Wot I Think: VA-11 Hall-A

I hesitate to call V4l… Va11 ha1… Val1… Valhalla [official site] a visual novel, which is ridiculous. It wears its influences on its sleeve, sometimes to a fault, and though its most ‘gamey’ aspect is that of a bartending sim, that’s really just a well-integrated excuse for telling a humble story. Is it a good one?

Yes, it is – although it’s more enjoyable because it’s barely a story in the usual sense at all. It’s really more a collection of anecdotes, trivia, and minor dramas you observe second hand, rendered that bit more interesting by virtue of where and when they’re taking place.

The setup is a typical (though by no means bad or boring) near-future cyberpunk dystopia city, whose relevance is limited to the direct effects it has on the lives of its ordinary inhabitants. Inhabitants who like to come to a little bar to meet their friends or sound off about their lives with a relatively non-judgemental bartender. That’s you.

Despite the setting, Valhalla doesn’t take itself too seriously, and where “cyberpunk” in games implies drama and violence, here instead is a “slice of life” tale using that as the backdrop, giving a literal day-by-day look at the non-adventures of an unimportant schmoe as she goes about her irrelevant business. Those days begin at home, where you browse a tiny handful of favoured websites, buy stuff, and talk to your cat. Then it’s off to work, where you’ll get to know a handful of talkative customers by nattering about their lives and encouraging them to insert booze into their heads. The drinks they order must all be mixed, a straightforward process with a very user-friendly interface that’s little more than looking up the name or attributes of their favoured poison and dragging the right ingredients into a cocktail shaker with the mouse pointer. Get their drinks right and they’ll be merry and think more of you, and their story will subtly lean towards a more positive outcome. Get them wrong and they’ll be disappointed, leading to different conversations, or perhaps refusing to pay.

This matters because you’re paid based on commission, tips, and bonuses for accuracy. Short term cash means buying items that make you less forgetful at work, and may open extra conversations. Over the long term, you have large bills to pay, so peak performance is not a mere province of obsessives and power gamers. It is, however, within comfortable reach. While you need to buy a couple of items to suit customers, picking the right ones is a case of carrot rather than stick, and mixing drinks is difficult to get wrong even on Jill’s bad days.

Failure is unlikely without trying rather hard. Getting things consistently wrong or defaulting on bills is in fact the key to unlocking at least one of the game’s multiple endings, which on the face of it means replay value, but here’s where my problem starts: while Valhalla does a good job of avoiding the usual dregs of anime bullshit (I know it’s not anime, but it’s the same bullshit), it makes the mistake of copying retro presentation for its own sake, when it does nothing but get in the way. There’s a reason novels aren’t printed with a single line per page, and a game entirely about reading really should know better. I might want to play again to see how differently conversations could go (and whether I made the right call to keep someone sober, or whether it mattered at all), but I don’t want to sit there mindlessly double clicking hundreds upon hundreds of times to see the next line of dialogue, or worse, another bloody ellipsis. Why am I forced to do this when about 60% of the screen does absolutely nothing for most of the game? And worse – I have to do so with care lest I miss a line, or even someone’s order, which can cost money and whatever conversation or good event they might have offered otherwise. It’s not devastating, but it’s big and needlessly irritating.

All told though, that’s really the worst I can say about Valhalla. It’s not much of a challenge but that’s fine, as it’s about simply hanging out with some interesting characters and seeing your own small character arc resolve (or not). It does both well – the writing is mostly decent and well paced, and made me chuckle a few times. I’m not entirely sure how to take some of its characters, but they’re well drawn and generally enjoyable, even when they’re not exactly likeable. Their exposition is fairly naturalistic, partly because of the (frequently noted) traditional ‘tell your woes to the bartender’ trope, and because the game resists the urge to have characters drop everything they’re doing to shoehorn in concepts or relate their entire life story. Even the ‘clients’ who appear very sporadically are economical with their exposition, and more real as a result. It’s inexplicably pleasant to see familiar faces bump into each other as strangers and bond, and even more so to realise that you’re reacting to the appearance of regulars with the mild joy and/or inward groans familiar to any of my fellow till monkeys.

