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VA-11 HALL-A Review: Cyberpunk Bartending At Its Finest

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The indie game scene is one that I’ve personally never found myself particularly interested in. Not because the games themselves are necessarily bad, but much like in the AAA industry you begin to see the same trends prevail, despite the fact that it prides itself on creativity and diversity that AAA games seemingly lack.

To put it bluntly, I’ve never been particularly excited for an indie game. That is, until VA-11 HALL-A reared its head all the way back in 2014. I was immediately hooked by its premise and presentation, and for an agonizing two years I waited for its inevitable release, and what I got was one of the best damn experiences I’ve had all year.

So what is VA-11 HALL-A even about? Well, you play as Jill, a bartender at the bar VA-11 HALL-A serving and conversing with the various patrons who attend the bar. That’s pretty much the gist of it, but not all of it. There is a plot of sorts, but that really only begins around the halfway mark of the game and getting into it would be delving into spoiler territory. So, with a premise as simple as this, what does it do to make itself stand out?

For starters, VA-11 HALL-A absolutely nails its presentation. The game goes for a retro aesthetic, but not the typical one. I can’t think of a game that has paid homage to the DOS games of the 90s in such a manner. The game’s pixel art is absolutely fantastic, with an amazing level of detail put into everything from character design to the miscellaneous objects you find in the background.

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It also makes good use of its color palette, using darker tones and shades to better sell the cyberpunk atmosphere. The aesthetic actually provides a very interesting juxtaposition to themes the game presents, being both cold and cynical as well as being friendly and inviting. It’s a future you probably wouldn’t want to live in, but at the same time it invites you to just sit down and enjoy some booze.

A game’s visual presentation can only enhance so much, and luckily the visuals aren’t the only thing going for it. The soundtrack is probably the best I’ve had the pleasure of listening to all year. You have a variety of upbeat, somber, relaxing and blood pumping tunes, all while keeping the cyberpunk theme intact throughout the entire game. The best part about it is the ability to customize it.

You’re given the choice at the beginning of all of Jill’s shifts to create a 12 song playlist with the various songs you unlock. You can have a playlist of the same song 12 times if you want, the option is there. The only minor complaint I can think of is that the music won’t always fit with the mood of a conversation, but this complaint is essentially negated when you realize that the music (for the most part) is diegetic, so it would make sense to have inappropriate songs at inappropriate moments.

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The music and presentation come together in perfect harmony, and ultimately serve to enhance this games narrative. As I previously stated, there’s no real plot to VA-11 HALL-A until the halfway mark, and even then it still takes a backseat to the stories of the bar patrons. VA-11 HALL-A is essentially a slice of life visual novel that is more interested in telling the stories of the various patrons of the bar in the backdrop of an incredibly shady and corrupt city.

The stories told are very personal ones, dealing with romantic relationships, friendships, adjusting to sudden changes in one’s life, the list goes on. The most refreshing thing about VA-11 HALL-A is the use of the game’s big events as nothing more than a backdrop. In any other kind of game, one of the various events that happens in VA-11 HALL-A would serve as the main conflict, but instead VA-11 HALL-A uses it as a point of conversation.

The characters are much more concerned with their day to day life and how they adjust to the sudden changes. Only one character is ever directly affected by these events, and even they are more concerned on how they’ll readjust rather than the politics surrounding it. It’s a narrative about people trying to make the best out of a really shitty situation, while keeping optimistic in a world that is getting more and more cynical.

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This is not to say these events are completely ignored, in fact there’s quite a bit of attention given to them. The game does a great job at fleshing out the world it set out to create. Before every shift, the player has the choice to read both a news outlet and a text board in order to get some bits of information regarding Glitch City. The text board danger/u/ was my favorite of the two simply because it knows exactly how users on an anonymous forum behave and interact with one another.

The cast of VA-11 HALL-A is hands down the strongest element of this game. With maybe one exception, I ended up liking every character that walked into the bar. It could have been incredibly easy to simply make them anime stereotypes given some of their designs, but they ended feeling incredibly real and fleshed out, which almost contradicts the anime aesthetic. In some cases they even subvert expectations.

The standout character is probably Jill, our protagonist. To put it bluntly, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character that is even remotely similar to her, which is a huge change of pace in my books. At first she seems to be just a bartender trying to make ends meet, but as the story progresses you begin to learn more about her and eventually even begin to relate to her.

