Glitch City is not a very nice place to live. It’s a cyberpunk dystopia, a corporate-owned metropolis overrun by brutality and drowning in the nonstop flow of technological progress. But despite all the hardships one faces in Glitch City, it’s always good to know that there’s a place to go to unwind and drown away your sorrows. The bar’s name is VA-11 Hall-A. And within its sliding doors and beyond the odor of “dog piss and soap” lies one of the best games I’ve played all year, and one of the best interactive stories I’ve ever experienced.
VA-11 Hall-A is the story of Jill, an introverted bartender tasked with serving some of Glitch City’s strangest patrons. And like any bartender, you’ll spend plenty of time consulting recipe books, mixing drinks, and struggling to pay bills. But, as you might expect, the mixing isn’t the real star of the show by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, it’s fun to eventually be able to mix cocktails by memory or serve orders as fast as possible, but the main purpose of the drinks is to get your patrons talking. Sure, you could always just give them what they ordered, but experimenting by upping the alcohol of a drink or simply mixing something different entirely helps alter the course of the story, and is a lot smoother and more subtle than just a simple dialogue choice.
Considering how much of the game is just reading exchanges between Jill and her customers, it certainly helps that VA- 11 HALL-A is one of the best written games I have ever had the pleasure of playing, if not the best. Everyone who walks into the bar is unique and interesting, and many characters who just seem like one-off jokes can grow into damn fine characters in their own right as long as you serve the right beverages at the right times. By the time the credits rolled, I had fallen in love with the entire cast, from the crass yet driven newspaper editor to the seemingly pretentious museum curator. Even when the characters are at their goofiest, it’s hard not to be charmed by them and care for their struggles.
But when things are goofy, they’re really goofy. While the comic relief characters may have hidden depths, that doesn’t stop them from consistently delivering laughs, something that games rarely manage to do for me. I realize humor is perhaps as subjective as tastes come, but nearly every single joke landed for me, and my sessions were frequently laced with fits of giggling at talking to a sunglasses-wearing shiba inu and his militaristic boss, or browsing the most stunningly accurate recreation of an imageboard I’ve ever encountered in any media.
Still, despite the humor, VA-11 Hall-A isn’t afraid to tackle darker subjects, and it manages to pull them off quite gracefully. The game’s portrayals of grief and depression manage to pack in enough heart to make you forget entirely that the conversation is being had between a slacker bartender and a lewd android. While there are certainly many other brilliant story threads and subplots, this story of overcoming the death of a loved one manages to consistently steal the show.
That’s not to say any of the side content is terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but if you want to really experience it, prepare to do another run. A lot of critical information can be missed if you play your cards wrong, and it’s entirely possible to end up with an ending that leaves many interesting storylines hanging without a proper conclusion. Thankfully, there’s a New Game + option to breeze through the game again and get more info on the bar’s many mysterious patrons.
Of course, while the writing is sublime on its own, the wonderful visuals are what ties it all together. Characters show off some seriously sophisticated pixel art that intentionally calls to mind old Japanese graphic adventures, such as Policenauts or SNATCHER, and it’s all complemented by a vibrant color scheme drenched in neon hues. In addition to the graphics, VA-11 Hall-A features a brilliant synth soundtrack that you can access at any time via the bar’s jukebox, allowing you to customize your own playlist to help get Jill through the long nights.
As mentioned before, VA-11 Hall-A features a New Game + option, and it wasn’t until I actually checked it out did I realize how much content there is. Along with all the routes you may have missed, you can actually do quite a bit of customization to Jill’s apartment, and you can even play a quite serviceable bullet hell minigame on her computer. The game’s just full of those little touches that you can’t help but sit back and admire, and every in-game day continued to bring new surprises even in subsequent playthroughs.
The fact of the matter is that we don’t get games like VA-11 Hall-A every day. It’s a powerful experience that had me hooked from start to finish, and was filled to the brim with memorable characters and moments I doubt I’ll be forgetting any time soon. While VA-11 Hall-A may not be the deepest video game of all time, it certainly is a contender for the best written. And that’s not something you want to overlook.
VA-11 Hall-A was reviewed on Steam with a copy provided by the developer.
VA-11 Hall-A is a stunning adventure that manages to deliver one of gaming's greatest stories.