Those conversations, coupled with the few websites you browse, make an obvious effort to address or allude to topics and ideas relevant to today’s internet climate. 4chan is the most obvious influence, but don’t let that put you off. At worst I rolled my eyes slightly and moved on, and it’s a good thing overall even if it’s not quite my thing.

It also isn’t the only lens by which Valhalla peers at the world. Human augmentation and literally manufactured pop starlets are mundane facts of life, and questions of gender and sexuality long since answered in Valhalla’s world, among others. Consequently while the seams are occasionally visible, these matters are massaged quite comfortably and naturally into the setting and flow of conversation. It never feels like ticking off a checklist of zeitgeisty items, or tiresome nudging of the player’s ribs; those references that pop up are familiar enough to work without feeling laboured, with the exception of the single pointless character who exists only to break the fourth wall, adding absolutely nothing but misguided Kojima worship. It’s fortunately confined for all but a tiny few scenes.

Away from the text, the mixing of drinks is a paper-thin sim that’s pitched about right. It helps pace the days, gives you something trivial but gently satisfying to do, and breaks up the sometimes irksome clicking of text. It’s also a much more interesting and novel method of affecting events and characters than answering interrogatory questions or making Moral Choices. And, well, you’re a bartender. You tend bar. It sounds like a simple thing but consider how many stories you can name where the protagonist has a profession but you never see them do any work. Everything in Valhalla from the two-shifts-per-day structure to the just-barely-making-ends-meet lifestyle, and the assumption that you’ll come to work no matter what because it’s that or eviction, help convey the player character’s place in the world.

The music is a cute touch too – at the start of each shift you select 12 songs from the soundtrack to fill the bar’s jukebox, which I’ll grudgingly admit grew on me before long. At one point I was convinced that playing the right song would unlock more dialogue for some characters, which may not be the case, but that and some other ambiguities about what the game is tracking actually work in its favour – it’s not, nor is it intended to be, an extremely immersive sim, but it is a sim nonetheless, and thus I was intent on doing the job well rather than second-guessing the developers. It could, however, have done with just a little more mixing of drinks – in particular, more moments where you’re free to surprise a customer – but then, I suppose, it risks falling into the same trap as Recettear and saddling its novel idea with far too much messing about.

Ultimately, my complaints are mostly small problems, and at no point drastically undermined the experience. I like the idea of Valhalla and some presentation gripes aside, I like its execution. It’s no great revelation but a pleasant surprise, and being a mundane bystander going about their day instead of the plot-critical centre of the universe is an under-explored concept. Valhalla made an even smarter decision to pick a setting that most would fill with combat, megalomaniacs, and the usual Heroic Journey guff, and instead populate it with interesting people and that thing we do best but talk about least: alcohol. I mean, friendship.

I said friendship.

VA-11 Hall-A is out today for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam and Itch.

Disclosure: Sometime RPS writer Cassandra Khaw works for the publisher of VA-11 Hall-A.

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37 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    I played the demo at Rezzed with the streamer character which was a conversation I found both annoying and dull. Does that encounter set the tone for the game? Do the characters actually feel like people or are they all trying to play off some weird joke or amped up trope? The review calls it “slice of life” but from my own (rather limited) experience with anime bullshit “slice of life” doesn’t actually necessarily mean relatable, reasonable or realistic characters.

    • Sin Vega says:

      She’s a minor character, and among the most gimmicky and … what’s the word? Not exactly uncomfortable, but a bit forced. It’s a poor choice to have her in the demo I think, she doesn’t really add much to the game. Most of the other characters are more grounded, and even the loli-bot (pictured) has some nice interactions when she stops trying so hard.

  2. wishforanuclearwinter says:

    For someone who reads at an average speed, how long do you think one playthrough will last? Is there a save system, or will you have to start from the beginning to get a different ending?

    • Sin Vega says:

      There’s a robust save system – you can save before every shift (2 a day) with plenty of slots. Can’t name saves, but they’re labelled with the day and shift. It’s integrated like the jukebox thing – saving/loading is an app on Jill’s phone, which she checks before work and on breaks.

