Visual novels are one of the most niche genres you can find in Western gaming. In Japanese gaming communities, visual novels are a staple. In the West, not so much. There’s no definitive reason why this large difference in markets exists, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today.
There’s a number of (not entirely unfair) stigmas on visual novels: “They have 0 gameplay”, “They’re all anime”, “They’re all dating simulators”, “The stories aren’t interesting enough”, “They’re all on PC and I only play console” and so on. And although it’s okay to simply not like visual novels, I also think it’s important to remind people that there are exceptions to these common misconceptions. There are visual novels with more gameplay than others, there are some visual novels that have had official releases on handhelds and consoles in the English speaking market, they’re not all drawn in an anime style, there are some that are American-made, and they’re certainly not all dating sims, for example.
I’ve compiled a list of visual novels that fall into such categories: Visual novels that even people who don’t like visual novels might find worth a try because they break the stereotypical image of the cheap, anime dating sim that most people associate with the phrase “visual novel”. Alternatively, think of this as a list of worthwhile visual novels that a visual novel novice might find as a good starting point for getting into the world of visual novels. And of course, fans of visual novels will probably recognize most–if not all–of these titles, and if they haven’t played them already, I’d highly recommend each and every one of these.
There’s a good chance you’ve already heard of the prodigal son of the SciAdv series, Steins;Gate, thanks to its critically acclaimed anime. For everything that makes the anime great, it makes the visual novel arguably one of the best of all time. Although heralded as one of the better visual novel adaptation anime, it still doesn’t capture everything in the Steins;Gate story–especially now that the sequel, Steins;Gate 0, is out. The world of Steins;Gate is vast, interesting, well-written, and in one word, memorable.
Set in Akihabara, Japan during the Summer of 2010 (the not-so-distant future at the time it came out), Steins;Gate is the story of a young, down-on-his-luck scientist, Okabe, who finds a way to send text messages to the past. He quickly discovers the dark truth behind the research of time travel, and takes on the task of preventing a dystopian future that it’ll cause at the cost of his sanity and his friend’s lives.
The story of Steins;Gate is one of the most praised in visual novel history. If you’re looking for a visual novel with a gripping story and lovable characters, this is precisely what you’re looking for. It’s also among the most accessible visual novels on this list, as it’s available on Steam, PSVita, and PS3.
What happens when a group of 4channers can’t get enough of a doujinshi artist’s concept sketches? They formalize a team, call it Four Leaf Studios, hire Mike Inel, and make a visual novel based off of those sketches. And so Katawa Shoujo was born in 2012.
You play as Hisao, a high school senior who was just diagnosed with a heart condition. He’s sent to a school for the disabled where he befriends an energetic track star with prosthetic legs, a laid back artist with no arms, the deaf student counsel president (and her translator), the blind yet graceful class representative, a shy burn victim, and the legally blind conspiracy theorist. In a sentence, this is a dating sim featuring a cast of disabled girls.
At its core, Katawa Shoujo is a set of heartwarming stories about self-discovery, acceptance, the thrill of youth, and most importantly, love. Not a single weak character or story exists in this stellar dating sim. Dating sims, more than any other kind of visual novel, are extremely character driven and therefore need a diverse set of interesting, well-written, and likable characters–Katawa Shoujo succeeds with flying colors in this respect, making it one of the best (and most accessible! it’s free on their official website) dating sim visual novels you can find.
I’ve made my opinion on the Zero Escape trilogy (999, Virtue’s Last Reward, Zero Time Dilemma) very clear in the past a number of times–I adore it. It’s one of my favorite trilogies in video games period. It’s a cult-favorite, highly acclaimed trilogy of puzzle visual novels for the gamer who likes a good challenge.
Each game starts out the same way: You (and you play as a number of characters throughout the trilogy, but mostly Junpei and Sigma) and a group are trapped in an enclosed building of some sort and your lives are all on the line–use your scientific prowess and creativity to escape. You’ll die a few times, you’ll come back to life a few times, and most importantly, you must find out who’s behind your imprisonment and why. There is an overarching story throughout the trilogy as well, and therefore, these game absolutely should not be played out of order.
If you enjoy puzzle games that’ll test you to your absolute limit, Zero Escape will more than satisfy. Aside from being an excellent visual novel, each of the Zero Escape games are known for their extremely challenging puzzles that’ll test your creativity, problem solving, scientific knowledge, morals, and ability to listen to their fullest extent. For the visual novel novice who likes puzzle games, Zero Escape is ideal.
Odds are if you’ve played at least one visual novel without realizing it, then it’s almost definitely an Ace Attorney game. One of Capcom’s most beloved handheld series, Ace Attorney has been around since 2001. Since then it’s had 6 main series games, a few crossovers (most notably with Professor Layton and a cameo by Pheonix in Marvel vs Capcom 3), and a few spinoff games–a few of which were never released outside of Japan.
Ace Attorney tells the story of rookie lawyer Pheonix Wright who only takes cases in which he believes his client is truly innocent–even if the evidence is against them! You’ll explore crime scenes, question witnesses, and face off against a variety of prosecutors who want nothing more than to whip you, throw coffee at you, get you disbarred, or even show you their sick air guitar riffs because they’re a part-time prosecutor, part-time rock star.