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Unlike most visual novels, VA-11 HALL-A has a very unique way of making choices. In a regular visual novel you’re given very clear decisions at certain parts of the story. In VA-11 HALL-A it’s not so clear. The decisions you make come in the form of the only real gameplay element, mixing drinks. Throughout the story you’ll be asked by the patrons to make certain drinks.

Most of the time it’s very straightforward, but occasionally they’ll be more vague and you’ll need to serve the right the client the right drink at the right time in order to unlock one of the games’ six endings. This is an incredibly way of making decisions, as it feels much more natural and keeps the story flowing much more naturally. Only complaint I have is that some of the decisions you’ll need to make aren’t very clear cut, and you might not exactly know when to serve the client the proper drink.

Mixing drinks doesn’t only serve to help you get more endings, but it also allows you to buy items and pay your taxes. Each drink you serve will net you an X amount of money, and if you serve faster you’ll get more pay. If you serve every patron with the correct drink then you get a little bonus. With that you can buy items to customize Jill’s apartment and make it more cozy and inviting.

You will need to be careful with your money too, as you’ll need to pay off your bills, and if you don’t have enough then you might be in for a bad time. That being said, buying certain items will keep Jill from getting distracted at work, and will make serving drinks considerably easier since she’ll remember what the client ordered.

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I don’t think I’ve loved a game this much in a very long time. It is everything I wanted it to be and even more. I don’t think I can recommend this game enough.

In an ocean of indie titles that eventually blend in with one another, VA-11 HALL-A stands out from the crowd and promises you a comfortable and unbelievably enjoyable experience. Grab a beer, listen to the soundtrack, and enjoy.

VA-11 HALL-A was reviewed on PC using a digital code provided by Sukeban Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 9.5

The Good:

  • Amazing soundtrack
  • Incredible cast
  • Great presentation
  • Refreshing take on the cyberpunk genre

The Bad:

  • Decisions affecting what ending you can get are not always well presented
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About

Writer at Niche Gamer. Passionate for video game journalism, and more than glad to be a part of it. I also write DOTA 2 stuff.



36 comments
  1. Narmy
    Narmy
    June 28, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    I should get around to playing this at some point. I got it back when it was $5 for the prologue demo thing.

  2. Gale
    Gale
    June 28, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    Fun game. Sei is best girl.

  3. 日塔 奈美
    日塔 奈美
    June 28, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    Really love this games style, and everyone is talking about it. Should probably bite the bullet and buy it, regardless of whether it’s discounted for Summer Sale or not.

    How long per playthrough you estimate?

  4. Alexis Nascimento-Lajoie
    Alexis Nascimento-Lajoie
    June 28, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    A playthrough is anything in the 10-11 hour range.

  5. Heavily Augmented
    Heavily Augmented
    June 28, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    Wow, and to think this was the game that introduced me to Niche Gamer… really need to pick up that Steam key I got from pre-ordering it a while ago.

  6. scemar
    scemar
    June 28, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    I was waiting for NG’s review of this game just to see what you guys think of it

    happy to hear it lives up to the hype

  7. Minuteworld92
    Minuteworld92
    June 28, 2016 at 11:20 pm

    can you be a guy?

  8. Maria Maasaa
    Maria Maasaa
    June 28, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    Looks a lot better then ROM and is actually interesting

  9. Dewey Defeats Truman
    Dewey Defeats Truman
    June 28, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    I love this game so much. Worth every second of that years-long wait. I’m not good with words so I can’t properly explain why I love it, but I think a lot of it has to do with how it’s a story about people and not the setting. Cyberpunk, and more fantastical settings in general, could use more slice of life stories focusing on the people that in a more traditional game/movie set in their world would maybe get two lines of dialogue before moving on.

    Also, Stella is the best girl.

  10. Dewey Defeats Truman
    Dewey Defeats Truman
    June 28, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    Probably about 10 hours. I’ve got almost 20 after unlocking all the achievements but admittedly a few of those are just me completely failing miserably to beat the shmup minigame before I finally did it.

  11. sanic
    sanic
    June 29, 2016 at 12:05 am

    Looks cool, how many dollary doos?

