Flipping the visual novel genre on its head and embracing the slice-of-life style, VA-11 HALL-A caused a buzz in 2016 for its wonderful array of characters and its choice to focus on dialogue rather than the story. And rightly so, because there’s nothing else like it. I finally had the chance to visit the eponymous bar and it’s right at home on the Switch. While I can appreciate the ideas and the ambition on show here, not everything clicked into place at all times for me.
VA-11 HALL-A puts you in the shoes of Jill, a bartender at the bar who works to get on by and pay her rent. Jill has her own story, but it’s not the central one. The game chooses to celebrate the ordinary lives within Glitch City, rather than one big name. You find out about the world, and the characters, simply by talking to people. You learn about people you never meet, and events that have already happened, all the same way. I was fascinated about the world, eagerly taking in every bit of information I could. I wanted more, but you don’t get that. This is just 19 days in this city, in this bar, and a snapshot of the world rather than a complete package. I admire that.
What initially grabbed me about the game was its PC Engine, Snatcher-style visuals. The game embraces these late 80s/early 90s visuals perfectly, embellishing everything in bright neon lights and detailed character models that are expressive and feel alive. The bar and the few glimpses you get of the city are truly beautiful, and I loved booting up the game every time and taking a peek out of Jill’s window just to look at the brightly lit dystopia.
Working together with these visuals is the game’s outstanding soundtrack: a mix of jazz, electronic and techno beats that are all wonderful. Michael Kelly has done an amazing job creating such a varied soundscape, with chill songs for your more relaxed moments to upbeat tunes that capture certain character traits perfectly. Also, at the start of every day, you can create a playlist of your favourite tracks on the bar’s Jukebox. I was already familiar with Kelly’s work, but hearing it in game was a treat.
Let’s get onto bar life itself, then. The customers who come in for a drink each day are a varied bunch who come from all walks of life, from hackers to assassins and idols to sex workers. One character who stands out is Dorothy, a sex worker Lilim (a robot). She’s bubbly and loud and proud of her line of work and open to speaking about it. It’s really refreshing to read some sex positivity, and Dorothy isn’t once called out or punished for her line of work. Everyone has something interesting to say at some point throughout the course of the game.
Not everyone is likeable, but even the characters I did like got a bit much at times because of how trope heavy the game is. VA-11 HALL-A’s characters are very anime in design, right down to their dialogue. Tropes can be utilised really well if done right, but in a game that revolves around dialogue, the over the top characters and dialogue felt too much. This veered from the uncomfortable — some of the creepy male characters who use blowjob metaphors to degrade other characters — to the ridiculous — the girls who cry stylized waterfalls from their eyes. Some people will love this slice of life approach, but this isn’t my cup of tea at all and it really spoilt some of the game’s more interesting moments for me.
What also doesn’t help is just how slow the game feels. Honestly, I found VA-11 HALL-A really tedious to play. Gameplay consists of you listening to patrons and making them whatever drink they request. They might ask for something by name, by type (e.g. girly), by taste (e.g. bitter) or sometimes by riddle, and you need to use the menu to find the right drink. The menu is controlled with the D-pad and you select your mixes and make your drinks using the right analogue stick. This got a little fiddly at times, and the touch screen controls are worse, making you drag each ingredient to the mixer one at a time. Luckily, you’re not on a time limit, so you can take all of the time you need to make your drinks.
Honestly, while I get that VA-11 HALL-A is replicating life working in a bar, making drinks for the same 10 or so guests over the course of 15 hours got very tedious very fast for me. Not only that, it will probably take you a few playthroughs to learn what everyone refers to in their more unusual requests; I did play through the game three times to get all six different endings, but the effects of your “choices” don’t pay off until the final hours of the game. Dialogue may change slightly for two lines after you’ve served that drink, but the payoff doesn’t come until the end of the game. I really like what they’re trying to do, but there are some really bizarre choices which you’ll never guess after two or three go-arounds.
I really like a lot of what VA-11 HALL-A is doing. I think changing up the choice mechanic, taking control away from you, and putting the focus merely on dialogue and not one character’s story are all fantastic, but a lot of the ideas sound better on paper to me. Glitch City is a fascinating world, and Sukeban Games have created something truly unique that has inspired many. VA-11 HALL-A deserves its large fan following, but it’s not mixed quite right for me to love everything on offer.