Five visual novels that are worth your time

Put on your reading glasses because we have some amazing stories to recommend.

As more and more visual novels find themselves on consoles and handhelds, it’s safe to say the genre is riding high right now. Visual novels possess a flexibility not seen in other games. They can easily cross multiple gaming genres, so there is something for everyone. That appeal, plus a passionate fan base, have helped visual novels experience a huge surge in popularity.

Visual novels, for those not in the know, are games were the story is told mainly through text. Interactive elements do exist, where choices you make influence future events, but for the most part you are engaged in a story. Usually these games involve static images and, very often, anime visuals — due to their massive popularity in Japan.

Visual novels offer a different experience to most other games. Think of them as a digital “choose your own adventure” story, where you meet fascinating characters, follow deeply personal stories and build meaningful connections. The genre can be broken down into two main subgenres: adventure visual novels, which are closer to point-and-click adventure games that use visual novel aesthetics to push the game forward, but still contain gameplay elements; while standard visual novels are less about playing a game and more about reading a story with added visuals.

With that in mind, you might be curious to give one a go — so we’ve put together five suggestions to get you going.

1. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney trilogy

Phoenix Wright is perhaps the most well known game on this list. Originally a series of Nintendo DS games, it follows Phoenix Wright, a rookie defence attorney, as he is thrown into a series of murder trials where he defends an increasingly bizarre cast of characters. Using a combination of clues (collected in the investigation stages of each chapter) and logical deduction, you figure out who the real culprit is in high stake court trials. Recently remastered by publisher Capcom, the first three games of the series are now sold as a trilogy, giving you hours of crime solving.

We can already hear you yell “OBJECTION!” as we call Phoenix Wright a visual novel game. While it’s true the game features more gameplay mechanics than any of the other games on this list, it still leans enough on the adventure visual novel subgenre, in both art style and game framework, that it serves as a great title to ease you into the experience. Plus, Phoenix Wright is a fun game about the power of hope, and reason winning out — which we might need given that a game further down the list tackles a similar experience but plunges it into absolute despair.

Use the power of pointing to cut through the testimonials of
unreliable witnesses.

2. Steins;Gate

Steins;Gate (no that’s not a typo) is a science fiction visual novel set in the summer of 2010 in Akihabara, Japan. A group of friends create a device that allows them to send messages back to the past, but this creates ripples throughout time. Steins;Gate features next to no gameplay; instead, you follow the story, and decide what the main character — an 18-year-old, self-proclaimed “mad scientist” named Rintarou Okabe — does with this information.

The cast of colourful characters all have a past they want to change, and your choices to alter them — or not — will change the game for better or for worse. Steins;Gate is an amazing story to look out for. There is however two versions: the original visual novel game featuring static images; and Steins;Gate Elite, which uses footage from the Japanese anime adaptation of the game, turning it more into an interactive movie. The differences are minimal, and it depends on your personal preference. We enjoyed the Elite edition just because it’s on the Switch — but if you don’t agree, we can send a message back in time to try the original version. Surely it won’t disrupt the time stream too much…

Image result for Steins;Gate choice
Steins;Gate features a colourful cast of characters who won’t suffer at all because of time travel. Why do you ask?

3. Zero Escape: The Nonary Games (999 / Virtue’s Last Reward)

So this one is a bit of a cheat — however these two games are packaged together, giving you even more value. The Nonary Games are adventure visual novel games where you wake up one day in a strange room, unaware of how you got there. Gameplay is split between visual novel style conversations as you meet fellow prisoners, and depending on your choices influence their fate; and escape-room-style puzzles as you look for keys and solve riddles to escape your captors. 

999 (also known as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) is a remake of a 2009 Nintendo DS game featuring a full voice cast. Trapped on a boat, you have to team up with other prisoners to escape a series of puzzles — but not everyone trapped with you is your friend. The sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, forces you to participate in a Saw-esqe death game called the Nonary Game, as you are forced to not only solve escape room puzzles, but also vote on which of your fellow survivors to save & kill.

Both games feature an amazing cast of voice actors, multiple paths which intersect with one another, and a story so engaging you’ll find yourself trying to get through the escape room puzzles quicker just to find out more about what exactly is going on. If you enjoyed those two, there is also a third game in the series, Zero Time Decision. Though given how much it references The Nonary Games, maybe it’s best for you to survive the first two before you go for that third slice.

Image result for virtue's last reward gameplay
999 starts off in a big way as you wake up to find yourself locked in a flooding cabin.
Can you escape in time?

4. Hatoful Boyfriend

When people talk about visual novel games there is usually an image that comes to mind: the dating sim. You often play a young man surrounded by a dozen or so women that all want to get to know you. Well, sometimes a game comes along that puts such a unique spin on an established genre, you can’t help but take notice.

In Hatoful Boyfriend you play a girl attending St. PigeoNation’s Institute, a prestigious academy where you have to balance a busy school life with your love life, as several potential suitors vie for your attention. The twist, however, is that everyone else is a talking bird. Your childhood friend is a rock dove, that mysterious transfer student is a fantail pigeon, the doctor is a partridge… the list could go on. Hatoful Boyfriend plays this concept completely straight however, and instead of relying on a one note joke creates a story that branches in multiple directions, all depending on your choices.

If you can look past the concept of dating talking pigeons (now that’s a weird sentence), Hatoful Boyfriend offers a gameplay experience like no other, and given its original concept, has the potential to stick with you long after you’ve finished.

Image result for Hatoful Boyfriend
Your childhood friend Ryouta Kawara is just one of the many dateable birds available in Hatoful Boyfriend

5. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

In Trigger Happy Havoc, you play Makoto Naegi, the new student at Hope’s Peak Academy, a school for the best of the best — or “Ultimates”. However, everything doesn’t go as planned as a sadistic robot bear called Monokuma (the mascot character of the series) traps you and 14 other students inside the building, and reveals that the only way to escape is to play his game.

The rules are simple. Murder one of the other students and get away with it.

Danganronpa is a visual novel game about how easy it is for people to slip into violence when they are pushed too far, and the despair that this creates. Monokuma and the Mastermind controlling him push the students through blackmail and intimidation, until one by one they turn on their classmates. Gameplay is a mixture of visual novel style conversations, as you try to make friends with the eclectic cast of anime tropes that are your fellow classmates; and investigation when eventually a murder happens and you scour the crime scene to try and find out what exactly took place.

Whereas in Phoenix Wright you look for contradictions in witnesses statements to find the truth, in Danganronpa you are placed in Class Trials. These are exciting conversations with your classmates where you try to discover what happened to your friends, combining logical deductions, evidence and even some mini games along the way to eventually discover the culprit. As more murders take place, the students go to extreme lengths to not get caught, creating complex mysteries from locked room murders to almost impossible causes of death. Danganronpa balances anime tropes, black humour and logical deduction very well, creating a gameplay experience like no other.

Trying to figure out who the murderer is in each chapter requires your wits and a chamber full of truth bulletsbecause how else are you going to find the culprit, point at them?

So there you have it: five visual novel games we’d recommend you try. What’s your favourite visual novel? Are there any you think are missing from the list? Leave us a comment below and we’ll be sure to give them a try!

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