Around this time last year, VA-11 Hall-A caught people’s attention as a ‘dystopian cyberpunk waifu bartending action’ game. Wouldn’t you know it, just like it promised, VA-11 Hall-A is a game riddled with ‘waifu’ material with a huge emphasis on doing the act of bartending in a dystopian cyberpunk world. Albeit with a touch more of a ‘visual novel’ aspect.
VA-11 Hall-A is the name of the bar within Glitch City, and as much of a mess of a name as it is, the game (just like I will) shortens the name to ‘Vallhalla’. Within Vallhalla, you’ll play as the stoic and sarcastic ‘Jill’ or Julianne, one of the two bartenders who service clients at the bar. Working alongside Gillian, the enigmatic youth, and Dana, the tough but kind boss, the team continue their lives working at the bar after the announcement Vallhalla’s closure prior to the events of the game. All the while, Jill has to keep serving drinks in order to make ends meet and pay her bills.
While the notion of playing a game to do menial work may seem counter intuitive for some, the game manages to make bartending an enjoyable experience by integrating it in a meaningful and interesting way. Vallhalla promises that there are choices to make within the game. However, the way to make these choices is not restricted to a simple dialogue wheel. Rather, there are many opportunities where the choice of drink can change the outcome of a client’s mindset or even the dialogue they present. Because of that, these choices can lead to multiple endings.
An instance of the choice mechanic in action is one character named Ingram who comes into the bar and at first is a complete jerk, which you can see from his manner of speech. However, by giving him drinks with even more alcohol in them, he will open up more and make himself sound more reasonable as you find out why he’s the man he is. He even explains why he has a weird ‘fetish’ for hiring a young girl to be his daughter for one day in the last 3 years. Yeah.
Alongside him, there is an extraordinary diverse cast of strange patrons who pop into Vallhalla, all with purpose and reason. Which brings me to why that is so important: the reason these patrons appear in the bar is to allow the player to familiarize themselves with this dystopian cyberpunk world.
You get to see what motivations drive the lives of the common folk in this fantasy world, to see what whacky adventures ‘regular’ denizens of this world get up to in their daily lives. From the poorest to the richest, from the keepers of the peace to the rebels. You can enjoy their superficial charade or delve into their deepest inner secrets.
This leads to some fun little theories and world-building opportunities you can piece together. My favourite side story involves the identity of a strange ‘anonymous’ hacker under the moniker of ‘Alice_Rabbit’. Every time Jill interacts with Alma, her best friend who happened to be a hacker by trade, she listens to tirades about how the whole Alice_Rabbit phenomenon may very well be a person or a group of people, but they hurt the ‘art’ of hacking and the like.
Yet, during a later scene, Alma swaps places with Jill in order to comfort her. In order to use the bar, she has to hack into it. The screen flickers for a moment to show off the Alice_Rabbit symbol that has been shown on various news articles within the game. It’s small little details like these that help contribute to the bigger narrative.
Valhalla is a gorgeous game. True to the nature of its descriptor as a ‘waifu’ simulator game, the style is very much in the vein of anime. However, the true beauty of the game is how the game displays itself.
Most of the game is set within the confines of Valhalla. Because of that, it is dark with very low light emitted from the neon lights surrounding the room, offering a cosy setting without losing its very notable dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic. The style is gritty and dark, but never grim to look at.
As you can imagine for a game that’s based upon serving customers in a bar, the music on offer would also need to cater to it in order to create the mellow vibe a humble bar like Valhalla would provide. It’s for this sake that there is a jukebox that you can set the playlist for every day. The entire soundtrack is composed by Michael ‘Garoadmusic‘ Kelly, who’s first major work was on this game.
He’s done an incredible job in creating an atmospheric soundtrack that caters to not just the mellow atmosphere of the bar, but also a diverse range of tracks that covers more upbeat scenes and more emotionally charged encounters. You can even purchase the solid soundtrack on Kelly’s bandcamp, either for free or a donated amount to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. This soundtrack has now overtaken the Undertale soundtrack as my choice for work and commute!
Now, while the game is an incredible joy to experience, there is a slight nitpick. The game is, for a lack of better word, raw. Dialogue is an absolute joy to read and immerse in, but it is still worth noting that the game does indeed contain sexual and violent themes. So it’s only recommended for more mature audiences who can enjoy and appreciate the themes presented throughout.
Another quick nitpick is the lack of a ‘chapter select’ of sorts. For a game that relies on replayability to discover new dialogue in a sea of repeated conversations with the characters, it’s not quite as enjoyable to simply skip through certain parts of the conversation until the drink serving section appears. The solution provided is about 30+ save slots in which you could save each day and break.
I’ve been going on and on about the dialogue and the reason for that is quite simple. The dialogue is the most important part of the game. It’s charming, it’s thought provoking, it’s crass, it’s real. It brings forward some very familiar issues and themes that definitely plague the modern age of the internet today.
This may very well be due to the fact that the creators over at Sukeban Games lived their lives in the 4chan generation. It’s evident when the references within the game mirror it, such as Dorothy’s model number ‘DVF’ and the Alice_Rabbit being the ‘eventual conclusion to a group of anonymous people’. It’s tongue in cheek, but it doesn’t overstep its ridiculousness that would ruin the immersive experience.
VA-11 Hall-A absolutely reeks with charm and is made with absolute love for the reference material. The team lovingly wove together a beautifully desolated world filled with tense unease and unending allure, with a colorfully diverse cast of characters. If you can get past the boorish sex talk, you’ll find a game that is gratifying and thought provoking.