Consistency in its incredible writing and fascinating characters are what drives the Ace Attorney series. Its sense of humor is also worth mentioning, as it makes the otherwise serious tone you might suspect of a game about a lawyer disappear almost entirely. Without playing them, most people likely wouldn’t expect a game series about a defense attorney to be even half as entertaining as Ace Attorney is–and Ace Attorney is, without a doubt, not only one of the most entertaining visual novels out there, but entertaining handheld games period.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215
One of the most standout titles on the Nintendo DS, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a visual novel that does nothing conventionally. From its art style to its story and even the way you actually have to hold the game, Hotel Dusk is, at the very least, one of the most creative visual novels you’ll ever play.
The year is 1979, and a former detective, Kyle Hide, finds himself staying in a rundown hotel with a gaggle of colorful guests. Allegedly, wishes are mysteriously granted to those who stay in the room he’s been assigned. Haunted by the shadows of his past and perplexed by the mysteries surrounding this hotel, you’ll play as Kyle as he solves puzzles and discovers the missing connections between his past and present.
There’s more gameplay in Hotel Dusk than most of the other titles on this list. If a lack of gameplay is one of the major reasons you avoid visual novels, this one would be a bit more up your alley if you like puzzle games or point and click adventures–or even games that are a bit more experimental in their execution. Hotel Dusk is, without a doubt, one of the most memorable games on the Nintendo DS. Hotel Dusk is a must-play for anyone who wants to experience the best of what the beloved handheld has to offer.
Although its anime wasn’t as well-received as Steins;Gate, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is another visual novel with an anime that helped bring it to the forefront of notoriety in visual novel releases in the West. Since its release, it’s had a number of re-releases, spinoffs, and even sequels on various platforms.
In a sentence, Danganronpa is Ace Attorney meets Zero Escape. You play as Naegi–an ordinary high school student with extraordinary luck. So lucky, in fact, that he was randomly selected to enroll in a high school, Hope’s Peak Academy, for the incredibly gifted. When he and his classmates arrive, they’re told that they’ll be held captive in the school forever unless they kill each other. When a student is found murdered, they’ll hold a trial. If the true culprit is discovered, they’ll be executed. If the murder is pinned on the wrong culprit, the innocent will all be executed. In a series of high stakes trials and investigations, you and your fellow classmates must not only solve the mystery of the murders, but the mystery of Hope’s Peak Academy itself and who’s truly behind everything.
Also like Ace Attorney and Zero Escape, it features more gameplay than most visual novels–mostly puzzle solving and trials very similar to Ace Attorney. Admittedly, Danganronpa relies heavier on typical (and often clichéd) anime character tropes than anything else on this list. I’d therefore be more hesitant toward recommending it for the regular anime watcher, but for someone less familiar with the triteness of many of these tropes, this would be fine. I’d therefore call Danganronpa probably the best visual novel entrance point for someone who not only doesn’t play many (if any at all) visual novels, but also just doesn’t watch much–if any–anime either. It is, at the very least, redeemed in its sense of style and a mantra of “Go big or go home” that seems to be thematic throughout the entire game.
Like Steins;Gate and Danganronpa, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Clannad thanks to its famously tear-jerking anime. Originally released in 2004 by Key (the makers of many other highly successful visual novels like Kanon, Angel Beats, and Rewrite) , Clannad has managed to survive the test of time better than most other visual novels thanks to its highly praised emotional writing and endearing cast of characters.
The story of Clannad is a simple one: You play as Tomoya, a high school senior, and a bit of a slacker. One day he befriends a cute girl from his school, Nagisa, and through her and the experiences they share, he makes a few other female friends: Now choose one to date. Each girl has her own unique route in the game in which you spend time with her and an after story which acts as an epilogue.
If you like a heartfelt, emotionally charged story then Clannad will deliver. Through highly sympathetic characters, it’s a visual novel that will make you laugh and cry with equal intensity all in the same chapter. If you liked the anime, you’ll love the visual novel. Like Steins;Gate, the anime for Clannad is often praised as being one of the better visual novel adaptation anime, but it’s still far from perfect. Above all, Clannad conveys strong messages of personal growth and learning to love: Ideal for the player who’s going through a rough patch in their lives and in need of encouragement or relatability.
Kickstarted by Cara Hillstock in 2014, Asagao Academy is one of the most charming dating sims you’ll ever play. Ever heard of Normal Boots on YouTube? (ProJared, Peanut Butter Gamer, Did You Know Gaming?, Satchbag, The Completionist, Continue?, and until recently, JonTron) Because it’s a dating sim where you date them.
You play as the cute, pink-haired Hana, as she transfers to a new school after being bullied at her old one. Despite her shy disposition, she’s quickly able to make friends with Mai and the extremely popular Normal Boots Club–which, of course, is made of the guys in Normal Boots. From here, you choose who to spend time with, what you’re doing, and of course, who to date. In dating them, Hana learns more about them, herself, and the potential danger in becoming too close to your friend’s pet bird.
Barring a few in-jokes, being a fan–or even familiar with–Normal Boots isn’t necessary for being able to appreciate Asagao Academy. At its core, Asagao Academy wants to tell stories of people overcoming obstacles in their lives with the help of their friends–romantic or otherwise. Where Asagao shines most is that, unlike most other dating sims, the importance of friendship is also heavily emphasized. Obviously your romantic relationship takes center stage, but friendships with Mai and other members of Normal Boots all still get time to shine–something extremely rare (and extremely wonderful!) in dating sims.