Release Date: 21/06/2016
Played On: PC
Available On: iOS / PC / Vita
Time Played: 9h 13m
Progress: One Complete Playthrough
Developer: Sukeban Games
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
I've often wondered why the visual novel format has mostly been adopted by the weeb anime crowd as their format of choice. Of course it's a short jump from manga and anime to a visual novel game, but this particular genre could be utilised in many more ways. Visual novels aren't inherently bad, as when they work they can be an enjoyable way to tell a story. I'd just like to see it used for something other than hentai or dating sims.
Thankfully there's VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action, which I will henceforth refer to as Valhalla. The name is a play on the word that quickly gets established in-game as part of the dystopian sci-fi setting that designates letters and numbers to buildings and businesses. There are some fourth wall breaking references to the game title and even the player, but they're only used to justify the world.
In Valhalla you play as Jill, the bartender of VA-11 Hall-A, a run-down bar in the futuristic Glitch City. Throughout the game you learn about the world outside by talking to customers and reading blogs and forums on your phone. It's a really nice way to flesh out the world, as the option is there to ignore everything other than the dialogue in front of you. However, paying attention to what's happening around you and to your customers and friends, paints a well thought out picture of the city.
The game is broken into chapters and days that usually culminate in an event happening in the city, or something happening to one of the characters you meet and get to know. The most interaction you have with the world is through dialogue with customers as they come into the bar for a drink and a chat. It's a credit to the game that after playing I felt like I had a deep understanding of the city, even though I (pretty much) never set foot out of the bar. Each character has been well designed and has a story to tell; some are fairly shallow, but all of them help add to the diversity of life in Glitch City.
Characterisation and dialogue is where Valhalla truly shines, as the writing holds up nicely. It probably won't win any literary awards, but you really get a feel for each character as you talk to them and it escapes the juvenile fan-fiction feel that a lot of visual novels have. I found it hard to avoid getting emotionally invested in character's difficulties and existential conundrums. Sometimes all I wanted to do was hug a good friend in need, or punch a wise guy for talking smack.
Valhalla also avoids the trap of being too narcissistic, with the player character often taking a back seat and allowing others in the scene to interact and develop their own relationships. I get a bit annoyed when visual novels lean on extensive passages of inner monologue from the player character, so it's nice that there's really none to speak of here.
Without any overt dialogue choices, the game's story can change path based on how you perform at the basic gameplay elements. The loop is simple: each day you have a read of the forums on your phone and/or go to the shops and buy something for your apartment to cheer yourself up. Your work day is split in two and begins by selecting the tracks to play on the bar's jukebox, which are unlocked throughout the game. A few customers will come in and talk to you and probably order a few drinks that you need to mix and serve. There is a recipe book that tells you how to mix all the available drinks as well as their properties like flavourand type.
Mixing drinks is the main activity in the game (other than reading dialogue), but it's fairly straight forward. A customer will ask for a drink by name, or will ask for something that's 'sweet' or 'non-alcoholic'. There are a few times where a customer will be vague about what they want, so you need to take a punt at what to serve them, but these are few and far between and most of the time you'll be checking for specific recipes in your recipe book.
Occasionally after a shift (at the end of each day), you'll get a notification that if you don't buy a certain item, or if you are unable to pay your bills, Jill will be distracted the next day. This boils down to adding some difficulty to mixing drinks by making you pay attention to what customers order. When Jill is feeling good, the customer's order will stay written on the screen as you mix it, but if she gets distracted, the order will disappear as her mind wanders. It's a nice in-universe way of changing the mechanics based on decisions you make, even if it's just a small change.
In the middle of your shift you take a break, select some more songs for the jukebox, then start the second half of your shift where more customers come in with stories and drink orders. At the end of each day you are paid based on how successful you were at serving customers the right drink, how many mistakes you made, and a few other variables that all add up to change how much cash you have available for bills and luxuries.
The gameplay system is a nice inclusion in the game as it takes Valhalla from being a simple visual novel, to a more interesting place. The fact that all the mechanics make sense within the world of the game is essential, and prevents it from being shoe-horned mechanics for the sake of it.
Your performance as a bartender also has an impact on the branching paths of the game. I only played through once, but there were multiple scenes and endings that I missed out on due to my decisions and performance throughout the game. Without spoiling anything; by the end of the game I had managed to get Jill evicted from her apartment by not paying the rent. Instead I chose to purchase all the luxury items so that she would be in a good mood for each day. I wasn't thinking about mechanics at the time, but my path through the game was shaped by those decisions.
Part of me wants to play through the story again with different decisions and performance to see the scenes I missed out on, but at almost ten hours it's a bit of a stretch. However, the game did such a good job of portraying its characters and their stories that I'm itching to get to know them more. It's a testament to the game to think that I was so taken with the world and its characters that I immediately wanted to dive back in and see what I missed.
Where other visual novels live or die on the quality of their art (bad art always puts me off), Valhalla pulls off a beautifully realised pixel art style that serves the game well. There's a certain neon/cyberpunk quality to the aesthetic that fits the world like a glove. Characters are emotive with minimal animation and an attention to detail that brings each of them to life. It's amazing how the simple of act of having a character blink can make them appear to be more alive. This is one aesthetic that compliments the story and the world, instead of holding it back. Plus, it's nice to see a style that isn't 100% anime rip-off, despite the fact that it's not too far removed.
Finally the soundtrack is a nice mix of electronic tunes that are diverse and really help to set the mood. Considering that you'll hear the same tracks again and again as you get to know customers, it's a relief that each track stand up to repetition.
There's no escaping the fact that Valhalla is a visual novel through and through, so if you're the kind of person who doesn’t want to read in your games, this will not be for you. For anyone who likes an interesting dystopian sci fi story with an ensemble of fascinating and diverse characters, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action is one to check out.