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VA-11 Hall-A Review

Here we review and praise VA-11 Hall-A, by Sukeban Games. VA-11 Hall-A, developed by Sukeban Games, is a cyberpunk bartending visual novel where you serve drinks and maybe even change lives. So, join me and let's delve deeper into the game.

VA-11 Hall-A Review

Introduction

VA-11 Hall-A is a visual novel game developed by Sukeban Games and Wolfgame Studios and published by Ysbyrd Games and Limited Run Games. Set in the distant future, the game tells the story of the staff and patrons of the bar VA-11 Hall-A and follows them as they take time to unwind from a difficult life and perhaps share some interesting stories while they're around.

Currently, the game is available for PC on Steam at $14.99 with an upcoming port for the PS Vita in the works. 

Story

VA-11 Hall-A follows the protagonist Jill Stingray, a bartender for the titular bar, as she spends her evenings working and serving drinks to the colorful cast of characters that begin to frequent the bar. In terms of narrative, the game takes a laid back approach to its storytelling and instead places the focus on characters interacting with each other and exchanging worldviews, stories, and the occasional crude joke.

The general plot however, is that the year is 207X and society has progressed to the point that the world is a dark, dystopian mess. Crime and corruption are rampant with looming mega corporations controlling the world and terrorist organizations frequently striking out against them. Cybernetic implants and sentient AI and animals are now commonplace. And amidst it all, there's VA-11 Hall-A, one of many bars in this world and the place where the characters of the game go to unwind, relax, and try to forget about the troubles of its world for a time.

VA-11 Hall-A Review - Valhalla

Not all is well for Valhalla and its patrons however. The bar is on the verge of shutting down and in its final month of business Jill and her coworkers are doing their best just to stay afloat. Couple that with the dangerous world and how it impacts the cast, and VA-11 Hall-A creates a gripping narrative that shows how even in a dark, hopeless world, sometimes all someone needs is a drink to put it all behind them.

To go into any more detail would be to rob the game of many brilliant character moments and plot threads, but suffice to say, it is a deeply entertaining, relatable, and engaging ride from beginning to end. Particularly with Jill and the personal demons she ultimately comes to face. 

Gameplay

As with most games in the visual novel genre, the gameplay in VA-11 Hall-A remains relatively minimal. It takes place across the span of Valhalla's final month in operation with each day following the routine of Jill showing up each night to work and serving drinks to her clientele. 

VA-11 Hall-A Review - Stella
The game utilizes a catalog of drinks and a simple mixing interface to create said drinks. What you make of course depends on whatever it is the customer requests, but there will be times the game will test you by making you remember information for previous nights or by posing riddles for the drink requests. For the most part this manages to make the mixing of drinks engaging enough; although, there are times when the riddles the game imposes get a bit too challenging with their solutions.

Sometimes Jill may need to deduce or remember trivia about a drink in order to get the order right. Other times it may come down to a judgement call where you need to look at a character and decide if that character should get the drink they ask for, or the drink they desperately need.

Mixing drinks remains amusing enough for the first few nights, but before long the task can get repetitive with little variation in gameplay or idea. Each drink very quickly adopts a routine of look up recipe, follow recipe, serve drink, and repeat. While the game does a good job of shaking up this core gameplay mechanic within its boundaries so that it never becomes downright irritating, it does leave a bit to be desired.

VA-11 Hall-A Review - Sei
Very rarely, the drink creating portion of the game will be broken up with one of a handful of minigames. Though, even these minigames fall on the simple side. There's a truth or dare section towards the end of the game between its various characters, but in context all it amounts to is choosing a character and watching their reaction. The closest VA-11 Hall-A comes to a major gameplay shift is in the optional bullet-hell shoot-em-up minigame Jill can purchase with her earnings from the bar.

Between each night of work Jill will get paid for her services and be sent home. Here the player can purchase items to spruce up Jill's apartment, listen to the game's music, read through in-game news articles and blogs, or play the aforementioned bullet-hell minigame. All of it is strictly optional, but for those interested in learning more about VA-11 Hall-A's world the option is there.

VA-11 Hall-A Review - Jill

In addition, at the start of each night Jill is tasked with setting up the bar's jukebox for the evening. What this amounts to is you as the player taking a moment to list out and pick the tracks you'd like to hear over the course of the night. While not exactly complicated, it does bring a charm to each night and lets you customize how laid back or energetic your experience will be. 

Now, what the bulk of the game will actually be is dialogue. Lots and lots and lots of dialogue. Much of your time in VA-11 Hall-A will be spent watching Jill interact with the characters, with the drinks she serves acting as a sort of choice system in how these conversations will often go. In  general, the better you are at serving drinks, the better the conversations tend to go.

While this is common in visual novels, if this were handled sloppily it could easy go against the game's favor. Thankfully, Sukeban Games did an excellent job in crafting VA-11 Hall-A's world and characters and as such it always remains a delight to see the cast bounce off one another.

Your ability to manage Jill's finances as well as please the patrons of VA-11 Hall-A will ultimately impact however many endings you get, with many of these endings requiring you to solve some of the game's infrequent puzzles. The game sits at a comfortable rough eight to ten hour run time and beating it once allows you to carry over all your money and purchases, allowing for an easy time in getting all the endings at your leisure.

Graphics and Audio

All of VA-11 Hall-A is designed with a pixel art style in mind. Character designs take obvious cues from cyberpunk and anime and the result are expressive, detailed sprites that are both immediately memorable and wholly unique. The game spends most of its time with a built in HUD that gives it an almost windowed, video game menu aesthetic.

VA-11 Hall-A Review - Dana

Character's will rarely move aside from basic blinking and lip motions as typical of visual novels, but the sprites each feature multiple poses and variants based on their reactions and mood. The result of this ends up being graphics that are easy on the eyes and, more importantly, easy on the hardware. VA-11 Hall-A trades graphical prowess for style and it completely nails the aesthetic it aims for. Fans of anime in particular will note a number of references for the designs of the characters.

Quite possible VA-11 Hall-A's biggest strength however, aside from its well-written cast, is its sublime music. Composer Michael "Garoad" Kelly masterfully crafts a Future Synth themed soundtrack that succeeds in crafting any mood the game wishes. Whether it's slow-paced, relaxing melodies, bombastic, heart-pumping tunes, or somber, melancholic songs.

Each song stands out in their execution and will likely haunt players for weeks after their playthrough. Although personal special mention goes to Welcome to Valhalla and Dawn Approaches, two of the game's more laid-back tracks that I felt best suited the game. 

COnclusion 

Overall, VA-11 Hall-A was a delight from beginning to end. While far from the most complicated game in the market, it's a thoughtful, relaxed, and engaging experience that will stick with me more than most big budget games have managed in years. Barring some repetitive gameplay and a few obtrusive puzzles, it more than makes up for it with an incredibly stylish soundtrack, good art direction, and deeply entertaining and compelling characters.

This game is very much worth checking out. Regardless of if you are a fan of the visual novel genre.

PROSCONS
+ Strong Art Direction– Simple, repetitive gameplay
+ Well Written Plot and Characters– Occasionally obtuse puzzles
+ Excellent Music
9
Amazing

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