VA-11 HALL-A Review: A Stylish Visual Novel That Feels at Home on Nintendo Switch
“Time to mix drinks and change lives,” says Jill every time a new shift begins. She’s a bartender in an obscure joint found in an alleyway of Glitch City, the main city in Sukeban Games' VA-11 HALL-A.
Set in the distant future, the city is run by mega-corporations, and androids are more than an established part of society. However, both the androids and humans have their fair share of problems, and they all prefer to tell more about their lives with a drink in hand.
VA-11 HALL-A is a visual initially released for PC back in 2016, followed by a PlayStation Vita port in 2017. Now, the cyberpunk tale has made the jump to the Nintendo Switch (it also just came out on the PS4). The Switch version, though, includes HD Rumble, touch controls, and the perfect portability that I’ve grown so attached to during my time with it.
The first message you see when you start a new game tells you to get yourself comfortable and grab a drink and some snacks. In my experience, playing in bed wrapped in a blanket made for a perfect match.
VA-11 HALL-A starts with the basics. Each day in the bar is divided into two stages; there's a break in between for Jill to grab a smoke or get some air, which the player uses to save their game before continuing with the routine.
Almost everything in VA-11 HALL-A happens on the same screen, too. On the left side, you’ll see the characters that show up in the bar, along with your co-workers, and read the dialogue box. On the right side, you have your own bartending mini-game.
There are different ingredients to use, options to make a drink either aged or on the rocks, and a mix button that can lead to two different results depending on how long you shake the drink. Clients come and talk about their lives, and often ask for several different drinks during their visits. Once you get their order, you only need to look for it in a receipt book and follow it through.
Sometimes it gets a bit more complex. People will make general requests that have more than one correct answer, and as long as the drink matches it in some way, you’re good to go. This includes something bitter, or maybe a non-alcoholic drink, while others are even more abstract.
While mixing drinks might just seem like a mini-game that adds some variety to the visual-novel elements of the game, the mechanic is perfectly integrated with the overall experience. Conversations feel natural and all of the characters are equally interesting yet distinct in their own way. And since there’s no heavy penalty for messing up a drink, it feels like a very welcoming experience.
That doesn’t mean that Jill does voluntary work at the bar, though. She always gets a check at the end of the day, which often has bonuses for not messing up any orders. Before and after each workday, you can spend some time in Jill’s apartment reading the news or listening to music on her phone. But you can also buy things in an online shop.
Sometimes she will have something on her mind that wants to purchase, and if you happen to ignore such requests, Jill will have a harder time remembering what the orders were, making it easier to fail them and lose your bonus.
Again, it’s the little touches in VA-11 HALL-A that make for a greater experience. Manually drinking cans of beer while having a conversation with your boss on a balcony, or being able to create your own playlist out of a jukebox before every shift add a lot to your regular visual novel. And that’s what makes this one so special.
Playing VA-11 HALL-A as the developers intended you to, being as cozy as possible, couldn’t be more perfect on Nintendo Switch. I only wish the touch controls were fully integral since you’re likely to use the "L" and "R" buttons to open some menus from time to time. Other than that, it translates perfectly. And you need only to wear your best headphones to enjoy the music and get immersed in the story.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about it, since there is a main plot that starts to develop during the first days, along with different endings to discover. But the focus on characters is clear from the beginning, being a core aspect that works perfectly. Oh, and there’s a shiba inu with glasses. Really, what else can you ask for?
- Interesting characters with equally intriguing stories to tell.
- The bartending minigame adds a lot to the story.
- Great sense of humor and compelling story overall.
- Unbeatable soundtrack
- Dogs wearing glasses.
- Some parts of the UI don't translate entirely well while using touch controls.
VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel at heart, but all of the elements surrounding it make for a unique experience on its own. The Nintendo Switch version stands on its own as an excellent way of experiencing this cyberpunk tale, even if it's not completely flawless in terms of controls.
[Note: A copy of VA-11 HALLA was provided by Stride PR for the purpose of this review.]