Why does every even vaguely dystopian piece of fiction borrow from Blade Runner? This was the number one thought in my head the entire time while playing VA-11 HALL-A. The number two thought? "Wow, this person sure talks a lot."
You are Jill, a bartender at the dive bar VA-11 HALL-A. You get a quirky clientele coming in, and to learn about everyone, you serve them drinks to get them to talk. Since you live in a Blade Runner-like dystopia, it works as a way to learn about the world too. The story goes everywhere and nowhere at once. You learn a lot of stories - all but your own. I could delve into the talking corgis and robot sex workers, but every time I thought we’d learn more about Jill (you know, your own character), we'd go to another story I was caring slightly less and less about.
Controls are pretty easy on the Switch. It’s either remembering the right drinks, playing through a day or clicking through a story. There's no complicated moves or anything, just a lot of remembering and clicking.
The graphics try and get that 80’s 8-bit feel and succeeds… kind of. Even with such low resolution, shots of the city in rain actually look pretty cool. It is a step up from a purely retro style, like a modern 8-bit. A girl with fox ears has her ears move, for example. Sometimes things are still, but other times they are pretty well animated. Considering it’s Blade Runner-based, it’s a pretty good feel.
There is gameplay, but I debated even calling it that. There are sim elements, like waking up and perfecting bartending skills before work. There are also memory game elements, i.e. remembering how to make certain drinks. And yes, these abilities do drive the story aspect forward. But as far as actual gameplay goes, it’s really just a visual novel with extra steps. I didn’t like that aspect of it. No one watches a movie about barflies and their stories, and VA-11 HALL-A is proof of how disjointed it can be through its gameplay.
Half of the audio is, I swear, lines being typed out from dialogue. Standard video game sounds apply here. Where it really shines, however, is the music. The music is one part 80's, one part upscale hotel lobby music, and one part typical Japanese action game music. It’s a bizarre combination, but it really works. It fits so perfectly. When I was bogged down in dialogue, at least I could count on the music to get me through.
The frame rate could get... off at some points, and look stagnant, but it’s at least partially due to the 8-bit setup. I didn’t encounter any glitches though. Besides 8-bit limitations, it was pretty good.
VA-11 HALL-A is a story disguised as a game. There are interesting characters, good music, and visuals that stay with you, but it’s brought down by seemingly endless dialogue, repetitive gameplay, and a lack of challenges. To me, with the story/gameplay, it almost felt like a bait and switch - you’re a person at a bar who is listening to somebody you don’t care about go on and on, and drink things that sometimes contain poison in the middle of a gaudy nightmare. It’s interesting, but you can largely get the same experience in Atlantic City on a weekday.
Final Score: 6.5 out of 10
A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.