Time to change drinks and mix lives … or something like that.
From The Stray Sheep to the Akuda Bar, you’d be hard pressed to find a setting more chill and interesting in the realm of video games than the local watering hole. Unlike bars in real life that tend to be loud and more than a little dirty, fictional ones have a tendency to be relaxing and quiet (though usually still a little dirty). VA-11 HALL-A, a visual novel brought to us by Venezuelan studio Sukeban Games, expands the dive bar experience into an entire game with largely positive results. Originally released for the PC in 2016, the game making its way to Switch provides an all new method of mixing drinks and changing lives.
In VA-11 HALL-A, the player takes control of Jill, a bartender at a small dive bar called Valhalla (named after its mouthful of an address) in the cyberpunk Glitch City. Glitch City is known for generally being a bad place to live, with high crime rates and fascist law enforcement running rampant. It’s very easy to imagine a Deus Ex-style narrative happening just off screen, but overall this matters very little for Jill or the player. Instead VA-11 HALL-A serves to give a view of that world through characters who would otherwise just be NPCs in your typical cyberpunk adventure: Jill goes to work, talks to her customers, and goes home to hang out with her cat. Between shifts, segments with Jill sitting in her apartment allow the player to read various news stories on what’s happening in the world around her, but these are overall inconsequential to Jill and the other characters just trying to live their peaceful lives.
The gameplay of VA-11 HALL-A is your standard visual novel fare with one small twist: there are no dialogue prompts. Instead of choosing a response from a list of options like one might be used to, the story is instead affected only by the drinks you choose to serve to your customers. Sometimes a customer will request a specific drink, but sometimes they’ll give only a vague description and let you figure it out from there. Giving them a certain drink or even the wrong drink may affect the conversation you have in that scene or even trigger an event later on in the story. Giving a particular character a specific drink at the right time may even cause special guest characters to arrive in the bar. It was this unique feature that drew me to this game in the first place, and it doesn’t disappoint.
The act of actually making drinks, though, might feel a bit clunky at first, as one would expect from a game meant to be controlled with a mouse suddenly moving to a controller. While most of the game’s menus are controlled with the D-pad, once the customer asks for a drink this changes slightly. A recipe book for all of the game’s various cocktails will appear on the left to be navigated with the D-pad while the control stick becomes your method of controlling the mixing station on the right side of the screen. Holding the stick in the direction of the intended ingredient will select it, and pressing A will actually put it into your mixer. Once all the ingredients are in place you can press Y to age the drink or X to put it on the rocks, and then ZR to begin mixing. Once complete, press ZR again and voila! You’ve got a drink! Or, if you got it wrong, you’ve got what I can only assume is Jill shouting an expletive. VA-11 HALL-A also features a fantastic soundtrack inspired heavily by jazz and vaporwave that can be selected and arranged on a playlist using the bar’s jukebox. This mechanic allows the player to set the night’s events to a soundtrack consisting of their favorite songs, but this also comes with the drawback of preventing any of the songs from having an emotional punch to associate with the game’s story moments. While this does not take away from the earworm status of songs like Every Day Is Night, it does make some of the songs on the list feel like a missed opportunity.
Overall, VA-11 HALL-A on the Switch is a marvelous port that works far better than I ever expected it to. The new controls may take some getting used to, but after a few minutes tinkering with them I found they came pretty naturally, and overall the game has kept the charm and likeability that drew me to it back in 2016. Gameplay may get a bit stale after long sessions of play, but for small relaxing wind-down sessions at the end of the night, you’ll find no better place to be than in Jill’s head during yet another shift at the bar.