I first knew of VA-11 HALL-A through Yippee Ki Yay Mr Falcon’s video. At the time, I had gathered a rather long list of games under my wishlist for Steam Summer Sales and was feeling an irresistible impulse to just buy a game NOW, whether or not it had a discount.
So I bought it; I played it; I finished it, and then I thought: I will never forget this game for as long as I live.
My experience with - for ease of reference - Valhalla, is one difficult to describe. You play as Jill, a girl who works as a bartender in a forgotten bar in Glitch City. You will be mixing and serving drinks to a variety of customers, such as an arrogant newspaper editor, an android (termed Lilim in-game) superstar, a cheerful Lilim sex worker, a distressed intern, a rare good-hearted White Knight (the equivalent of a police), her wealthy Cat Boomer girl friend, so on and so on. At the end of the game you would have interacted with around ten or twenty characters, a number that is usually too many even for a Visual Novel.
That is why it is amazing that I can remember every single one of their names, and not just their names but also their personalities and backstories. I never had a good memory, so I cannot even begin to tell you how wonderful it feels to have good memories that I remember so well. Spoiler alert, because I will be talking about my - Jill’s, but then it does not feel like there’s a difference - with a guy named Ingram.
I remember Ingram because of his gloomy looks and thrash talk of the bar that smelled of dog piss and soap, which he then quickly backpedaled because he recognized Dana a.k.a the boss of Valhalla to be a woman who can take down people during an armed riot with her bare hands. It was funny. I also remember that he hires a child-like Lilim sex worker (Dorothy, which also happens to be an in-game character you serve!) to act like his daughter, every year on his daughter’s birthday to cope with the horrible fact that his daughter is no longer in this world.
Most of the time, he will order for a lousy, sobering, ‘manly’ drink that will make the bitter more bitter and the pain worse than before. However, you can serve him Piano Woman instead, which is the sex worker’s favorite drink, and he will drink it, like it, and ‘give you a free pass this time’, which is just cute when you serve it gain the second time and he mutters more or less the same drink. And just like that, Ingram’s life is changed from from a self-destructive and painful path to something... less so. He will diss you. He won’t ever be honest with the fact that he just mighta, kinda, love to drink in this stinky little bar called Valhalla. But time and again he will come back, and he will drink, and you will serve, and he will swear that it is his last time but somehow never fails to come back again to renew the cycle.
Overall the gameplay of Valhalla is pretty simple. There are 2 kinds of cycles that you would have to go through each Day. The first loop would be inside Jill’s apartment, where you can read the latest news, blogs and gossips on your phone, decorate your room, enjoy talking with a cat, do some night time shopping and worry about your bill.
The second loop is the core one. You will be mixing 5 different ingredients which can be aged or iced, mixed or blended, large or normal size before the complete drink is served to your customers. Sometimes you have to serve 2 drinks at a time, but that is just adding one more to the load. You can, of course, serve exactly as the customer orders, and for a majority of the time it is in their and your best interests to do so. But of course, of the game’s core feature is the ability to serve them a different drink and see it change their lives.
In truth, for the customers, the only real way to change their lives is for the better. If you intentionally serve terrible drinks, the results may not differ if you had served exactly as they ordered. As the example I’ve provided above, Ingram is almost certainly headed towards a doomed end unless you can make him remember and hold onto the important things in his life. If you do serve them drinks that do them positive change, then you will see for most of the time, a clear diversion from what was most certainly a terrible fate.
But that is only for the customers. For Jill, the main character of Valhalla, the consequences are very real. While it might not seem obvious at the beginning, the stark reality of Glitch City is presented with one very familiar item: Money. Jill’s monthly electricity bill numbers at $8000, and her rent at $10000. The drinks she serves her customers are also priced at exorbitant rates, with the cheapest costing at least $80. It is quite literally and figuratively a Gut Punch.
Serving the wrong drink means a dissatisfied customer, and a dissatisfied customer means no income. If you do not manage to gather enough money in time to pay the electricity bill, the worst that’ll happen in game is that the electricity will be cut off and Jill would be distracted until the end of Chapter 2 (you would be surprised by the increase in difficulty playing a distracted Jill). But if you fail to pay the rent, you will automatically enter the bad ending, and Jill would lose her room and be forced to live with a fellow titty hacker Alma who is infinitely richer than her. It truth, you might think that this isn’t too bad, that while Jill lost her home her living conditions had actually just jumped from 0 to 100, and that she’s also no longer living by her lonesome, excluding the cat. Hell, some people might even think: is this even the bad ending?
... That is, until you see the achievement that pops up at the bottom right side of your screen; a dead-looking Jill sprawled across the bed and the label ‘Cozy Hell’ defined, just in case things aren’t clear enough. The only way to get the bad end is if you screw up your drinks too many times and bought too many unnecessary things, basically not managing your life or not take responsibility until it is too late. So yes, Jill - no, you may be living in a better environment now, maybe far better than you could ever hope to achieve.
But you have lost control over your own life. In that scenario, Jill shared no difference from the cat she’s keeping, or Alma’s disaster of a sister. It is a very warm, very comfortable, and very cozy hell indeed.
Although there are so many things I want to talk about - such as the subtle connection between characters, the gags, the world of Glitch City and more on the wonderful - for some reason I feel bad calling them a character, so - people such and Sei and Stella, but I guess this would be a good point to end this review. Maybe I’ll revisit it another time, just like those few regulars who always come back to Valhalla. VA-11 HALL-A Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a beautiful game that teaches, with far greater effectiveness than any educational program would have done, the importance of societal relationships and life responsibilities. Jill got this far because she had many friends and ‘personal strangers’ who support her. At the same time, she did not garble the lines between freedom and responsibility over her own life and strived to live in a dystopian world. She also lived by her words during her time as a bartender:
Time to mix drinks and change lives. Simple words, and yet I believe I will remember them until the day I die.