A Short Review of VA-11 Hall-A
20 December 2022
From Music to Pixel Drinks
My first exposure to this game was through the original soundtrack by Garoad (Bandcamp link), which I ended up purchasing and listening to the entirety of it on Bandcamp long before playing the game.
He also recommended I play the game, so after originally purchasing the game on 7 July 2019, I finally finished the game 3 years later in December 2022 with a play time of 8.2 hours. So, why did take so long when the game seemingly has everything I like in a video game - retro graphics based pixel art, awesome soundtrack, interesting characters and story?
Whenever I told people I was taking so long to finish the game because I was too introverted to enjoy a game that involved talking to a lot of characters and it drained my battery too easily, the usual response was surprise, shock, and misunderstanding. But this didn't explain why I still enjoyed a game like YU-NO which like VA-11 Hall-A is a visual novel and strongly revolves around character interactions.
After finishing the game, I need to revise my statement. It's not just that I am introverted, it is because the game revolves mainly around small talk with strangers, many of whom do not reappear. I enjoyed interactions with a few of the main recurring characters and the main storyline of the game interested me, but it was buried under a lot of chit chat (well written chit chat, but not for me).
Whenever I picked up the game, I could only play until the next save point became available (either half way or at the end of one of the main character's work shifts) and then would have to quit and pick up the game again in a few months.
The Ladies of VA-11 Hall-A
Here are three of my favorite characters, who become more frequent in appearance toward the end of the game. Like the main character, they struggle with relationships. It was this conflict that was most interesting to me and kept me interested in continuing playing.
Dorothy is wearing the maid outfit, she is a young android designed to look and act human. She is a companion bot and has a bubbly personality. Interactions with Dorothy were about the unusual situations she gets into with clients, her thoughts on being an android, and her feelings on romantic or friendly relationships.
Alma works for a government organisation of some description, and has a sultry look on her face. She and Jill (the protagonist) seem to flirt a little, and they discuss relationship problems and open up to each other over the course of the game.
This character is a mystery until toward the end of the game, so I won't spoil who she is. But she is the main story point and it revolves around Jill coming to terms with her grief about their relationship.
One thing VA-11 Hall-A does very well is create a unique interface. Not only the work environment with the drink mixing machine on the right, but whenever Jill gets off work you can browse her phone and it operates much like an actual smartphone. For a game that makes call backs to old games with both the genre of game (visual novel with puzzle elements) and graphics (pixel art, dithering, CRT scan lines which I turned off), it is still pretty down to earth for a world set in a dystopian future.
Strengths of the Game
This game does a lot right. The graphics, music, and interface are solid. The writing is excellent, and the character development is also engaging. Even the interactions with randoms who visit the bar usually develop the world more by helping you learn more about current events, technology, crime, and the corruption that goes on in the city. That said, as a player never leave the bar except when Jill goes on break and you briefly stay at her apartment. One of my favorite things about visual novels is the capacity to (potentially) explore, and being confined to a single location felt a lot like overstaying my welcome at a party.
That said, despite my complaints, this is an independent game and I understand the necessity of constraints. The team did an excellent job, despite my personal subjective experience of the gameplay.
The night I finished this game was a few days after a break up of a long term relationship. Since the main character was dealing with this also, it felt a bit more special to me. I enjoyed the development of the main story and the conflict between the main characters and those involved with the main plotline. Characters like Alma and Dorothy were important in progressing the story as they acted as mirrors for Jill to self reflect and come to terms with her feelings.
If I were to make a request to the developers, I would focus a bit more on making more of the interactions between characters more meaningful than having a lot of random joke characters who contribute nothing but comic relief but are ultimately a bit pointless. If some of the randoms were replaced with friends of Jill's, sure, it would be less realistic for the setting but it would make a much more engaging story.
That all said, I did enjoy the game overall so I'm looking forward to seeing what the sequel brings even if development is on indefinite hiatus. I'll check it out when it finally releases.