There are two things I find important in media: well-written/interesting characters, and a great atmosphere that helps convey the story. VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action — or just Valhalla — absolutely nails them both.
A futuristic bar is a perfect place to have conversations with a diverse set of characters about real issues. As with many other cyberpunk dystopias, Valhalla makes use of its future setting to discuss the present. Through such topics as journalism, hacking, celebrity, streaming, sex work, and even the concept of consciousness (it is cyberpunk, after all), the game presents various viewpoints from different characters, each with their own level of expertise on several subjects. In that way, it mimics real life and the idea that I’m chatting people up in a bar.
In Valhalla, you play as bartender Jill, in Hall A of the VA-11 designated bar (listen, I don’t really understand it either). Jill has her own opinions, ideas, and deep-rooted feelings about other characters, not to mention her own mysterious past. Playing as a fully fleshed-out character provides the best way to experience the story — had I made my own character and been given dialogue options, I would have inevitably gone the lawful/goody-two-shoes route, and not learned anything interesting as a result. Having played a character that felt more real and relatable, I walked away feeling like I really learned something by talking to all the clients in the bar.
“It’s time to mix drinks and change lives,” Jill says every day at the start of the night. It’s just some silly saying she learned from training, but it stuck with her, and it stuck with me. That’s what VA-11 HALL-A is about: following simple recipes for drinks, getting to know some characters, and seeing them grow as the story progresses. I’m always excited to see Dorothy, the Lilim (read: Android) sex worker who was modeled to look like a child, come in and order drinks. While that sounds incredibly weird, it’s something that you get to talk about with her, and Jill’s curiosity about the subject sated my own. Another patron is a hacker by trade — you have the opportunity to discuss her profession, as well as gossip about your relationships (or lack thereof). Later on, a live-streamer comes into the bar and streams your interactions with her, which makes for a funny critique on both streaming and sharing what one is doing on the internet 24/7.
Outside of making drinks and interacting with unique characters, Valhalla is, simply put, very stylish. Its cyberpunk anime aesthetic and music fit the atmosphere so well — frankly, it’s kind of surreal. The game allows you to create a playlist from the bar’s jukebox, but I used the same playlist throughout my playthrough because I felt I had crafted the perfect one. The colors are bright, yet the atmosphere is dim and dark. The bar is in danger of shutting down through no fault of its own, and there’s a darkness that looms over each night from the dangers of the outside world.
As far as actually playing VA-11 HALL-A, it feels like a visual novel — except that you get make drinks. Instead of honing in on one bargoer, you talk to everyone that comes in, following each storyline as long as you keep making their orders correctly. Making drinks is simple: follow a recipe from the book. Five different ingredients are used (in varying proportions) to make drinks, though they aren’t always on hand. Each drink is also categorized by type and taste — a drink could be bitter and manly, or it could be a promotional beverage that’s sweet and girly. As a result, fulfilling orders is rather simple, allowing you to focus on the real heart of the game — the dialogue.
Regular customers come in every night, and you’ll learn more about them each time they stop in and chat with other patrons. Valhalla encourages a more relaxed and laid-back pace, and Jill gets a break halfway through each in-game night. This gives players a chance to save their game and change up the tunes playing on the jukebox. Some nights, in-universe events take place outside the doors of the bar, and other nights, drama unfolds between characters. Each night is different, and you never know who will walk in the door.
I could spend hours chatting with the assortment of characters that walk into the bar, which is what’s so great about Valhalla. Its gameplay might be simple, but its cast is anything but. I love learning about everyone’s interests, hobbies, and careers, as well as getting to talk with them about complex social and political issues. VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action does a great job balancing its simplicity with intense, dark topics, while also managing to be light-hearted and silly. Oh, did I not mention the Hawaiin shirt-wearing dog/part-time bartender named Rad Shiba?
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Ysbyrd Games.
VA-11 HALL-A is so much more than just chatting up clients and making drinks. It's the kind of game that makes you think, and it can be silly, serious, soul-crushing, and light-hearted, all at the same time. Its cyberpunk/anime flair is just the garnish on top of the cocktail.