VA-11 HALL-A Review
It seems that ever since Hideo Kojima left Konami last year, gamers everywhere have taken great interest in the director’s earlier, pre-MGS works. Steam has seen a slew of sci-fi point-and-clicks emulating the likes of SNATCHER and POLICENAUTS, ranging from strict homages like READ ONLY MEMORIES to more loose interpretations, such as VA-11 HALL-A.
As the tagline suggests, VA-11 HALL-A isn’t like most games. You play as Jill, a bartender at the titular watering hole, Valhalla. Life in dystopian Glitch City is pretty awful and most people find relief through drink, which is where you come in. During a very eventful week involving terrorists and hacker attacks, much of Glitch City’s movers and shakers stop by your establishment. Through your own small role of serving alcohol and conversing with the patrons, you are able to influence them, and in turn help shape the future of the city.
Gin and anime
Ostensibly, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel. Permutations exist in the form of a customizable jukebox and junk to decorate your apartment with, but the meat of the game is clicking “next” on dialogue boxes. And you’ll click “next” a lot. Only three lines of speech fit within the box, meaning that even simple conversations require dozens of clicks to cycle through. This isn’t too much of an issue for the more interesting discourses, but it really drags during the duds, of which there are a fair amount of over the course of the eight hour story.
The reason that VA-11 HALL-A can’t be strictly labeled as a novel is its drink mixing mechanic. Customers will order a drink and it’s up to you to look up the recipe and mix a combination of the 5 sci-fi ingredients that sound like periodic elements. Since this process requires manual control, it is possible to accidentally (or wilfully) serve your clients the wrong drink, which results in VA-11 HALL-A’s roundabout dialogue choice system. Inebriated patrons will be more revealing than if sober, as will satisfied customers as opposed to disappointed ones.
“It’s vintage gaming!”
Though clever, this system doesn’t provide much of a challenge. You aren’t timed and mistakes can be reversed without penalty before serving, so clumsy bartending comes with no drawbacks. Ingredients are free and in unlimited supply, so there is nothing stopping you from serving double portions or price gouging customers with the most expensive drinks you can brew. And perhaps this may be intended, given the dystopic setting, but the process of clicking and dragging chemicals into the mixer is so artificial and inorganic that it zaps all of the fun out of blending drinks.
Mechanics aside, the real meat of VA-11 HALL-A is the dialogue, and it’s the writing that makes a game like this sink or swim. Unfortunately, this aspect of the game is also full of conditions and contradictions. Many of your bar’s visitors are incredibly realized. Listening to them talk about work, relationships, and happiness in the digital age is quite engrossing. A select, prominent few of your clientele, however, are either flat parodies of anime characters or are reliant on cringey meme humor. Because the mixing to talking ratio is so skewed, and since customers usually spend a while being served by you, there is a real dread to be felt when an insufferable regular plops down in front of you, which is really the only bartending experience VA-11 HALL-A successfully emulates.
I could say the same about this game
The biggest offender, though, is your player character, Jill. While the supporting cast is all very interesting, Jill is unbearably dull. Though you can influence the thoughts and actions of the customers, nothing can really be done to develop Jill herself as a character. This would be fine, assuming the game revolved around the patrons, rather than the player, but that simply isn’t the case. Jill needs to buy products to prevent her mind from drifting, save money to pay bills, and stock up on key items needed for certain situations, placing her management squarely in the spotlight. Furthermore, each of the game’s branching endings revolve around Jill, but do nothing to flesh her out or make her even slightly compelling.
VA-11 HALL-A places all of its chips down in its aesthetic. People who like the visual style and the cyberpunk setting will undoubtedly be drawn to this game. But the truth is VA-11 HALL-A is laden with a clunky UI, clunky writing, and poor prioritization of its content and focus. VA-11 HALL-A simply disappoints on far more levels than it satisfies, and even genre fans will have a hard time liking this game.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Reviewed on PC