Visual novels are something of a niche of a niche for gamers in the West. The majority of them are imported from the East, with only a few receiving critical acclaim – or attention at all.
But that doesn’t mean they’re a medium best left alone. Representing a wholly different method of interactive storytelling and portraying games as art, the visual novel is gaining momentum here in the States.
This list will hopefully serve as an introduction into the world of visual novels. A couple of these games you’ll probably recognize; others, not at all. All that’s required is an open mind and a willingness to be surprised.
1. 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
This one’s a bit of a phone-in, to be completely frank, though for all its critical acclaim it still needs more attention. Released in North America in 2010 a year after its debut in Japan, 999 is a mystery/suspense puzzle game where the player takes the role of Junpei, a 21-year-old college student who finds himself suddenly trapped in a flooding cabin aboard a ship in the middle of the ocean.
Filling in the cast with eight other personalities. 999 tells a gruesome tale of death and betrayal. The story is told primarily through text boxes and slightly animated character sprites. As the characters attempt to escape the ship by playing the antagonist’s twisted survival challenge “Nonary Game,” Junpei must solve various “escape the room” puzzles in a point-and-click adventure style.
Rated M for a reason, this game isn’t for the faint of heart. Praised for its branching narratives, multiple possible endings, and powerful NPC’s 999 is a great start down the visual novel path. (Bonus: its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, is equally fantastic.)
2. Aselia the Eternal
This visual novel-RPG hybrid is a bit of an oldie, having only been localized for English in 2011 years after its release in Japan. The game itself, however, aged very well. This one’s a perfect match for JRPG fans: featuring a deep narrative set in a completely realized fantasy world, Aselia the Eternal covers the story of Yuuto as he finds himself thrust into this strange new world as a soldier and slave for royalty.
Aselia includes quite a number of the ingredients found in excellent games. Featuring a large number of characters, Aselia contains two main modes of play: story mode and battle mode. The story mode consists of the standard text box over background and pretty character images, but the battle mode is where Aselia sets itself apart.
Similar to ancient turn-based strategy games such as Disciples II: Dark Prophecy, battles in Aselia are conducted over a large world map that opens up as the game progresses. The player creates squads of units arrayed as attacker, defender, and supporter. Each unit is separated into several types with their own unique set of skills. Even among the same type each unit is slightly different from the next, adding to the strategic possibilities.
For strategy gamers and RPG fans willing to try something new, Aselia has a little something for everyone.
3. digital: a love story
Cue the almost-obligatory indie inclusion to the list, digital: a love story takes its place here as a classic throwback to the text-only adventures of old. With excellent writing to boot, digital will tug at your heartstrings in a way many fancy modern games simply fail to do.
Also released in 2010, digital is the work of Canadian indie developer Christine Love whose work is now featured in Steam. Set in 1988, digital tells its story entirely through the terminal of an ancient PC. It’s immersive in the sense of “sitting in front of a computer playing a game that features sitting in front of a computer”, but the effect is palpable and typing out the commands in the game lends a certain sense of satisfaction.
The story itself is a clever little tale featuring the exploits of the player as they explore the internet of the olden times with a few twists thrown in. Coupled with a perfectly composed score, the game’s ability to set a mood and completely tear it down is chill-inducing. A short one, but a good one.
4. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love
Of all the games on this list so far, this is the one most likely to send gamers running at first glance. Aptly described as a dating sim with RPG elements – wait! Don’t go! – Sakura Wars is the only game in the franchise to be localized in English – and it’s the West’s loss.
Released for the PS2 and Wii back in 2010, Sakura Wars is a tale of love and drama – dammit, you can’t leave yet! – set in a 1920s-esque New York City where steam-powered technology blends with modern-day discoveries. The player takes the role of Shinjiro Taiga, fresh off the boat from Japan and ready for duty at: …a Broadway theater.
It’s easy to overlook Sakura Wars. It appears to be a classic dating sim filled with cliche, sap, and enough stereotypes to fill Manhattan, but simply brush past the surface to reveal a game with a great story. A tribute to a time when playing a game was, simply put, really fun, Sakura Wars has laughs and tears aplenty alongside a simple-yet-enjoyable turn-based-strategy element (with a difficulty curve to mock Mt. Everest in the endgame).
5. Juniper’s Knot
Last but certainly not least is Dischan’s Juniper’s Knot. Dischan is now featured on Steam with the release of Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos, but its spiritual predecessor is still available for free on their website.
Featuring all of two characters, Juniper’s Knot still manages to tell an emotionally powerful story within a couple hours. With no input required from the player aside from clicking through the plot, the “game” still hits hard with a subtle soundtrack and maturely themed story.
Also a quick one, Juniper’s Knot is a good way to kill some time while experiencing some of the ways a visual novel can specially prey upon a gamer’s feels.
Thus endeth the list of 5. Not all of these games are for everyone, but each contain attractive elements to the average gamer. All are encouraged to sample them all, and perhaps discover something new. For those familiar with one or more of them: be sure to share the joy.