VA-11 HALL-A isn't a visual novel, but saying that seems kind of silly, because it pretty much is. The reason I say it's not is because... well, it's not a novel. Aside from a few optional side things, VA-11 HALL-A's story is told through pure dialogue. I'm pretty sure something that consists purely of people talking can't be considered a novel, right? Prose doesn't work that way, right? Perhaps I'm wrong, who knows.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a totally-not-visual-novel set in the very rough part of a cyberpunk city-state in the year 207X. You are Jill, a bartender who works in Hall A of the V-11 building, or "Valhalla" as it's most often referred to. You "mix drinks and change lives", as she puts it, by chatting to your patrons and concocting the drinks they ask you for.
The biggest draw of VA-11 HALL-A is the way in which is tells a comparatively small story. Valhalla feels like the sort of place you'd visit in a big budget, AAA cyberpunk action game, the kind with an epic, high-stakes, bombastic plot. Its customers the types of NPCs who repeat the same single line of dialogue whenever you approach them. You'd only be here at all because you need to speak to a specific character in order to receive some maguffin, or get some info that helps advance the plot, and then you'd never have a reason to return.
But VA-11 HALL-A isn't that. It's a small game that tells a small story consisting of what would be inconsequential characters. These characters do have a story, even if that story isn't quite on the same scale as say, Adam Jenson's or Cloud Strife's, but they're still interesting and a lot more grounded to boot. By being (totally not) a visual novel, the characters are the main draw and the game does a fantastic job of making them interesting and enjoyable, even the ones that only appear a handful of times. Each one has their own stuff going on, and you can help them in your own little way as a bartender would: by supplying them alcohol and listening to their woes. Jill herself also has her own share of guilts and anxieties, a past she'd rather not speak of. However, as you get to know your regulars, and as they get to know you, she'll begin to open up, willingly or not, about her troubles. You'll learn exactly why it is she works at a seedy downtown bar, spending most of her free time sitting bored at home with her cat, reading the in-universe equivalent of 4chan and the Daily Mail.
Of course, characters aren't much if their dialogue isn't up to the task. Fortunately, for a game that consists almost entirely of dialogue, it's pretty stellar. There are times when it can feel a little... videogamey, for lack of a better term (such as when a character asks "hey, so I was wondering about such and such..." in order to segue into a particular topic, usually a character's backstory) but the majority of it feels naturalistic and, above all else, enjoyable. The game has its share of references and in-jokes: a couple of characters like to announce their presence with pro-wrestling quotes, and one character is straight up wearing that red jacket from Akira. The game doesn't rely on this though and does have it's own sense of humour, one that fairly often had me giggling to myself. These characters feel like people that know each other, and so, often joke around in a way that people that know each other often do.
Spending so much time chatting to and getting to know these characters also means getting attached to them. Feeling thrilled when a particular character shows their face at the bar because you're excited to spend time with them, or rolling your eyes and sighing when another shows up because you don't fancy listening to their shit, feels rewarding. Especially when those thoughts mirror those of Jill herself. The characters are the stars of the show here and each feel like they have something to offer, even if it is just being the slightly rude patron who only visits the bar on occasion. The cast of characters is also pretty unique, from the physically 13-year-old, but mentally 24-year-old sex-worker robot girl who takes an adorably large amount of giddy pride in her work, to the talking dog who wears sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. Yes, you read that correctly. His name is Rad Shiba. He's pretty alright. There was only a single character that felt out of place and thankfully they don't get too much screen-time so they didn't sour the experience too much.
Interestingly, for a game so focused on dialogue, there aren't actually any dialogue choices. There is still player choice however, and this is where the gameplay comes into... play. Jill is a bartender after all, and her job consists of more than chatting with patrons. In the far off cyberpunk future of the 2070s, alcoholic drinks are cocktails of fake future cyberpunk chemicals. All the drinks you can serve customers are made up of a mixture of Adelhyde, Bronson Extract, Powdered Delta, Flanergide and Karmotrine. Various combinations of these ingredients as well as occasionally ageing, blending and/or serving them on the rocks make up every drink. There's no real challenge to the actual making of drinks, though that comes in the form of making sure you actually serve the correct drink. Folks aren't going to always be explicit, perhaps instead asking you for "something classy" or "the usual". Making sure all your patrons are happy by the end of your shift will net you bonus pay, which helps to ensure that Jill has enough money to pay her bills. Karmotrine is the alcoholic component of these cocktails, and many drink recipes list it as optional, and this is where the bulk of player choice comes into play. For such drinks, you can opt to not include alcohol at all, or load up as much booze as the game will allow. A customer might be a little more loose-lipped if you get them drunk quicker, or they might end up going home earlier due to not being able to handle their booze. You could also take a turn for the amoral by choosing to serve alcohol to the minor that managed to find her way to this back-alley bar.
It's definitely an interesting way to deal with player choice, especially in the type of game that almost unanimously relies on simple dialogue options. It makes it feel much more... natural. When presented with dialogue options, knowing what you're able to say ahead of time, you can make educated guesses as to what the "correct" choice to make is. But with creating drinks, it's a lot more subtle but still has results. You can't always be sure what will happen when you make your "choice", much like real life!
Outside of the mixing booze and chatting up customers that encompasses the majority of the game, there's also small sections each day of Jill hanging out at her apartment, and you can do a handful of minor activities. You can head to the shop and purchase little trinkets (such as posters, old video games, a Megachristmas tree...) which will stop her from becoming too distracted and affecting her performance at work. There are also a couple of sites mentioned before that you can browse on your phone: The Augmented Eye, a news outlet that primarily deals with celeb gossip and other such asinine topics, Danger/u/, analogous to 4chan, and the blog of a local robot pop-idol. Here you can read about the various goings-on in this dystopian world, topics that will occasionally be brushed upon in conversation with your friends and customers at work. It's a good way to do some subtle worldbuilding, as well as reinforce the idea that VA-11 HALL-A is a small, inconsequential side-story in a much larger epic.
Visually, the game definitely has a striking look to it, wearing its clear influences on its sleeve. A 90s/early-00s retro-anime aesthetic, and great pixel art reminiscent of Hideo Kojima's Snatcher and Policenauts or many other Japanese adventure games from that time. Along with the blue, purple and pink colour palette and the incredible soundtrack create an atmosphere unlike any other game I've played recently. The soundtrack, aside from being excellent, is also utilised in an somewhat interesting way. Being a bar, VA-11 HALL-A of course has a jukebox which, at the start of your day and after your mid-shift break, you can fill up with songs from the soundtrack to play sequentially or randomly throughout your day serving drinks and making small talk. This is how you will experience the majority of the surprisingly large catalogue of songs, so it pays to switch it up.
All in all, VA-11 HALL-A is a small, intimate story featuring unimportant, but charming characters that feels like it's something happening way behind and off to the side of something much bigger and grander, but ultimately irrelevant. And it's this feeling of inconsequentiality that makes VA-11 HALL-A's story so fresh and enjoyable. Despite all I've said, it's pretty much a visual novel and even if visual novels aren't for you, you should probably give it a try. It's much shorter than most Japanese examples of the genre, clocking in for me at around 8 hours. I'm of the opinion that there's a game of every genre for everyone, and maybe this is that visual novel for you? Regardless, it's undoubtedly one of my favourite gaming experiences of the year.