      I’m a pretty fast reader and skipped almost nothing. It took, I’d wildly estimate, about 8 hours all the way through, before trying the New Game+ mode or alternative endings.

      I feel like for maximum enjoyment it would be best played for a few hours and then left until the next day. It fits the structure, and it’s mainly during long sessions that the clicking gets really tedious.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        I think it’s only a very small minority of hardcore visual novel fans who, say, binge all fifty hours of a Key game over a long weekend. At least I hope it is. I’m playing a couple of different VNs at the moment and I dip in and out of them like I would any book. Doesn’t necessarily reflect on their quality, even – I took months to finish A Short History of Seven Killings and that’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

        • Premium User Badge

          phuzz says:

          I’ve never really tried a visual novel, but I don’t dip in and out of books. In fact, I can and do binge my way through them, or at least books I like. If I’m not enjoying it enough to want to read more straight away then it’s not the book for me.

  3. LionsPhil says:

    Curious if there are any quiet little references to Stardust (or Majid), since ROM made a few to this.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      I see a Hassy ad in the screenshots, which is enough to get my hopes up. (There also seems to be a cat-eared woman with a surly attitude, but that might just be coincidence)

    • Sin Vega says:

      I couldn’t tell you, unfortunately, as I’m not familiar with either. Unless Stardust is the Nei Gaiman thing but even then I’ve only seen the fillum, so.

      • LionsPhil says:

        It’s the bar in fellow cyberpunky indie half-VN half-adventure game Read Only Memories, which is excellent and you should play.

        • Mandrake42 says:

          I’ll have to get back to ROM at some stage. My save game corrupted in a fairly common bug in Chapter 3 (A certain item not dropping). Even the devs trying to fix my save didn’t help (Though I appreciated them trying).

  4. Michael Fogg says:

    Reminds me of Win98 era bartender simulator Last Call. Not much dialogue in that one, but you could learn actual recipes and it was quite fun to call the bouncer and have people thrown out

  5. RangerKarl says:

    I’m enjoying a lot of the references (Even if there is no God or Buddha…) and it was a pretty cheap buy. That soundtrack alone justifies the price for me.

  6. Kitsunin says:

    I like it thus far. Really feels like what you’d imagine being a bartender during off-hours would be like. Just chill-ly listening to people talk, occasionally picking out a drink and leisurely fixing it up. Much more relaxing than any of the gamier games I’d typically play for the sake of relaxation.

  7. Zankman says:

    Neither this review nor the Steam Page actually tell me whether this game has a true, you know, plot; What actually HAPPENS in this game?

    Do I just work in the bar for some time and talk to people – and that is it?

    Or do I get actually involved in a storyline of some sorts?

    I ask this because you mention “multiple endings” and here I am reading this and I can’t even understand what action/story is *happening that can be ended*.

    What are the endings?

    Also: The Steam Reviews just mention “waifus” everywhere; Are all the patrons animu grillz?

    More importantly – is there some romancing or something?

    Cuz I don’t get whether people are mentioning “waifus” merely because there are anime females in the game or because there are some actual dating elements in the game.

    • Sin Vega says:

      It has courted and attracted the attention of a lot of chan idiots, so there’ll probably always be a poor signal to noise ratio in user reviews of this one. You can ignore the whole “waifu” thing really, it’s just stupid people making noises with their face.

      This isn’t a game where you choose someone to sleep with. It’s a game where you mostly read your conversations (no dialogue options – the only way to influence things is by serving, or occasionally imbibing drinks) with other characters, which can alter depending on what you give them, and how you’re doing financially. There’s no ‘romancing’, although there is a bit of friendly harmless flirtation, and your character has an obvious crush.

      It doesn’t really have a plot in the traditional sense, but most characters have their own arc, or simply a particular story to tell, which will resolve differently based on how well you did your job. The player character has an unresolved personal issue, but your performance determines how she resolves it by the end.

      Basically if you’re not interested in kind of hanging out and observing the chat and friendships of a few NPCs, it might leave you cold.

      • Karuari says:

        That’s an unhealthy dose of hostility to start off.

