“Time to mix drinks and change lives”
– Julianne Natalie “Jill” Stingray
Welcome or welcome back to VA-11 Hall-A, the 10th game developed by Sukeban Games and published by Ysbyrd Games, a booze ’em up set in a small bar in the fictional city aptly named “Glitch City”. Rather than just playing a nameless, silent protagonist, you play Jill Stingray, a bartender with an indifferent demeanor who has many problems of her own, finding her place in the post-dystopian city and facing the realities of her past that slowly unravel throughout the game.
Va-11 Hall-A offers a narrative that intricately weaves together the threads of Jill’s past and the lives of the bar’s diverse clientele. Among them are notable characters such as the CEO of a news company, a seemingly young Lilim [Robot] Girl in an unconventional profession, and a mysterious femme hacker with a close connection to Jill herself. The recurring customers I’ve already mentioned contribute to the unfolding story. But there are also one-off customers, each with their own encapsulated stories – from a brain in a tube, to a delivery man with a tough exterior, to a cosplay group that serves as an Easter egg for the RPG game YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, also published by Ysbyrd Games.
Navigating this narrative proves challenging, as the player may not encounter every character in a single playthrough. Some customers only appear under certain conditions, such as serving a secret drink called “Flaming Moai” on certain days or avoiding mistakes in previous orders. The interconnectedness of the stories is a notable aspect, revealing hidden connections between characters. For example, a seemingly ill-tempered guy who is seldom seen is revealed to be a regular customer of your other regular, with Dorothy the Lilim playing the role of his daughter. As the game progresses, his tragic past unfolds, revealing the loss of his daughter to the authoritarian White Knights group and painting a more poignant picture of his character.
When you think of a character, what comes to mind? Their appearance, their personality, and their speech are the top 3 things that come to mind, right? While that might be true for the characters you and Jill have met before, it’s a lot trickier with the new clientele, as you have to do a bit of a song and dance to know what kind of speech won’t weird them out or rub them the wrong way, fortunately, and cleverly, you can skip all that and learn about them easier by serving them, as the drinks you serve them have tags and little flavor texts that not only help with bartending but also allow the player to guess or predict how this new clientele might behave when they inevitably get buzzed. Not to take any points away from the game, but the characters can be predictable at times. but even if you know how they behave, their stories are always the biggest hook to get you to bond with the customers and learn how their personalities have evolved from who they were before to who they are now.
The game offers a unique experience by immersing the player in a world full of eccentricities. The narrative unfolds not through the conventional adventure or physical exploration that one expects in a more open-world game, but through the rich interactions with your clientele. It’s like being on a small but active group chat, except that you’re behind the bar. Despite the predictability of some of the characters, the maturity and quality of the writing shine through. Even if you anticipate the ending, the journey remains rewarding, making it an outstanding experience. One of my personal favorites would be how the character, Sei Asagiri, develops over the following days. Starting as a cheery and optimistic White Knight who only wishes to save those whom she can be on the receiving end of being saved. During the events of the game, Sei was trapped for 3 days in the Apollo Bank without food or water. Even just escaping had caused her severe injuries since she had learned that it wasn’t just people with bad intentions who did bad things but also those who were desperate.
The Interactive Elements
Of course, since it’s a bar (and an interactive visual novel), you have to serve the customers what they want, be it a Brandtini, a big Moonblast, or a Pile Driver, you have to serve them what they want a la Papa’s Pizzeria style, luckily your trusty tablet has a built-in recipe book where it shows what type of ingredients and mixing is needed, be it with ice, aged or needing to be blended or mixed. Other types of drinks are just bottled and can be served easily.
In other news… Before work starts, there’s a little break area in Jill’s house where you can choose to browse your phone, from (definitely not) 4chan and (definitely not) Fox News to the (definitely not) Tumblr account of an idol. I like this aspect of the game because it helps build the world with the information it shows and the opinions of the faceless anonymous members, as it gives the player an insight into what’s going on in the town that Jill is a part of. I would compare this section to something like the opening and pre-shift sections of Papers, Please, as in both games the stories shown in the newspaper could be translated into what clientele might show up and what new rule will be given to the border officer in their respective games.
Finally, there’s the money aspect, to earn money you simply have to complete a shift/day, and every day, minus the first day (which acts as a tutorial stage), Jill will suggest something she wants to buy, which is almost always necessary as it helps Jill not get distracted at work, there are also monthly bills that Jill has to keep track of, well only two where the game takes place, a VR subscription and her rent to be precise. If you don’t pay your rent on time. This only happens if you’ve been an irresponsible shopper, you’ll get the bad ending where you’re forced to move in with your best friend… which, to be honest, isn’t such a bad ending.
But if you can pay your rent on time, you get the happy ending, or at least part of it, as to get the full, complete happy ending you have to serve each drink correctly to certain customers, ending their stories as epilogues sewn into the happy ending.
What comes next(?) [Not yet sure since the sequel is still unknown]
After finishing Va-11 Hall-A, if you want to learn more about Va-11 Hall-A’s characters or just the setting as a whole, there are many other games from the same Sukeban Games team to choose from, such as Va-11 Hall-A kids [And it’s upcoming sequel Va-11 Hall-A KIDS Saisei – Coming ???], Va-11 Hall-A: S.P.R. (a short story about Anna Graem and Fore Julius Stingray, Jill’s cat.) and Va-11 Hall-A’s sequel, N1RV Ann-A, coming WID (when it’s done), as the pandemic had put a stop to the development of both N1RV Ann-A and Va-11 Hall-A KIDS Saisei with a small question mark over whether the release date will be revealed or not, we just have to wait and see.
There’s also an upcoming game that seems to be a more open-world 3rd person game, similar to Signalis, that’s in the works, but as it is, it’s also WID with little to no information about the game.
Finally, this won’t be the last indie game I’ll be reviewing, as I plan to start writing more of these short reviews every month, sort of like a spotlight on what indie game has caught my eye. In any case, I’d like to give Va-11 Hall-A a 4/5, as it fully encapsulates what I love about visual novels and grounded stories as a whole, yet is held back by its rather short runtime, as I only finished it in 10 hours, I hope that those of you who are interested will be willing to buy it as I did, and support the developers in whatever they do next, be it N1rv Ann-A or any of their new ideas that may come to fruition.
You can pick up Va-11 Hall-A on Steam, GOG, Itch.io, PS4, Nintendo Switch and the Xbox Store.