Reviewing narrative heavy games is always difficult; trying to strike the balance between criticising the ‘game’ aspect of a title as well as the narrative and world that is presented to you. As such, visual novels and the like usually stay off my radar as pieces end up sounding like a book report rather than a review. However, VA-11 HALL-A was able to break this trend, due to its initial promise of ‘cyberpunk bartending action’ and its endearing cast of androids, bounty hunters and talking corgis. After playing through the main story and mixing a few more drinks, VA-11 HALL-A has turned out to be one of the most personally polarising games I’ve played in a long time.
In describing the core mechanic of VA-11 HALL-A, many (including myself) have likened the act of serving drinks in to stamping passports in Papers, Please. Both games have players having to parse through large databases in order to make the correct decisions, whether that is making sure a potential terrorist doesn’t make it over the border or making the perfect cocktail for the private eye who just walked in. This comparison does quickly fall apart though, as VA-11 HALL-A’s mixology lacks any of the pressure that Papers, Please was able to pack into its equally simplistic passport stamping system. Upon talking with the latest patron in the bar, players will have to mix the correct drink to suit their tastes, by searching through the drinks database for the perfect poison. Most of the time, clients will tell you exactly the drink they want but some can be more cryptic, asking for a certain flavour or requesting an alcohol free variant of a cocktail. During this period, wannabe bartenders can take as long as they wish when creating the perfect Sugar Rush, there is no time limit which puts players under pressure to serve on time. If you add too much Powered Delta or forget to make a drink on the rocks, there’s no problem as you can just reset the order and start again. As such, there is no feeling of tension to engage you in the act of drinks making, it’s just there really to break up conversation and give the player something to do between bouts of dialogue. You can mess up orders or freestyle with someone’s drinks request to possibly change the outcome of a meeting or make more money off tips but in actuality, you’ll want to be making the correct orders each time as messing up has no positive benefit.
Making a flawless drinks run gives the player more cash, which allows the player character Jill to keep a roof over her head, as well as to buy toys and furniture to stop her getting distracted at work. Also, in order to get the special endings for certain characters you meet during your time as a bartender, you must get their orders right every time, meaning there is no incentive to really mess about as it could be the mistake which costs you that ending you’ve been working so hard towards. Most of your cash goes towards paying for random crap in Jill’s apartment anyway, in order for her to not forget that she works in a bar, which seems problematic at best and a crappy mechanic at worst. There are no times where you have to remember the ingredients for a drink without use of the all-encompassing database, so the whole drink mixing system is purely padding.
So, looking at it from a purely mechanical perspective, VA-11 HALL-A sounds like it’s just out to waste your time with a system which lacks any tension and seemingly lies to the player in order to give the illusion of choice. However, as you slowly become immersed in the world of Glitch City and the mind of the main character Jill, the tedium of mixing drinks starts to make some sense. You are essentially working a dead-end job in a crappy bar in a crappy part of town; the actual job itself is meant to be boring while talking to your customers is what you really want to be doing to keep your mind off things. It’s a risky gamble to take but if the first few patrons you serve succeed in drawing you into VA-11 HALL-A’s world, you’ll gladly go along with this conceit. Unfortunately, the pacing during the first few encounters is way too slow and many will have already given up before they start to bond with some of the more interesting regulars of this dive bar.