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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Amazing soundtrack
- Incredible cast
- Great presentation
- Refreshing take on the cyberpunk genre
- Decisions affecting what ending you can get are not always well presented