Among my different lines of work, mixing drinks and serving alcohol has been the one I have probably done the most. I always try to do my best in order to provide a solid drink and service, but the customers have been huge hits and misses. I am not gonna dance around the bush, some people definitely should never drink or even step outside of their doorstep. It can be a demanding job working within the service-industry, but also rewarding such as the feeling after doing a great day’s work, or even on slow days when decent customers just wants a friendly chat. You can always trust your bartender with your secrets, right? Because of my experience, I was instantly intrigued by Va-11 Hall-A, and while it was featured in my Top Games of 2016, I figured it deserved a proper review. For the sake of convenience, however, I will just refer this title as Valhalla onwards, since the game also does that.
“Time to mix drinks and change lives”
In the year 207X AD, the fictional city known as Glitch City, is on the verge of falling. Corrupt government law, everyone infected with nanochips, and general stress from everyday life, has forced people to find a certain form of escape from their inner struggles. Some leave this place entirely, others try to make their work, study or family their life, but for some: the answer lies in the bottom of of a bottle. In a corner near the slum, is a small bar known as Va-11 Hall-A, or Valhalla for convenience. While it might not be heaven, it is definitely a place to take a breather, and it is here we follow the daily lives of our main character Jill, one of the bartenders at this establishment.
This is a great place to point out that Valhalla wants to tell relatable stories, dealing with human faults. Everything is told through dialogues between Jill and the customers that enters the bar, be they familiar or new faces. These conversations revolves around varied thoughts, events, their daily lives or others. It is a very smart move to explore humanity’s strength and weaknesses by actually interacting with different people, and as one who has worked at a bar, I can definitely confirm that these conversations are relatable. Customers that come alone for a drink, often seek someone to talk to.
Because of this, character-study is an important factor and all are colourful and intriguing, be it the Lilliam (which is a form of robot) Dorothy the jolly prostitute, your friend Alma who is having problems with both her family-members and her own life, or the obnoxious philosopher, Virgillo. All characters have their traits or humorous quirks, while showcasing that they are indeed people with diverse lives and backstories, that makes them intriguing and interesting. It is lovely when a story can thrive on characters and Jill’s interactions with them. In fact, Jill herself is a captivating character which you will get to know more about through other’s interactions, which is a lovely way to create a bond between the player and the protagonist.
The themes range between existential crisis, discussion of what true love is, lore on the technological evolution, and much more, giving you a vast amount of ideas and thoughts to deal with, which makes every interaction intriguing. That being said, the dialogue can be mixed. It is never bad, but it can change between discussion from two valid perspectives, to a line so bizarrely brought up that it could be a reference to Tommy Wiseau’s sex-talk. In fact, the themes of sexuality is noticeable and a common factor, and while there are interesting thoughts surrounding it, some parts come off as childish or too direct, even from a drunk person. Some parts are also resort to simple and forced entertainment, such as when they try to make a dog in Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses the best thing since Chrono Trigger.
Despite the over the top events, it all comes off as entertaining and while odd, never off due to what kind of world you are a part of. This is a city on the brink of destruction and seeing how even your bar is at the edge of closing, tension and emotions are at a high. Whenever you come home from work, you can read the news or gossip-panels, and see how the world devolves. This is also shown with a more direct effect on Jill herself, as she is struggling with payment and the troublesome rumours of hackers and more. It all gives the city a clear uncomfortable atmosphere, where you try to ignore these issues and just go along with your daily life. Because everyone needs a break from the overall tragedies, it is a nice way to showcase why the focus of the game’s story, lies in getting to know people and help them the best you can by making them drinks and letting them vent or discuss their issues or thoughts.
This is where the strength of Valhalla lies: it has a believable cast that goes through relatable struggles. While it does provide a sense of seeing the world “evolve”, through the news on your phone, and of course, the ruckus in the streets, the characters shine brightly and are memorable for their stories, personalities and even visual treats. You will have to deal with both interesting and obnoxious people, but while the dialogue can suffer, nothing becomes unengaging, and honestly: this is pretty authentic. Just with a sci-fi setting for extra flavour and the intriguing lore.
Story Score: 7/10
“Grab some drinks, some snacks, and enjoy”
Valhalla is focusing on telling you a story with tons of dialogues. Thus, it takes on the form of a visual novel, but with a nice gameplay aspect mixed in. Customers will ask for drinks, and you will have to serve them as well as you can. Sometimes it is easy, since you will have all the recipes at hand, and can even change between sorting them alphabetically, by flavours or by type. When you find the right drink, you add in those of the five ingredients you need to make the drink, choose whether they should be on ice or aged if needed, and be sure to either mix or blend them. It is quite simple with easy and direct costumers, however others can be severely tricky.
Some might ask for a specific flavor, but you will have to take in consideration whether they want it more manly or girly depending on what they have been drinking before. Other times, it is more subtle, like giving someone “the usual”, or if they need something they actually did not ask for, depending on their mood or behaviour. Nothing is hard to figure out, and it helps when you get to know your customers on a personal level. Another fun element, is Karmotrine, which is the amount of included alcohol. Due to that it is optional in some recipes, you can then decide on how drunk to make someone, for either some funny lines or to keep the conversation going. Thank God you only need to serve the a maximum of 2 drinks at the time, otherwise it would be hard to keep up with orders.
