Publisher: Sukeban Games
Developer: Ysbryd Games
Release Date: 06/21/2016
Also Available On
I’m not much of a visual novel fan. I love reading books and grew up reading a lot, but visual novels are basically just digital manga, and I prefer traditional manga. I bought VA-11 Hall-A years ago and never got around to it because there’s so much reading. What got me interested was the bartending aspect. It seemed like a fun time-management mini-game mixed in and I was completely wrong. However, the strongest point with this game is the fun characters and how invested in their stories I became.
You play Julianne Stingray, a bartender in a cyberpunk world setting nearly 100 years in the future. The bar is close to getting shut down and you’re just living life day-to-day until that time comes. The game is pretty slow-paced and takes quite a while to pick up and get interesting. There’s a lot of character setup and it takes such a long time so it feels natural and organic rather than rushed. There isn’t really any gameplay. I spent more time clicking through dialog than anything else, but I did like all the characters. They were fun, unique, and had great personalities that I got attached to. If I were to say there was an ultimate goal it would be to make amends with your ex-girlfriend who you got into a fight with years ago and need to apologize to, but honestly, this is a slice-of-life type of game. You really only need to just read through everything.
You do earn money at the end of every day and this can be spent on items to keep Jill focused at her job. There will be a hint when you get to your apartment as to what she might want. If you don’t buy this item she won’t remember what customers order and you have to remember yourself. There are also major bills that have to be paid so you need to spend wisely. There is also an optional phone you can view various news apps. Just some insight into the world really and nothing that matters towards the main story. There is an option to customize your apartment a bit, but it seemed superfluous in the end and pointless.
As you talk to patrons you have to make their drinks. This seemed fun at first, but it quickly becomes dull and stale by day three of the game. There is a recipe book full of 24 different drinks you can make and you can filter them by flavor and type. Patrons will give hints as to what they want and you sometimes even have to read the descriptions to get cryptic ones correct. Drinks are made with artificial chemicals in this world and you have five. There are squares that fill up with each measurement and you can mix or blend the drink and age it or add ice. That’s literally it. I thought you could upgrade the bar and add new flavors and devices, but this is it. You end up cycling through all 24 drinks early on and maybe 10 repeats constantly. It ends up no longer being fun to make these drinks and just interrupts the story. There are also no instructions on the difference between mixing and blending. You need to count how many times the shaker wiggles and if it starts going fast…that’s blended. If you mess up a drink you lose a bonus at the end of the day. However, you can’t serve messed-up drinks as the game won’t let you. Some drinks allow you to add synthetic alcohol as much or as little as you want and this is supposed to change the story somehow…by making characters spill things when they’re drunker, but I never saw this happen.
The one game mechanic in an otherwise interactive visual novel is boring and somewhat pointless. If there was a much larger selection of drinks, or if I could add some later, or upgrade equipment, that would be fun, but what’s here feels half-assed and tacked on. I also don’t like how we never get to know what’s going on in the world. The game hints at things happening politically and with various corporations, and even a hacking group, but we get nothing in that regard. It’s mostly just what’s going on inside the bar and the characters you meet; it stays very local and centralized. I also felt the visuals while artistically beautiful were boring to look at. There isn’t any change in scenery and the static anime-style characters just change facial expressions. It’s very hard to stare at the same background for nearly a dozen hours and make dozens upon dozens of repeated drinks just to stay invested in a character’s story. If it weren’t for the great characters this game would be utterly boring nonsense.
With that said, VA-11 Hall-A is only worth getting into if you love anime, visual novels, or just like reading books. The bartending aspect is a poorly throughout afterthought that hinders the progress of the story rather than helps it due to the small recipe size and laughable mechanics. I really liked the characters here, and the story ended on a nice note. I expected some sort of twist ending where the bar would close early, or the hackers would take over all the androids and something interesting would happen, but we just get a slice-of-life anime-style bartending experience.