What the Hell is Cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk is a setting that I love. And VA-11 Hall-A, or, Valhalla, revels in it. But, why do I love it so much? What makes it so appealing? Well, because it’s geopolitical struggles, moral issues, and ambiguities are dangerously close to our own world. Cyberpunk has android escorts, mass revolts, darkened skies, totalitarian governments, rampant crime, pollution, drugs, and all sorts of problems. All of these issues are issues found in our world but amplified to a fictional, yet slightly realistic degree. So hearing this, you might be thinking, there are so many possibilities for a game in that. You can be a rebel fighting, attempting to overthrow the government, you can be a drug dealer, trying to scrape by, you can do what Deus Ex does and be a super sleuthing augmented agent solving government conspiracies.
Valhalla does none of this. Valhalla has you as a bartender, just serving drinks and trying to make a living. Sounds lame, right? WELL IT ISN’T. IT’S ACTUALLY REALLY SMART. REALLY. I MEAN IT. THIS GAME IS REALLY GOOD.
What the Hell is Valhalla?
Valhalla is a visual novel where you play as Jill, a bartender. The bar you’re working in is actually about to close down, and you’re about to lose your job. You serve people drinks, get them hammered, listen to their stories, and make some money. Simple, but it works well for this setting. A good storytelling trick is to make a small scale story in a large scale world. So if your story takes place during World War 2, make it about a kid looking for a doll. Why do you do this? Well, it’s because a severe, brutal setting adds context and conflict to a relatable narrative. The tale of a commander stopping a world war is too grandiose and over complicated, and will likely need a ridiculous amount of factors and plausibilities to get the story right. However, if you keep the main narrative concise, the setting becomes an enhancement to the story you attempt to tell. So Valhalla has a world that undergoes a lot of government corruption, but it isn’t about that. You don’t see a single government official in the bar even. It’s about the people in the game. It’s about their stories, what they represent, and how they expose the world to you.
One of my favourite characters is a girl named Streaming-Chan. When I saw her, she was hilarious to me. A character who always streams her life 24/7, every single thing she does, and she even has a premium tax for people to pay. It sounds like Twitch streamers and daily vlogging channels but emphasized. Similar to our world, but exaggerated. But when I thought about it more and learned more about how she streams, it became more fascinating than funny. Then it became really sad. Streaming-Chan Augmented her own eyes to always broadcast her life to the world, even her sleeping. She always has the stream chat displayed around her, so everybody can see what they say where she goes. Steaming-Chan also continuously makes outrageous claims like she’ll take off more clothes if she gets more followers and viewers. Again, like our real world, but exaggerated. But that’s scary, because it’s VERY close to our world, and it’s very close to cam girls, and it can honestly happen in the foreseeable future if streaming sites don’t have any regulations.
But the best part about Streaming-Chan? None of those ideas are shoved into your face. And that’s because Valhalla has really good writing. See, despite Valhalla’s clear anime influence, it doesn’t come with the anime stereotype of long-winded exposition. A lot of bad anime tell their stories using just dialogue, and they don’t make use of every single word. Good writing makes every last word meaningful. Nothing is too drawn out, and brevity is king. Valhalla tells its entire story through dialogue, and doesn’t have anything like “SHE APPLIES HER BLACK LIPSTICK AND BLACK EYESHADOW AND BLACK PANTYHOSE AND BLACK CORSET THAT FRAMES HER PERFECT GOTH FIGURE AND HER BLACK NAIL POLISH FROM IKEA A-“ there’s none of that. It’s all just meaningful conversations between humans, androids, or Lilim, as they’re called in this universe, and it all works very well.
But if reading isn’t your thing, this game isn’t really for you. The gameplay is just going through text, and making drinks for people. Drink making isn’t even very complicated, as you only have five ingredients and a set of recipes that never change. BUT there is a secret technique hiding under Valhalla. And, this is a pretty big spoiler for anybody who hasn’t played the game, as it is a secret but intentional mechanic: The more drunk people get, the more they reveal to you about themselves and the world. These can range from small little personal struggles about their purpose in life, to massive, rebellion secrets. It’s crazy. Some characters in the game even ask for no alcohol, and the game makes it especially clear that the karmotrine has no affect on the taste, so you can easily sneak alcohol into people’s drinks and they will be none the wiser. Why does this matter? Well it affects what Jill learns, and it can even affect the ending of the game. So get the right people drunk, and your quest will change and be more interesting, trust me.
