a 13-year-old, to idols. And while some of those will sound fantastical, none of them feel unbelievable in any way given the setting.
Hell, the dialogue is undoubtedly one of the best parts of VA-11 HALL-A; without any hesitation, I would find myself nodding along to the Editor’s critique of censorship and sensitive audiences or get reminded of the horror of SOMA‘s Coin-Toss narrative behind uploading consciousness. Sure, the dialogue is cheesy and overdramatic at times, but the concepts and underlying sentiments (especially coming from Jill) were varied, entertaining, and always had me saying “one more day.”
Speaking to this point, developer Sukeban Games’ attitude towards sex-positivity is downright refreshing in this slice of life game — especially in a Western studio. While there isn’t something like a touching minigame, VA-11 HALL-A doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics. As you would expect in the real world, finding someone to go home with is a popular theme among bar patrons (boy or girl), and it’s hard not to fall for some of the exciting characters brought to the forefront. Hell, one look at the (often NSFW) blogs of artists and designers of the dev team can affirm that.
However, the game isn’t just merely found in the dialogue. To elicit conversation, players will be mixing drinks (with their handy recipe guide) using the five different ingredients in different proportions. While some orders will be easy enough to deduce (“one big beer” would be doubling the normal recipe for the beer), others (“give me a 17”) will take a bit more thinking. In fact, there are even times where you will be better off giving your patrons something entirely different than what they ordered.
Unlike many other visual novels on the market, there are no dialogue options. Sukeban Games has a story that they want to tell, and the script is strong enough that you won’t miss an illusion of choice. But that isn’t to say that the story is one dimensional. In fact, through a few different shifts in gameplay, players will be able to enjoy a range of different endings, undoubtedly adding replay value as you look to uncover them all.
Beyond chatting it up and drinking with the usual barflies, you will be able to enjoy your nights, read a 4chan inspired message board about latest trends in the world, go shopping to decorate the room, and even hang out with your boss on occasion. You know, basically what anyone would expect for a 27-year old bartender. Aside from all of that, VA-11 HALL-A itself is just a smart game. With references to Metal Gear Solid, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons, there is a lot to be said about the thought and care that went behind crafting this VN.
Stylistically, the game looks lovely. While it isn’t going to stress the PlayStation Vita like Danganronpa v3: Killing Harmony, VA-11 HALL-A sticks to one theme and performs it dutifully. In that sense, the techno-punk setting of the game shares a similar soul to the PC-98 visuals that the game tries to perfect. Looking both futuristic and retro, the game visually stands out from the often same-y looking VN market.
Not only that, but the soundtrack (created by Michael Kelly) is just fantastic. At the beginning of each day, players can set their playlist from a selection of dozens of tracks which will play in the background as you serve the customers; hopefully many people test out differing choices and don’t just stick with the defaults because a lot of love was put into each piece. With a distinct 80’s flair (note the song below, for example) the background music will quickly get stuck in your head:
Last but not least, a tip of the (perfume-filled hat) to Nashville-based Wolfgame for their port over to the PlayStation Vita. Given the pick-up and play style of gameplay and quick access to a touchscreen, it is hard for me to imagine VA-11 HALL-A playing better on another console (outside of, possibly, the Nintendo Switch).
VA-11 HALL-A has been available on PlayStation Vita for more than half a month, and the gap between launch and this review is a testament to how great the game is. The fact of the matter is, I didn’t want VA-11 HALL-A’s world to fly by me. As ridiculous as many of the characters are, it’s hard not to love them and miss the conversations when the credits roll. But that is what VA-11 HALL-A is — not so much a central story looking to be told, but an appreciation of the lives of people in the background of these main stories.
Despite the quantity of visual novels readily available for the PlayStation Vita, VA-11 HALL-A easily stands out among the rest for one simple reason: it is mundane. Yet that distinction is something unique and drives the relationships in the game — something you just won’t want to rush through. Bolstered by an excellent soundtrack and stylistic art choices, VA-11 HALL-A should be a must-buy for indie lovers and VN junkies alike.
Editor’s Note: Featured artwork graciously provided by artist Ex-Trident. You can find more of his awesome work at his DeviantArt page.