It’s another Guest Review Wednesday and another welcome Guest Review by our got-VN reviewer, Louis P. (I am so thankful to those of you who review VNs for us here, truly.) Today’s review sounds genuinely exceptional, so get yourself some bar nuts and a drink, and get read to read! Take it away, Louis…
VA-11 HALL-A (pronounced Valhalla) is a cyberpunk bartending game/visual novel focusing on the eponymous bar located in Glitch City, a place that sometimes feels like it is just some big playground for exploitative tech companies. But it is still a place many people have to live in. Our protagonist is Jill, one of the bartenders at the eponymous establishment: VA-11 HALL-A, her job is to mix the right drinks for the right clients and offer a sympathetic ear to people who come in after a long day of publishing, assassinating or, perhaps the most dangerous job, running a corgi toy company.
A good eighty percent of the story of VA-11 HALL-A is told at the bar from Jill’s perspective as through her shift clients arrive, drink, chat and then leave. It does not take long for a cast of regulars to form and for us to get to know them, both their stories and their drink preferences. The main mode of interaction in VA-11 HALL-A is mixing drinks for Jill’s clients. Most of the time you are just supposed give a customer what they ask for or describe but eventually, as you get to know them, the game calls on you to make a judgment on what to serve or even to outright ignore what you are told and pick a drink you think is more to their taste to get the best reaction. Mix the right drinks and Jill generally gets more informative, more intimate dialogue out of her clients and when your clients open up to you more they end up the better for it.
Just listening to a supremely likable cast talk to each other is easily the main draw of VA-11 HALL-A. By the time I had finished the first of the games three chapters I put the rest of my visual novels on hold to finish VA-11 HALL-A as I had fallen in love with the whole cast. It also does a brilliant job of capturing the feeling of living in a dystopian society where stability is uncertain and events way beyond your ability to influence end up interfering with your day to day life. While this starts off with snippets of dialogue hinting at the harshness of a city outside of the bar or Jill’s flat; turn into something else by the end of the first chapter when Jill ends up having to spend one night sleeping in the bar to avoid a dangerous riot and then spends the next day in her flat looking out over the still rioting city watching everything slowly simmer down… and then head straight back to work the day after that.
It should not be surprising to find out that the games developers are from Venezuela where only last year a state of economic emergency was declared, there were close to two hundred prison riots and Colombian border crossings had to be temporarily opened to allow Venezuelans to purchase food and basic household items in Colombia. Communicating the feeling of what a bar such as VA-11 HALL-A means to people, as a means of escape and community, in societies like these was one of the major focuses of the designers.
There are a lot of customers to talk to in VA-11 HALL-A, one of your more hard drinking regulars is Beatrice “Betty” Albert. Betty is an in-house veterinarian for the aforementioned corgi toy company and often turns up with her co-worker and best friend Deal and together they form a fantastic comedy duo. Betty is a lesbian, and while Deal is more than happy to rattle off all of her exes and all the reasons she gives for breaking up with them, she has no romantic arc. In fact the only relationship trouble Betty has is trying to avoid being set up with someone and as the matchmaker knows she is gay she cannot drag Deal into being a beard for her.
While Betty is easily the louder and more rambunctious of the duo she makes with Deal don’t think that she is the constant silly boke to his grim tsukkomi. Deal has plenty of silly moments too for Betty to be cynical about and one of her most deadpan lines in the whole game actually got me to laugh out loud. So while Betty and Deal’s story is light on romance it is heavy in a fantastically platonic chemistry between the two of them. Betty and Deal also become a relieving presence later on as their story lacks the heavy drama that other characters end up dealing with. Seeing these two arrive comes as a great relief more than once.
But it is the main character Jill who stands out in VA-11 HALL-A. Jill makes reference to having past boyfriends and girlfriends throughout the story but Jill has one major crush right when the story begins and that is her boss Dana Zane, the coolest woman in the history of visual novels.
Dana is Jill’s boss at VA-11 HALL-A and we really get the feeling of what a dependable boss she is when it is Dana who looks out for Jill during the riots at the end of chapter one, helping her get back to her flat without incident and staying with her though the day. Not only Jill but Dana also helps Gillian, Jill’s co-worker, stay clear of his dark past and clients such as the assassin Jamie have second hand stories about her past exploits that only get more ridiculous as the game continues. Even more so when it turns out that a good chunk of these ridiculous stories are true. She at the very least is an ex-cop with a cool ex-police detective girlfriend who you can meet if you play your serve the right drinks.
Dana also gets her head stuck in things… a lot, from hard suit helmets to spicy chicken buckets, keeps a metal bat that somehow has nails in it, is an ex-wrestler with the ring-name of ‘Red Comet’ and keeps finding excuses to add the Jill’s pay check like a doting grandmother. Dana is both a rock of stability in a scary and unstable world and an utter goofball who hires a talking, sunglasses wearing, dog as your co-worker. Someone who has the capacity to keep their life so together while at the same time being so ridiculous (as well as ridiculously cool) would be rationed out in another game but VA-11 HALL-A lets you enjoy Dana’s company nearly every in-game day!
So if the last two paragraphs are not obvious enough I also have a massive crush on Dana and it is a fantastically rare treat to have the point of view character’s romantic desire so perfectly align with my own. This will not be the same for everyone but it was a fantastic gentle reveal as it became more and more obvious over the game that Jill is so obviously interested in Dana you feel bad for not working it out the moment you see Jill’s tablet’s lock screen.
But sadly the only person that does not notice Jill’s feelings for Dana is Dana herself, and even though it is cute, Jill’s infatuation with Dana is not really the focus of Jill’s story however much I wish it was. Jill’s story in VA-11 HALL-A is not about Jill ending up in a relationship with someone but instead about Jill getting over a previous relationship with another woman three years ago. It is a break up that still looms over Jill and is the reason she is working at VA-11 HALL-A in the first place.
I don’t want to spoil any more, but this is what elevated it from very good visual novel to exemplary peace of contemporary art. VA-11 HALL-A inverts the usual devices used by visual novels. Usually following the characters day-by-day is used to highlight the increasing drama of the plot, VA-11 HALL-A instead emphasises the difficulty and drama of the day-to-day. While most visual novels have the main character somehow ‘solving’ other characters problems and developing themselves as a stepping stone to them ‘earning’ a relationship. VA-11 HALL-A has Jill listen to her clients problems only occasionally offering advice if anything and her personal improvement as a person is the goal itself. By the end of the story Jill is a person who perhaps will end up with Dana, but it was Jill becoming that person that was the point of VA-11 HALL-A’s story.
VA-11 HALL-A also never makes a big deal out of how much it subverts the usual procedures of its genre. There’s no point when the story just stops to congratulate itself insufferably on the codes and conventions it breaks, no stopping and winking at us so that we know how clever it is being. Instead it has a quiet confidence in the risks it is taking and what it is trying to achieve with them.
Art – 9 Pixel art at its most gorgeous.
Story – 6
Characters – 10 Best visual novel cast in a long time
Service – 1 The framing makes it difficult after all
Yuri – 7
Overall – 9
Erica here: Well, wow. This sounds almost like the old text-based games of my youth that, when they worked, were amazing, (but they almost never worked. ^_^) If you ever want to do a Twitch channel and play this for me, Louis, feel free! I’d totally watch you play this. ^_^