Time for LITERARY ANALYSIS SECTIOOOOOOOON: alcohol, and why it’s in a cyberpunk setting. Alcohol and dingy bars are used in Cyberpunk because they represent a form of escapism. You ever have a really long day, and just want to get home and lay on the bed and forget about the world? Sometimes you escape with a book, music, a YouTube video, a healthy alternative. Sometimes it’s more dangerous. Sometimes it’s alcohol. Copious amounts of addictive alcohol. And what we’ve described earlier with massive riots in China, a bank bombing in the city the game takes place in, and government corruption, can you blame people for becoming reticent and wallowing in their issues? I certainly understand where characters are coming from when they need a place to relax. So alcohol becomes a central theme, and as a bartender, you’re a controller of this addictive chemical. Do you instill it on people who don’t desire it? Or do you give into people’s hedonistic desires? Jill isn’t exactly a very clean person either. She drinks ridiculous amounts of beer cans and has to buy meaningless superficial products to fill her home and life. In fact, before every day in-game begins, you need to buy something so Jill can stay focused for the next day of work. She’s unstable and on the edge of just completely giving up. She’s 27, went to college, and is stuck in a bartending job she’s going to lose. Couple that with equally depraved and damaged individuals coming into the bar and talking to her, alcohol becomes her escape too. Her reliable form of running away. END OF LITERARY ANALYSIS SECTION.
The music deserves praise too. It’s not exactly incredibly standout, but its EDM and visual novel percussion evokes a specific tone. A Cyberpunk Visual Novel. Kind of like the subtitle of the game. What’s interesting, is the player can change the music on the jukebox playlist to set the mood. This means, that if you know what is going to happen in a day, or you just get lucky, the character you are talking to will get influenced by the music in the background. If they are feeling sad and talking about their issues, a sad song will cause them to be sentimental. If a rough, grungy song is playing, they’ll scream their problems out to the sun. It’s pretty interesting.
Negative Sour Puss
So, with all of this praise, what could possibly be wrong with Valhalla? Well, that there’s a LOT of reading. Does that sound like the dumbest complaint ever for a visual novel? Yes. Yes it does. However, I feel that I could only play Valhalla in short bursts, and not get completely sucked into it for hours at a time. This is because there was so much reading, and so much to interanlize and analyze about the world, that it was honestly overwhelming at points. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of fluff dialogue that is really entertaining, and I really like, but I think it was cumbersome. Some of the characters also kind of fell flat. Don’t get me wrong, there are an amazing amount of really creative and really interesting people in Valhalla, but some are just…lame. People like Virgilio and Art, who are just too much like regular people with generic backstories. I also didn’t really like/get the talking Shiba character. It was funny but, they didn’t add much to the story other than comic relief, but I didn’t even really enjoy that comic relief. They’re dogs, they chase cats, they chase balls, and that’s about it.
I also feel there were a lot of ideas that were underexplored. For example, there’s a character who’s a brain in a jar. They say they are only one of five in the city that is capable of staying without a physical body. That’s an incredible marvel of science, this character should be preserved and watched and maintained but…they’re in a bar? Drinking beers and hitting on a hacker lady? What? Why? Can we discuss the fact that scientists discovered the ability to swap consciousness into a mechanical being, and cleanly separate the brain from the body and keep the hosts mind intact? No? Oh, okay. Let’s just not discuss that. Alright.
There are also too many characters. You can definitely tell the creator had favourites by making certain one’s close to Jill, but some are just passerby’s that don’t have much of a story. They sometimes feel like filler content, and that with the idea of there being too much dialogue becomes a problem. Some characters are like “the weather is poor. I am a cyborg BEEP BOOP” and then you never see them again. Worse, is they show up in the later half of the game. The point where established characters should be returning, getting more development, finishing their arcs, you don’t get enough of that, and that’s sad.
BUT, my absolute favourite part of Valhalla, and its my favourite part of a lot of games: atmosphere. Jill is lonely. Really lonely. She lost the only girl she loved through a fight, and all she has is her cat. She doesn’t really connect well enough with her coworkers, and she distances herself a lot from them too. Look at this image of Jill standing in front of the convenience store:
It’s striking. She, alone, is facing a store full of products to fill in her lonely life.