However, you will need to keep your services at a high, as you get paid on a day-to-day basis, and will need to take care of bills or personal needs. Personal needs can be resolved by going shopping, such as getting a Christmas-tree for Mega-Christmas, a poster of someone you admire, or other things depending on Jill’s mood. If you do not, Jill will have a hard time concentrating at work and will not remember the drinks she was supposed to make. You can scroll back in conversations, but not when you are making a drink for someone, forcing you to take notice, which I do love. It is a nice risk vs reward-system in order to get Jill to pay attention, but you cannot spend your money willy-nilly. One bill is also severe and can give you an unfortunate game-over in the late-game, but getting that one is definitely on you.
It is admirable how simple, yet intriguing these mechanics are and a nice way to force you to pay attention to the story, despite that it is not really hard to do in general, thanks to the entertaining writing. What is unfortunate however, lies in the controls and how the game is saved. On PC, dragging drinks from the holder to the mixer, is a slow progress. This can make you try to find a sweet-spot for easier mixing, but can also make you pour in the wrong ones due to how close the ingredients lies. The Switch-version simply has you holding the stick in the right direction of the ingredients and choose the correct drink, but the PC-version only uses the mouse, which is not the fastest tool here. Luckily, should your drink not be correctly made, you can always reset it before serving it, so it is never a problem.
Sadly, saving is one big issue. While Jill takes one break in each working-day, as well as uses her phone in the evening, you might have to sit through 30 minutes of dialogue before you can save. You can only do this through your phone, and of course you are a decent human-being who does not play with her phone while at work, but at least a quick-save option would have been helpful. Again, since the Switch has a sleep-mode, it works wonders here.
Vallhalla knows what it wants to be and does a great job with it: it wants to be a visual novel, with some relaxing gameplay. The tagline for this segment, is what you are met with when you start a new game, and is definitely worth doing. While the setbacks are constant, they are thankfully minor inconveniences. With the Switch-version, however, it does not contain these problems, so it might be the best way to experience it. Just a shame it is not as easy to play with one hand, like on the PC. Hard to drink or eat snacks while holding the portable console.
Gameplay Score: 8/10
Meeting new and old faces every night
I was shocked when I found out that this was made with Game Maker, as this is a beautiful title with high character portraits that comes with good lip movement and clear attention to varied emotions. All characters are designed with distinct and unique looks, which makes everyone visually memorable. For a game set in one location, this is severely important as while the bar Va-11 Hall-A is well made with even a TV to channel-surf through, having only one background can feel repetitive. It is nice whenever the game changes to other locations, such as your apartment, where your purchases will appear in the same room, but the special events are either made with cute pixel-art or just crude images on a green frame, which is a shame.
While the characters are colourful and unique in their designs, I do wish they would have had more physical expressions to them. For example, whenever two characters are on the same-screen, it is never clear visually if they are talking to each other. This also extends to when a character does something physically like throwing a drink, which it will then be at best shown in a small and rough picture. It takes you out of the experience and it is unfortunate that more animations could not have been added, when the visuals are already at a high quality.
As for the sound effects, they are effective with strong sounds representing pouring in ingredients, adding ice, or getting paid, which are nice attentions to details. Unfortunately, the dialogue-beeps come only in two flavours, depending on if the character is more masculine or feminine, which feels like a missed opportunity. Could not each character have a more distinct speaking-pitch, to also add to their characteristics?
The soundtrack, however, is fantastic. There are tons of lovely electronic music with different genres and tones to them, with a heavy focus on industrial instruments like can-drums, or even a piano. Whenever you start your workday, you can put in 12 of the songs you enjoy and with 59 in total, you will have so many choices, and all fits perfectly for the setting of a bar in a sci-fi world. Echo- and lonely, action-packed and fast, calm and collective, jazzy and catchy, all in all, this is just an impressive and wonderful soundtrack that I hope Michael “Garoad” Kelly is more than just proud of.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Gotta make a living
As for replay-value, it is hard to fully justify. There is a new-game plus, where you can play through the game again, which will have an extra page with items to purchase to customise your small apartment with. Also, it is simply fun to see other “what if”-scenarios whenever you can choose the amount of alcohol, or even just messing with people’s order. It is just a shame that you will reread most of the dialogue-sequences again, making this definitely not worth doing right after one playthrough. Rather, like a good book, you will probably want to pick it up after a year later, and then discover the new extras. Oh, and for those of you who are curious, there is an uncomfortable answer in the game’s folder that refer to the games prologue-chapter. Just saying.
Extra Score: 6/10
If you are curious about a real bartender experience, with some extra flavour, this is it. Bizarre and intriguing customers, exploring thought-provoking and philosophical ideas, and the light idea of serving drinks and keeping up your own lively-hood, is a nice way to keep you hooked. Not to mention, the lovely visuals and soundtrack, will definitely add to the experience and while you might not pick it up again right away, VA-11 Hall-A is worth owning like any good book. Definitely worth your time, despite its minor flaws. Makes me wonder how N1RV Ann-A will compare.