Not often does a game prompt me after the start screen to go grab a drink, sit down and relax. Usually I’d be getting hyped by the menu music to go shoot some guys in the face, but this game’s menu music is soothing and non-confrontational. It was clear from the start that VA-11 HALL-A (I’ll just call it Valhalla from now on) was going to be different game. It’s a game with the tagline of “Cyberpunk Bartender Action”, but there is little in the way of action when it comes to mixing drinks and chatting to strange and wonderful people.
Welcome to VA-11 HALL-A!
The game is a visual novel. Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. If you’re expecting shooting and crazy cyberpunk action adventures, you better wait for CD Projekt Red. Visual novels are not something you see every day in the west, but they’re massively popular in Japan. “Games” that mostly involve you going through dialogue, meeting characters and sometimes making some choices that might change the outcome or have you get a different ending. It’s not exactly pulse-pounding and you can speedrun the game pretty fast if you just hold in the X button and see all the text fly by at blistering speed.
But visual novels are like a fine wine. You need to take your time to savour all of the flavours and really let them breathe instead of shotgunning it right into your lungs. Like the game said to me at the start, it’s a relaxing experience. However, you do a little more than just pressing a button to move onto the next dialogue. You are a bartender and your patrons require drinks that you need to mix. This mechanic will be the central “gameplay” of the game even if it’s ridiculously simple. You mix drinks by combining five ingredients in different volumes. Each drink can hold up to 20 ingredients and the order in which you place those ingredients determine what drink will ultimately be made.
You’re given a glossary of all the available drinks and you can see exactly how each one is made. Getting used to making drinks will take you all of five minutes. It’s just listening to client’s order, picking the ingredients that are laid out for you, mixing and serving. Wrenches get thrown into the gameplay at times where a customer gives a cryptic order and you have to figure out what they’re talking about. This is the closest the game comes to a puzzle game, but these moments are the extraordinary circumstances.
The gameplay of Valhalla was certainly not the focal point, but as a means to drive the story forward and present a little challenge? You can do much worse. Additionally, serving specific drinks to specific clients will unlock their endings and special interactions which means there are some stakes involved. Added to that, you need to pay your bills and rent with money you get from the bar so there’s a little management going on, but if you don’t screw up too much, you should be fine.
What can I get you?
I started the review with the game’s mechanics instead of the story because Valhalla is not about game mechanics. You play as a bartender called Jill, who is a 27 year old woman living in Glitch City, a futuristic mega city home to all kinds of weird and wacky people, sentient androids, brains in jars and cat girls. Jill is just trying to do her job, serving drinks to folks and being a listening post for the problems that they came to drown. Her co-worker Gil and boss Dana are the only ones you regularly see in the bar as different patrons end up on your screen.
You’ll very quickly find that the writing in Valhalla is not afraid to tell it how it is. The dialogue is full of expletives, the characters sometimes say something that make your eyes go wide and go, “Whoa, I did not expect that” because of how abrasive it was. As Jill talks to patrons you’ll get everything from crazy sexual experiences to deep traumas. It’s as mature as it gets and I appreciate the game for not sugarcoating life and showing us that this world is just as ugly and gross as ours.
The choice is up to whether you have the patience or not.
But no doubt the main focal point of the experience is the interactions with the game’s characters. The characters you will meet along your alcoholic escapades couldn’t be more different from each other. You’ve got a misogynistic newspaper editor, a sex worker who is also a robot that looks like a teenager, a beautiful hacker women and just so much more. Each character is distinct. They each like a certain drink, they all have quirks and most importantly, personality.
Sitting behind the bar and waiting for the next person to show up is exciting. Is it going to be someone new or one of your regulars and that question always results in a good outcome because you’re excited to see both. You start making a connection with these weird denizens and since the game goes on for quite a while, you will be well acquainted with them by the end of it.
Drown your sorrows
Valhalla tried to tackle many things. It tries to focus on slice-of-life storytelling where characters talk about silly and often banal subjects for a long time. Just people talking about their day and their random thoughts with the difference being that the “people” also include classy cat girls and robots. It tries to go political a few times, but not to the point where it becomes nauseating and there is some respectable moral discussion to be had instead of just rampant condemning.
I will admit that during certain points, Jill went from being Jill to being the writer’s fantasies. Jill would go from the cool and collected bartender to suddenly a super genius capable of flowery rhetoric and well-structured debate dialogue inside a bar talking to a lady with giant boobs. To put it simply, they were trying too hard. I enjoyed the grounded conversations talking about ordinary things with these extraordinary people. and then Jill would wax poetically about some moral quandary and the patron will go “Wow Jill, you’re so smart” and Jill will go “No, I just know a lot” which is pretty much code for “writer trying too hard to sound clever”.
Those problems aside, Valhalla managed to shock and surprise me quite a few times and to be honest, I enjoyed getting into the routine. Reading news and stuff in Jill’s apartment before work fills the world in a little bit and then you go to work, pull up the jukebox, make a playlist or use the one you like and then just enjoy a day talking about life with weird people looking to get plastered. It’s a far cry from a “traditional” gaming experience, but its calm pace and comfortable atmosphere draws you in pretty quick.
Not long after starting the game, I was heeding the notice at the start. I grabbed a drink, prepared to press the X button a bunch of times and was just unwinding. Even when the game introduced drama, I was still relaxed because I knew this was the story I was supposed to be experiencing, I don’t have to be ready to shoot things or get ready to do the vehicle section.
Obviously it’s a game that isn’t for everybody. If you’re a gamer that often skips the dialogue in RPGs, this will not be the game for you. If you are someone who wants to experience a story within a comfortable and easy-going environment, this is definitely for you. It’s a contemplative experience that goes on for quite a long time with different endings and stuff you can do on certain days with certain clients.
The gameplay isn’t exactly what I would call explosive and the controls for the drink mixing is literally just three buttons and there’s no time limit. But it’s the stories that take place around those drinks you mix that is the real meat of the game. It delves into mature places and taboo subjects with grace and the writing delivers some great character development and quality barring the periods where the writer got up their own ass a little too much.
Sitting behind the bar and waiting for the next person to show up is exciting
As for the visuals, they’re great on their own. It’s primarily pixel art with the bar screen showing you the drink mixing tab at all times and a window you can look through to see your customers. From the screenshots in this video alone, you should be able to tell what the game looks like. Its cyberpunk aesthetic isn’t just a look either, most of the characters have some sort of tech implanted in them and the world outside is a scary and dangerous place.
VA-11 HALL-A is a game I’m glad exists. In an industry where explosions and action-by-the-second is in high demand, it tells you to go grab a drink and calmly enjoy yourself. My time spent with the game was akin to spending time with a very potty-mouthed version of a great cyberpunk young adult novel. There were some potholes along the road with the writing, but not enough to throw me off the road. The choice is up to whether you have the patience or not, but I can definitely say that what you’ll find is something worthwhile and pure. There’s some value in that.