One of the most unique things about gaming is its ability to transplant you into someone else’s life. Occupational sims like Euro Truck Simulator, Stardew Valley or Sim City 2000 give us the ability to occupy someone else’s space and live a different life through them. This is the goal at the center of a game like Va-11 Hall-A (pronounced Valhalla).
Set in a stylized bar in the future berg of Glitch City, Va-11 Hall-A sees the player taking up the role of Jill, a bartender at the titular location. As Jill, you work through 18 days over the course of the game, catering to the various wacky and surprising clientele who happen into the bar.
From a smarmy J. Jonah Jameson type who asks for the usual after only a single visit to a George Costanza-like private detective (one whose name is suspiciously close to Art Vandelay) the interactions with the bar flies can often be entertaining. Other visitors include a brain in a jar, a talking dog, and a robot sex worker just to name a few.
Character interactions like these give the game a lot of spunk and a very unique feel. Like any good sci-fi, Va-11 Hall-A knows that the key to being successful is having a deep world of interconnected lore to draw from. That way new things can always be introduced without the need for a lot of heavy exposition.
In between conversations like these, characters will order drinks. This prompts you to find the recipe in the drink manual and make it properly. The better you do and the less mistakes you make, the better your pay. The money you do earn can, in turn, be used to spruce up Jill’s apartment at the start of every new day. Be careful though, spend it too quick or without forethought and Jill might go into a funk or even lose power to her apartment.
The way these three separate gaming mechanics go together makes for a very specific kind of game, one that is sharp, interesting, and involved, so long as you’re enjoying the story. However, there is one rub to all of this glowing praise, and that’s that the player is often given very little to do aside from pressing X to load the next box of text.
Now, it should be obvious that this is sort of part and parcel for the visual novel genre, but when you look at a game like Phoenix Wright or Danganronpa, those are visual novel type games where the player is given a lot more agency. In contrast, the gameplay mechanics at play in Va-11 Hall-A are not just simplistic but also rarely used. You might make as few as 6-8 drinks in a half hour segment, meaning the rest of the time you’re just reading and hitting X.
This is really too bad, as I think the core idea of working at a futuristic sci-fi bar is a lot of fun. Perhaps with some small tweaks like giving the player a choice for their dialog responses or making them multi-task on other bar responsibilities might make things a touch more engaging. As it stands, the game can grow dull fast, even if the writing is a lot of fun.
For this reason, I would recommend only playing the game for one or two in-game days per real-life day. For me, this was by far the optimal way to play, as you can take in the unique world and its colorful denizens without growing fatigued from the lack of other stimulation.
I think there’s a great game hiding somewhere in this concept, and my hope is that a Va-11 Hall-A sequel might give players a bit more to do. I’ll gladly play it if that’s the case, because there are some aspects of this game that really shine. It’s too bad that these positives are so often obscured by a growing sense of boredom.
Still, if you’re into the visual novel genre, and you have some patience, you could do a lot worse than Va-11 Hall-A.