She struggles to connect with her customers, and it’s actually very important that Jill is a bartender. She’s a passive observer, a wallflower. She soaks up information, and uses that as fuel to discuss with her clients. Do you think a bartender would be very comforting if all they did was discuss their own personal life? Probably not. They talk about happenings in the world, and ask about their clients. Jill almost never talks about herself, and that’s really unhealthy. Other characters have a luxury, because they relay their problems onto Jill, but Jill can’t do that in return. It’s unprofessional. She’s taunted, trapped even. She has no voice of her own to relay. And in a society that views her as expendable trash, that’s even more heartbreaking. Jill does show signs of anxiety and depression, but it’s never explicitly stated if she has it. Jill is on the outside looking in, and with all of this craziness around her, her guideless path in life, and her feeling of worthlessness, there’s a cold atmosphere to Jill. She’s not a brooding emo anime character, and that’s impressive. Valhalla could have easily taken influence from anime tropes and cliches, but it chooses not to, and that’s great. Despite these characters being pixel art, they are more human than characters in most video games. Jill’s like everybody else in this universe, struggling to stay alive in a dead-end job. Things like raids on her apartment are just casual mentions to her and many people at this point, and that is really tragic.
And yet, Valhala isn’t a sob fest. It’s quite funny. It can be very tragic, but it can also be humourous. It can be political, it can be dramatic, it can be a lot of things because its story is so character-driven. And I love character driven stories. I mean, Jill has no goal, really. You play the game, you make some money, and it just eventually ends. But the journey along the way is so fascinating. Also, Dorothy is hilarious. I love her.
THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF VALHALLA, AND PRETTY MUCH EVERY MAJOR PLOT POINT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The ending(s) of Valhalla are strange. Like, oddly rushed. For a game that was so deliberate with its pacing and its character build up, the actual climax is kind of a let down. So halfway through Valhalla, you discover that there was a girl that Jill loved named Lenore. Lenore was extroverted, pushed Jill to do her best in school, and kept her sane during an incredibly tough schoolwork schedule. Jill even claims that Lenore made her last two years of University actually memorable, as opposed to the depressing slog it likely could have been. This culminated in Jill being offered a high-paying research job right after she graduated. Now, any University student would be thrilled about this. Their goals have finally provided them with a tangible reward: a fulfilling career. Lenore was thrilled too, pushing Jill to accept it wholeheartedly. But Jill was scared, and turned it down. She said that she didn’t want to be constrained to a job she hated. Lenore said that was stupid, and all of her hard work finally gave her a reward, and she was furious that Jill was just neglecting it. This ended with the two of them furiously arguing, and Jill stomping out, and never coming back. They never talked again, and it was never set in stone if they broke up for sure. It has haunted Jill for the last 3 years. But, of course, history always comes back.
Halfway through the game, Lenore’s little sister, Gaby, comes to the bar, looking for Jill. She tells Jill that Lenore died, and came to tell her that it was all her fault. This leaves Jill heartbroken and makes her lash out at Gaby, telling her she never understood what she endured. They leave on the exact same poor terms that Jill and Lenore did. History repeats itself.
So, you hear this, and you’re probably thinking, oh she’s going to come around, they’ll realize they need each other. This plot point is too major to just leave dangling and unfinished. And, yeah, they do wrap it up, but way too fast. The final day of the game is built up to be the New Year’s Eve party. Earlier in the game, the end of the first week and the Christmas party show a break in gameplay. The First weekend is a conversation with your in-game Boss Dana, and the Christmas party is a game of truth or dare. Two nice mixups to the gameplay. Furthermore there was a leadup of a bunch of characters saying they’d be at the New Years party. It was built up to be this massive finale, and…it was just a conversation with Gaby. Not even that great of a conversation. It lasts only five minutes, and them making up is very rushed. It literally goes “hey sorry for being mad” “hey me too let’s read a letter Lenore left because that isn’t a cliche” “oh okay nice” and the letter just says “Sorry.” And that’s it. And it makes them laugh and they toast to Lenore and her memory. And then really creepily Gaby calls Jill her sister, implying that Lenore and Jill were married when it was never hinted at, and then the game just fades to white and credits start to roll. Yeah. tTat’s it. And then one of the endings is Gaby doing Jill’s hair. The ending was really rushed and I felt that it could have finished everybody’s story much cleaner than it did.
So, would I recommend Valhalla? Yeah, I’d say so. I enjoyed my time with it. The game doesn’t do much other than tell a story, and that’s fine. The player has some input on it, but that’s better than most Telltale games AMIRIGHT FELLAS? If you enjoy visual novels or the cyberpunk setting, then I’d say this game is for you. But if you don’t like any of these…I don’t know if this one’s for you.