VA-11 HALL-A review for PS Vita, PC

Platform: PS Vita
Also On: PC
Publisher: Wolfgame
Developer: Wolfgame/Sukeban Games
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

If you?re anything like me, when you hear the term “visual novel”, you think of either otome romances or needlessly complex sci-fi tales, both involving Japanese teens. What you don?t think of are futuristic, slice-of-life games where you mix drinks and chat with bar patrons about their problems — but now that I?ve played VA-11 HALL-A, I almost wonder how the genre could be anything but that.

Admittedly, a big part of why VA-11 HALL-A (full name: VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action) stands out is precisely because of how unlike anything else I?ve ever played it is. Just look at its setting and its cast of characters: living in Glitch City, a futuristic/dystopian mash-up of New York and Tokyo owned by a mega-corporation, over the course of your days you come across hard-boiled news editors, pleasure robots, soldiers specializing in rescue operations, pop idols, and much, much more.

As a bartender, however, all of that concerns you only insofar as those characters come into your bar and ask for drinks. It?s then up to you to mix the drinks and keep both the booze and the conversation flowing freely.

Of course, the conversation half of that equation is the much more interesting of the two. While I?m sure there are some aspiring mixologists who will love figuring out the ratios and the timing of blending just the right cocktails, for me that part of the game was a bit of an exercise in frustration. You have to stop jiggling the shaker right around the five second mark, but if your mental clock is just off, you ruin the drink and have to start over again. Thankfully, there are no penalties for requiring multiple tries to get a drink right, but that didn?t make it any less annoying.

Luckily, the conversations were more than enough to get me through those minor annoyances. It was fun learning about the lives of the bar?s various patrons, and it was fascinating to see how VA-11 HALL-A?s developers touched on themes like the safety of sex work and the ethics of hacktivism in conversations without it coming off as heavy-handed.

I realize that visual novels have a hard time getting the attention of anyone outside of a very specific niche, so raving about VA-11 HALL-A probably won?t mean much to most. At the same time, however, if any visual novel could appeal to people who don?t usually have time for the genre, it?s this one. It?s an innovative approach to a genre that too easily falls into ruts, and it?s well worth the time of anyone looking for something a little different.

Wolfgame provided us with a VA-11 HALL-A PS Vita code for review purposes.

Grade: A