        Steam reviews have always been a contest of coming up with the best joke as opposed to being informative. This is doubly the case when the game has been out for less than a day and nobody has played much of it yet. It’s pretty rude to blame that problem solely on “chan idiots”, not to mention how it’s not good to try and summarize the userbase of a large site into one stereotype.

        The whole waifu concept is somewhat of an inside joke in core anime watching communities. Again, I fail to see what triggered you to spring up to such verbal hostility over the matter.

        Why not try to be a little more accepting of other people instead of immediately calling them stupid?

        • RimeOfTheMentalTraveller says:

          Awww, the poor channers, how will they ever ever survive this indignity? :'(
          Also, how and why does anyone find this waifu “humour” amusing? It’s just recycling the same fucking joke over and over and over again. Shit like this is why I avoid anyone who proclaims himself an “otaku”. Most people I know of the stripe don’t really care for good stories, characters and worlds so much as how blatantly troperiffic the thing they’re watching can get and how much pantsu shots and ahegao faces there are.

          • Zankman says:

            I think you’re being a bit judgmental and generalizing too much.

        • gerwalk says:

          “not to mention how it’s not good to try and summarize the userbase of a large site into one stereotype”

          This is 4chan, you’re talking about, dude. Even when I frequented that place in my younger, shittier, edgelord years, I – and everyone else – acknowledged (if not embraced) the fact that the website is an offensive trashfire, which just happens to occasionally spawn funny memes.

          Anywho – the term “waifu” is subtly racist to begin with, on top of frequently being leveraged at possibly underage characters. I’m a big ol’ anime nerd and yes “waifu” is kind of an inside-joke, but that doesn’t protect it from criticism. At a minimum is makes me cringe, as does seeing people get defensive about their use of it.

          • Zankman says:

            As an outsider to both 4chan and anime culture, I don’t think neither are that bad.

            /b/ and a few other boards seem to be edgelord trashfires.

            The rest of the boards seem to vary heavily, with some of them being legit nice communities – with, well, a bit of the 4chan “flair”.

            As for “waifu”, as I understand, it originates from those (unhealthy to say the least) individuals that literally and legitimately decided to forego real life for the sake of “the 2D love of their life”.

            From that, it kinda devolved and spread into the “mainstream Internet” just as a general term for “female character I like”, be it liking them as a character from fiction or platonicaly and/or romantically as a real person (but without the seriousness of the socially inept originators of the term, instead basically just being fictional crushes).

            So, I don’t really get having a negative connotation towards and “cringing at it”.

            Also, how is it racist?

            Also also, the “potentially underage” thing doesn’t really work that way, from what I’ve found out.

          • gerwalk says:

            @Zankman: As somebody who is *not* an “outsider” – that is, I spent a good many years regularly browsing and posting in 4chan, I can tell you for certain that your understanding is off. Even in the boards that attempt to cater to niche hobby discussions, the obscene, antagonistic, racist, homophobic, misogynist culture runs heavily throughout any thread, regardless of whether or not “nsfw images” are allowed on a particular board.

            The completely made-up word “waifu” mocks the stereotype of how Japanese people pronounce English words. If a native Japanese anime fan wanted to talk about his 2D girl crush, he’d use actual Japanese words for it. There are far more offensive things to be upset about and get hung up on, but it’s a thing to consider in the future, in case you’re an indie game developer and thinking about using that term as a selling point for your product.

          • Zankman says:

            @gerwalk

            1. For every time I facepalmed at certain posts/comments featuring elements like the ones you list, I’ve also seen plenty of normal posts. For every time I thought “Jesus, what horrible people post here” I thought “hey there are actually normal non-racist/non-misogynist/non-malice incarnate people here too”.

            2. Sorry, but, that reasoning as to why “waifu” would be a bad word is just laughable.

            What, is “Shamefur dispray” also racist now? Something to get hung up on?

            Really, come on…

        • Zankman says:

          I mostly agree with you.

          I was just asking whether this game “just” features anime-style female characters + nods/references to anime and/or chan culture OR whether it also features some “dating” elements.

          The amount of “waifu” mentions on the Steam page prompted me to think that it may have been the latter.

