“Va-11 Hall-A” is the first game developed by Sukeban Games. (Courtesy of Sukeban Games)
“Va-11 Hall-A” captures audience’s hearts and refuses to let go. Released on Steam back in June 2016, “Va-11 Hall-A” is a visual novel/simulator where the player gets to play as a bartender. The story is set in Glitch City, a future cyberpunk dystopia whose problems range from political corruption, AI rights, to paying the bills. As the player clocks in for their nightly shifts, they interact with the various customers, all with a story to tell, as the world rages on around them.
The actual gameplay of “Va-11 Hall-A” is engaging, yet simplistic. As each customer arrives, the player is tasked with mixing drinks of varying complexity for each of the guests and given directions on how to make them. Choosing and mixing drinks is never a difficult task – the player can always consult the in-game instructions for each drink, as well as check which drinks fill certain criteria. Simple or convoluted, each drink is just enough to keep the player’s hand moving, which is a welcome feature in a game that could otherwise lull people into boredom.
Despite its small-scale production, “Va-11 Hall-A” manages to nail its aesthetics. The entire game is filled with visual quirks and designs that really help in selling its cyberpunk setting, from the pixelated heads-up display to the character designs. In both the seedy lighting of a bar and the confined comfort of an apartment, nothing stands out as noticeably outside the grip of reality. The soundtrack also greatly services the setting with multiple unique tracks on hand for any given mood the player might be feeling without being intrusive, which fits the definition of “background music.” Between the convincing design and immersing soundtrack, “Va-11 Hall-A” succeeds at inviting the player into its world.
However, the main draw of “Va-11 Hall-A” is most certainly its characters. A diverse cast of characters regularly visit the Va-11 Hall-A dive club, ranging from old friends to cyborg bounty hunters and even a talking dog. Each encounter is different from the last, with each customer either talking about what is going on in their lives or chatting with whoever is next to them. During all of this, the player acts as a spectator on top of working their job at the bar. The player character is not a silent one, and regularly holds conversations with their customers while mixing another drink every now and then.
In a market filled with disappointing, one-dimensional characters, “Va-11 Hall-A” is solely focused on giving its characters as much development as possible – and it does so splendidly. All character development is given organically, as it comes up in discussion or as an answer to the player’s prying questions. A common pitfall with dialogue is for the character to talk as if they were writing – a mistake that is shockingly absent from this dialogue-only story. Every character comes off like a real person, down to their various mannerisms and sense of humor. Major credit has to be given to the writer for the effort put into this.
The backstory of each character is just detailed enough for one to think they are real, but leave enough things left undiscussed that the characters are not all part of a contrived web. They are all living their own lives, and just so happen to bump into each other during the shift and give the player a peek into their lives. It is a pleasant surprise to have a wide cast of three-dimensional characters, and its easily “Va-11 Hall-A’s” greatest achievement.
Naturally, this game may not cater to all audiences. Between its lighthearted moments, the story likes to take more serious turns in its tone, exploring how the two can sometimes be connected to each other. The sudden shifts occasionally come out of left field though, and may run the risk of disengaging the player from whatever is happening. One also needs to understand that, despite the small minigame of mixing drinks, “Va-11 Hall-A” is still a visual novel. Most of the enjoyment of the game comes from developing an understanding and appreciation of the story and its characters, with the job of bartending as a simple way to keep your hands busy. This game is not for those who prefer gameplay over story.
With everything said, “Va-11 Hall-A” is a heartwarming and relaxing experience for anyone who tries it. The whole story can last 10-12 hours on a normal playthrough, and the experience it provides is both worthwhile and affordable. If anyone is looking for a good story to sink into, “Va-11 Hall-A” delivers.
Final Grade: A-