Following my article on the resurgence of doujin-style games it seemed like a good idea to take a look at one of the latest visual novels to hit Steam. All you have to do is ask yourself: have you ever wanted to be a bartender in a Cyberpunk dystopia? If the answer is yes, then read on.
VA-11 HALL-A (which I’ll write as Valhalla for ease of reading) is a visual novel set in a world evocative of 1980s Cyberpunk anime, complete with androids, cat girls and cybernetic bounty hunters. This calls to mind what I would consider the golden age of anime, where the likes of Ghost In the Shell, Cyber City OEDO and Bubblegum Crisis used a far-flung futuristic setting to articulate contemporary social crises in Japan. Valhalla follows this trend by examining woes of the modern age in a script laden with commentary on streaming culture, online message boards and the perils of social media.
Immediately the game is reminiscent of the PC-98 aesthetic, with a large UI and simple interface, while the characters are blocky, colourful and richly detailed. A great effort has been put into the game’s classic presentation, and particular attention has gone to the game’s soundtrack, which has a large selection of tracks which are of a consistently high quality. Being a visual novel, Valhalla’s core gameplay is largely clicking through the main interface to progress dialogue, with an occasional pause to create an alcoholic concoction for the bar patrons. This is done with the help of a recipe book which tells you the necessary ingredients. Once you’ve got the requisite drink, making it is a simple matter of dragging the correct number of ingredients into the mixer, adding ice or aging the drink when appropriate, and clicking the completed drink to serve it up. Generally the customers know exactly what they want and ask you for it, with the only occasional challenge presented when a customer asks you for something within a vague category (for instance, a ‘cool and sweet’ drink), or a couple of rare instances where it may be better to give a downbeat customer something to cheer them up instead of what they asked for. Good performance is rewarded with additional pay and tips, which go towards purchasing new furnishing in the main character (Jill’s) home and paying off a handful of bills. Occasionally, the game will suggest spending money on a number of items to prevent Jill from getting ‘distracted’ at work, which will cause her to forget the customer’s order and leave you to rely on your memory for what they wanted, a situation which is best avoided.
The story itself maintains a slow pace, and is dedicated to the small-scale idea of working in a bar. There are instances in the game where exciting events are happening outside of Valhalla over which the player has no control. The idea of playing a game where the player is not a major figure within their own world is interesting, and gives the idea that the world is intricate and dense, all suggested partially through conversations with the bar regulars. They’re a diverse bunch – Mr. Donovan, a tough-talking newspaper editor, Alma, a busty hacker with a heart of gold, Dorothy, an android sex worker who loves her job, a cartel of talking Shiba dogs in search of their own canine utopia, and many more. These characters form your understanding of the wider world and offer their perspective on human events, which are at times enlightening, comical, and utterly mundane. Perhaps one of the greatest surprises of Valhalla is that it is very lengthy for a visual novel – it took me over 7 hours to reach the game’s conclusion, with the majority of that playtime spent reading the game’s lengthy dialogue. Due to the game window only presenting a few sentences of speech at a time, you can expect to be clicking through dialogue quite a lot.
Unfortunately, the game’s length is not wholly a good thing. Unlike other visual novels where the player can choose to visit multiple locations or schedule their activities, Jill remains affixed either to the bar or her home, so the wider world remains unexplored. Adding to this, the game’s dialogue is lengthy but there are no alternate dialogue paths in the game to steer conversation or alter your rapport with a customer. There are very minor occasions where serving the right kind of drink will prompt some further exposition or unlock a new ending, but these events are marginal and not particularly gratifying to uncover. Worse is the dialogue itself – where in places the script has some excellent instances of characterisation and soul-searching, a lot of the game’s dialogue is taken up with either extended, rambling conversations about friends and family, or more salacious testimonies about sexual encounters. To clarify the latter, my problem is not that discussion of sex is in poor taste, as the idea of discussing sexuality is very welcome in games. The issue is that the continuous sex-talk is just tedious. The author has opted for the frank discussion of sexuality as a way to make the characters appear urbane and sophisticated, but the actual result is more akin to overhearing horny teenagers at a bus stop. Some credit is owed for the wide representation of sexualities and its open embrace of queer and bi elements, but this work is undone by how many of the characters are ruled by their proclivities and seem incapable of discussion beyond their libido. As a result, this means a lot of the characters come off as shallow and dramatically underdeveloped. The comic elements are similar in that they start off well. I enjoyed Streaming-Chan’s hyperactive debut in the bar, but her return at the later part of the narrative laboured the joke. I would have preferred Valhalla if the game was a third of its length, but offered multiple routes to completion and alternate dialogue trees.
Elsewhere, the gameplay itself is disappointing. I’m a fan of bartending in both the real and virtual sense – when I heard of Valhalla I was hoping it would copy elements of Last Call! (2000), an obscure PC gem that required fast and accurate mixing of real world drinks. Cocktail mixing is a fun and elaborate exercise which requires skill and dexterity, but Vahalla leaves it to a mundane exercise in dragging the right number of the right flavours into the mixer. Papers, Please (2013) is the most direct point of comparison for gameplay, but Papers integrated narrative into the bureaucratic exercise of passport validation. As Papers progressed, the process of validating a passenger’s identity started simple, and became progressively convoluted and overwhelming to the point that the player is driven constantly towards failure, which in itself mirrored the paranoia and corruption of the government the protagonist was working for. Valhalla never makes mixology a wider part of the narrative, and remains merely a simplistic obstacle between the player and the next wall of text. Finally, the game’s finance is particularly unfair. I had been frugal with my finances throughout the game and consistently received tips and bonuses for flawless service, but there is a point towards the close of the narrative where the game informs you that you have an upcoming bill to pay of $10,000. By the point I received that message I had already banked $3,000, but even with flawless performance and full pay I was not able to make the payment within the short window of time, and got steered towards one of the game’s bad endings as a result. This has seemingly been done to incentivise the player to take up the New Game + mode which carries over your money saved. The problem I have with this is simple – if there are no new dialogue paths which open up, why on earth would I want to read through the same text all over again?
The conclusion of Valhalla leaves me conflicted. The game nails the PC-98 presentation and anime aesthetic, both in look and sound, and I am excited to see the resurgence of a long-lost era of gaming back on Steam. For my issues with the game I nonetheless persevered to the end, and had some good times along the way, but by the halfway point I grew to find the dialogue tedious and the cocktail mixing mind-numbing. For those curious about the potential of visual novels, Valhalla serves as a good entry text, and richly nostalgic for classic anime fans. That said, you’d be better off waiting for a sale unless your life depends upon serving booze to your new waifus.