  12. Minuteworld92
    Minuteworld92
    June 29, 2016 at 12:42 am

    nah

  13. JackDandy
    JackDandy
    June 29, 2016 at 1:38 am

    Aw shit, now I remember I bought this a while ago. Will definitely check out.

  14. 日塔 奈美
    日塔 奈美
    June 29, 2016 at 3:20 am

    Thanks both of you. I’ll be sure to pick this up soon!

  15. Lucky
    Lucky
    June 29, 2016 at 3:37 am

    Vita wen.

  16. Dr. Roswell. W
    Dr. Roswell. W
    June 29, 2016 at 3:58 am

    Jesus Christ, is there anyway to get these bots to fuck off?

  17. Fear Me I Am Free
    Fear Me I Am Free
    June 29, 2016 at 4:13 am

    So does this have any preachiness or anything?

  18. JuVu
    JuVu
    June 29, 2016 at 4:50 am

    I’m waiting for the Vita version, I think it will be a Day One buy for me when it comes out in EU.

  19. catazxy
    catazxy
    June 29, 2016 at 5:48 am

    Oh, just now I understand, its called “valhalla”, but with bullshit “11” and “-“, and the game looks fun too….

  20. Dighunter
    Dighunter
    June 29, 2016 at 5:53 am

    Let me guess, the really fucking obnoxious character is that piece of garbage ROM cameo isn’t it? The shitty catgirl that’s always pissed at “privilege” and doesn’t even pay you.

  21. James
    James
    June 29, 2016 at 6:48 am

    Question: If I like the sound of this but dislike almost every line of dialogue on the Steam screenshots is there much chance I’ll enjoy it? I don’t mind the stuff in the shots on this review, so I’m just wondering if the Steam ones are representative or not. Seems a bit too ‘wacky’ for want of a better word. I’m fine with comedy, but I need to be able to buy into it.

  22. MusouTensei
    MusouTensei
    June 29, 2016 at 7:22 am

    You can block them now.

  23. MusouTensei
    MusouTensei
    June 29, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Yeah that’s not for me, unless it’s part of a Humble Bundle that contains games I actually want I don’t see me getting this.

  24. Brandon Orselli
    Brandon Orselli
    June 29, 2016 at 9:08 am

    I’ve tried everything to block them. The only way to avoid it now is to make comments approval-only, which I won’t do.

  25. Alexis Nascimento-Lajoie
    Alexis Nascimento-Lajoie
    June 29, 2016 at 9:37 am

    Nooooooooooope.

  26. Alexis Nascimento-Lajoie
    Alexis Nascimento-Lajoie
    June 29, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Actually no. The ROM cameos are super obscure to get and you’ll probably only see them if you go out of your way to do so.

    No the one character I’m talking about is someone who makes really obscure orders.

  27. GamesGoodMeGood
    GamesGoodMeGood
    June 29, 2016 at 10:29 am

    “Not because the games themselves are
    necessarily bad, but much like in the AAA industry you begin to see the
    same trends prevail, despite the fact that it prides itself on
    creativity and diversity that AAA games seemingly lack.”

    I shudder every time I see the word “diversity” now.

  28. Trance
    Trance
    June 29, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Dana a best

  29. Jack
    Jack
    June 29, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Prepare to be culturally enriched

  30. Fear Me I Am Free
    Fear Me I Am Free
    June 29, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Good to know. It looks interesting.

  31. 波大大閪細細
    波大大閪細細
    June 29, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Anyone on Niche Gamer will appreciate this game. It’s truly meant for us. After my preorder I had a bit of buyer’s remorse because of the somewhat hefty $15 price tag, but once I started playing it all faded away……

  32. Narmy
    Narmy
    June 30, 2016 at 12:10 am

    Stella, or that pretentious Jim Sterling look alike?

    If the latter, fuck him. He caused me my first miss with his “17” shit.

  33. atlow
    atlow
    June 30, 2016 at 8:57 am

    Sounds like a genuinely cool game. I’ll give it a go!

  34. porkbun
    porkbun
    July 8, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    Dorothy is funny as hell

  35. discusser
    discusser
    November 8, 2016 at 12:35 am

    “diversity that AAA games seemingly lack”
    I have to deal with poz in every AAA game now. Indieshit is just worse in that regard.