It’s a corrupt future, corporations rule everything, dogs and cats can talk, machines emulate humans and live ordinary lives and at the end of the day, people still need somewhere to go to drink. VA-11 HALL-A from Sukeban Games is a game that puts you in the shoes of Jill the bartender, serving a variety of colourful characters.
Mix drinks, change lives
Primarily, VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel. However it differentiates itself from other visual novels on the market through its main mechanic and story-telling device, bartending. Instead of choosing dialogue options, your interactions with the characters are effected by the types of drinks you serve. For example, messing up orders will change responses, as will getting characters drunk off their faces. It’s a refreshing change to the traditional visual novel format.
The characters that come in usually order a drink, or offer a hint as to the type of drink they want (for example, a character might want something ‘bubbly’ as opposed to a specific drink). Mixing the drinks is also straightforward, adding specific amounts of ingredients to a mixer to get a desirable result. Though mistakes can be made, and naturally this means a reduction in pay.
Being paid is important, as attaining specific goals to pay off bills is a key part so the player character, Jill, doesn’t wind up on the streets. Money also allows the player to purchase trinkets, some of which Jill wants or needs in order to not be distracted at work, which has the gameplay impact of possibly missing drink orders, leading to more mistakes and less income. Though players also have the option of buying things purely for cosmetic reasons.
The bartending mechanic, while simple to execute, is also its most confusing mechanic. I regularly didn’t understand when I could deviate from a specified order to add more alcohol for different responses or serve up a different drink altogether to achieve different results in conversation without being punished for it by having my pay cut. As a result I was less prone to risk taking and experimenting with the mechanics, and I’m left unsure where the characters and their story deviate, and how intensely they deviate. Though the game is fairly short and offers a new game plus for those who are more prone to experimentation.
So, what’ll it be?
The story itself takes place in Glitch City, a futuristic city controlled by corrupt corporations, in which the player takes the role of Jill, a bartender working at a bar at risk of being closed. As she works day to day, she meets a variety of characters, all of which who tell her different things about the world and give a broader picture of just what the city is like. And it’s not great.
The characters themselves are all full of life and quirky, reminding me a lot of the characters I’d meet in the Phoenix Wright series. The writing is strong, defining each character clearly as well as hinting at the wider events of the world through intermission segments in Jill’s room, where players can check the local news or forums.
While the writing is strong and has a great sense of humor, it does tend to fall pretty flat at certain points. Namely, I don’t think I could go ten minutes without hearing about a characters bust size or sex life, with the game relying on a lot of anime style tropes. Which, I’m sure, is half its appeal to its audience but otherwise comes off as immature and, the more it goes on, just plain annoying.
As if to really drive its target audience home, the game also relies on a lot of internet culture references. Again, not a bad thing, they’re usually very funny and on point, but the game almost audibly winks and nudges you to make sure you got it at times.
But the biggest issue that almost made me put the game down entirely is the use of a sex worker character by the name of Dorothy, an artificial lifeform called a Lillim, who has the body of a 10-13 year old, the mind of a 24 year old, and is a sex worker who finds a lot of joy in discussing her work in depth. No character ever seems to see the problem with this and Dorothy even remarks on it as an asset at times.
It’s creepy, terrible and lets down an otherwise interesting game and premise. It’s one of those things that taints the rest of the game.
VA-11 HALL-A is a strange game that’s hard to place in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad. There’s certainly bad points about it, but I can’t exactly say I didn’t enjoy it, either. I regularly found myself smiling at the quirky humor and a lot of the in-jokes, as well as enjoying the depth of characterization, the amazing PC-98 style graphics and the funky cyberpunk music.
But when it did let me down, it let me down pretty hard.
Though it does play as an interesting companion piece to 2064: Read Only Memories (which this game makes a lot of references to, and includes characters from as bonus patrons). Where 2064 came from a place of a more Tumblr/left leaning point of view steeped in internet culture, VA-11 HALL-A takes from a more image board style culture while not leaning too far into an uncomfortable area, more of a centrist perspective, perhaps.
It certainly increased my enjoyment of the game when I looked at it from that perspective. And even as a stand-alone visual novel I did enjoy it. But the uncomfortable areas keep popping back up and the game does nothing to stop it, even though its writing and jokes are at their strongest when they come from a more original place.
Much like trying a weird new cocktail for the first time, VA-11 HALL-A draws flavours and influences from a lot of familiar places, but it just kinda leaves a weird and unpleasant taste in your mouth afterward.