        • Sin Vega says:

          If you’ve spent any amount of time on 4chan and you don’t consider most of the people there idiots, you didn’t, in fact, spent any amount of time on 4chan.

      • Zankman says:

        Thanks for the information.

        So it really is a game of just doing your job and listening to stories; Interesting.

        I am also surprised that you play as a female character.

        The fact that you have a set “crush” is a bit lame for those that kinda want to roleplay; But, maybe the game is not designed to be open to interpretation in that sense.

      • Nixitur says:

        You can ignore the whole “waifu” thing really, it’s just stupid people making noises with their face.

        Eehhh, no.
        The reason “waifu” is used a lot when people refer to this game is because the developers themselves use it. After all, the game was originally called “Waifu Bartending”. Their official site is still called that. The game, to this day, is called a “waifu abuse” on their itch.io page.
        So, you might say that the “waifu” thing in reference to this game is just people being idiots, but that would also include the developers.

        • Zankman says:

          “Waifu abuse”? What? Why?

          • Nixitur says:

            I’m not entirely certain, but I think it might just be talking about how the world these characters live in is exceptionally shitty and some have a pretty awful past, hence the “abuse”.
            However, despite that, the game’s fairly light-hearted and pretty funny most of the time. Which, of course, makes the tragic bits hit that much harder. They don’t feel out of place, either.
            I suggest trying the demo. Unfortunately, it’s only on their itch.io page, so it’s not as visible as I would like. It’s only about 30 minutes and gives you a pretty good idea about what the game’s like.

      • Ronrocken says:

        What you saying? Chan idiots? I guess the maker of the game is an idiot, because the game is advertised WAIFU-BARTENDING in it’s own go****n homepage!

  8. skeletortoise says:

    Text rate is an interesting problem. I can think of quite a few games where I’m constantly mashing buttons to get through inane or repetitive dialogue, but then I consider all the millions of pages of text I’ve never read from games that in which you’ll find notes and logs and such detailing some anecdote or lore. I’m playing SS2 right now. I think it’s easy to find the over prevalence of audio logs in games now annoying, but as little sense as the existence of scattered ear diaries actually makes I so often find text in games dull and immersion busting and I find it to be far more effective.

  9. a very affectionate parrot says:

    “…it makes the mistake of copying retro presentation for its own sake, when it does nothing but get in the way.”
    As someone that’s played way too many VNs/ADV games/whatever people call them, I’ve found that the ones that present the full text on screen are the ones I’ve disliked the presentation of the most. Visual novels shouldn’t copy the design of books, even worse, a picture book with the words pasted on top.
    Although if it doesn’t let you scroll up to see previous dialogue that’s not good at all, the ren.py prologue didn’t but the original prototype did. I hate missing a line and having to re-load possibly hundreds of lines of dialogue back just to read a throwaway line.

    • Kitsunin says:

      You can indeed use mouse scroll to bring up a history. The only thing seemingly missing is an auto function, which is unfortunate if you ask me.

      And yeah, I definitely prefer line-by-line presentation. Importantly, it allows the text to have a relatively simple space within which to live, rather than having to be backed by the illustrations, which makes reading much less comfortable. When the text is appearing bit by bit in the first place, having it use the whole screen is utterly unnecessary too.

  10. AncientSpark says:

    To clarify something about all this talk about “is this game anime-bait” and “there’s all this stuff about ‘waifus’, I don’t want it”…

    This game has a lot of anime/otaku references. A lot of them. However, most of it is harmless references and, if you don’t get why Red = 3x as fast or what a Zanbatou is, chances are you’d probably skim over that section of text without even noticing it. Some of it, most notably the Streaming-Chan character, is more blatant, but even she is not critical to the plot and is much more of a character to be intentionally annoyed at, even for people who recognize what is she parodying (NND, specifically).

    The other thing is that while a good chunk of the humor/references are anime based, not all or even a majority of it is. A lot of the jokes are just inherently funny by themselves and I argue that this is probably one of the witty story-based games to come out in a while on its own basis. And, out of all the critical NPCs, there are “routes” for each of them, but none of them involve romance at all, much less cringeworthy romance, from what I can see.

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