Review Summary: While the compilation's origins as a disparate set of tracks from a bite-sized demo are clear, VA-11 HALL-A's first album is still a cracking, if back-loaded, set of synthwave, ambient and instrumental pop.
As video games are evolving as an artform, so too is their presentation and overall appeal. Budgets are getting bigger, legitimate names are being hired on for voice acting, storyline and musical roles, and the industry itself is even falling under greater scrutiny on issues of workplace harassment and unionization. Though these facets are not always absent from indie games, there still persists a more prevalent DIY, self-expressive attitude from games that don't have to satisfy the whims of big publishers to meet market deadlines and goals and so on. And so enters the visual novel VA-11 HALL-A, a futuristic cyberpunk bartending game. With many games focused on fantastic roles for the player to fulfill, it is usually nice to see a game about much more mundane and relatable aspirations appear from time to time, and with this edge of originality, one could hope that the aesthetic of the game stands out as much as the premise.
And let it be said that 'aesthetic' is pretty close to the operative word here. The game's visuals are a big throwback to old PC-98 games thrown through a modern day understanding of 80s night-glo, so much like VVVVVV, the soundtrack is also an attempt to reach a nostalgic sound while still transcending the limitations of its source technology. VVVVVV may have been inspired by the Commodore 64, but the Commodore 64 could never have done the giant winding disco-techno tunes VVVVVV asked for, and in a similar fashion, VA-11 HALL-A derives just as much of its synthwave aesthetic from the semi-ironic and distorted 80s nostalgia of the 2010s internet age as it does from old PC-98 sci-fi adventures.
In saying that, what might be the obvious closest contemporary, Hotline Miami, actually sounds quite distant from what VA-11 HALL-A's soundtrack is trying to do. Composer Michael "Garoad" Kelly mines from a fair few different sources to altogether achieve a more chilled out and spacey sound next to Hotline's warbly and dark synthwave. Though only a few tracks on this particular compilation fit into the ambient category, there's generally less going on per song. What this means is that, in general, it makes for a more varied listen and strays more from 'the sound' of synthwave that comes to mind; there's no big Kavinsky or Pertubator send-up here, but you might be disappointed that the sound isn't as dense compared to more hard-hitting, bassy, thumpy tracks of the genre. It's mostly just a matter of perspective.
But altogether, I'm happy the sound of retro instrumental synth-pop is expanding a bit, even if this album isn't quite the best demonstration of it. The first half has a lot of slower, more chilled out and yet peppy cuts, such as Karmotrine Dream with its main riff driven by glittery stabbing synths, the purely ambient Skyline, or the strings-driven Dusk. These songs modulate in very obvious places, but the melodies therein are creatively formed, meaning they're not too repetitive even for video game songs meant to be heard many times. The production is also a big boon in Garoad's favour. Again, though the soundscape is more spacious than much more bass-heavy synth productions, the 80s-like drum machine with big canned snares really gives each song an oomph, as does judicious use of varying synth and piano tones.
That said, the second half of the compilation shows off more songwriting dexterity and presents a much more fulfilling experience. Base Of The Titans was probably the song I played on the in-game jukebox the most, built on a crushing industrial sample that quickly blossoms into a very pretty ambient package, fake guitar really selling the cozy atmosphere. Out Of Orbit, one of the longer tracks, also contains quite a few surprises over its runtime, naturally weaving from synth bass to slap bass, complimenting the harsher synth sounds and stop-start production before the bridge features a filtered guitar to give us a weird spin on its own sudden turn into ambient that is no less catchy as the rest of the song.
In general, the second half features a lot more tension in the melody work and structural modulation, such as in Follow The Trail and the aptly named Tense, which both sound like JRPG mid-boss music. These songs still find ways to be catchy, however, such as the tom-driven production at the start of Tense that almost sounds like something from a mid-career Peter Gabriel album, or the beautiful guitar work from David Nyman's two donated cuts, Strictly Business and Spirit Potion. It really does feel like most every song here has some kind of unique starting point from the rest even with the implicit goal to remain both catchy and atmospheric, with the only truly disappointing track in the last leg of the album being Underground Club, which really does sound like something from the Hotline Miami soundtrack but not nearly as hard-hitting.
Beyond that, VA-11 HALL-A's biggest problem as a soundtrack, at least on this particular compilation, is that the aim is still a bit driftless and it lacks the singular identity of the great OSTs. Many soundtracks live and die on their motifs and their ability to twist and recontextualise them, and save for a small moment in Showtime's glossy piano line, this does not happen. You can tell this was outsourced to a composer not inherently tied to the developer and made for a couple of demos with its somewhat limited number of tracks. It's not exactly Undertale, is what I'm saying.
However, part of that was definitely the point for the sole reason that most of the music is diegetic. Another Satisfied Customer plays during the end of day stats screen, but otherwise, these are tracks Jill is physically listening on a jukebox she has to arrange herself. So if a song like Strictly Business, with its mix of PlayStation 1 MIDI synth and jazz guitar, sounds like it could easily be background music in a dive bar, is the music not doing its job, then? Isn't it easy to imagine the sleazy glam rock guitar line of Heart Of The City blasting out amidst the grime of Glitch City? It may not have infinite replay value outside of the game, but the power of the atmosphere cannot be denied even if the soundtrack is not as daringly abrasive of some others of its kind. So pick up the VA-11 HALL-A Prologue soundtrack, dig out the karmotrine and get ready to mix drinks and change lives.