When you hear the word “novel”, what comes to mind? Some may think of their favorite paperback or hardcover book, while others use a Kindle or tablet. However, not all novels have to be just words on a page. A growing niche of games, also known as visual novels, are gaining quite a bit of popularity in the West. Originating in Japan, the visual novel combines a long story with player choices that result in multiple endings.
Think of it as a choose your own adventure experience. Visual novels feature audio, text, and character portraits to bring “visuals” in. Sometimes, they feature gameplay elements, but are mostly focused on player choices. It’s a game genre that’s rapidly increasing in popularity. If you are a fan of reading, good stories, Japanese culture, or decision-based gameplay, visual novel games are a great choice for the next “book” in your virtual library.
The past few years have been especially great for the genre, with many highly anticipated releases and re-releases that made the games more readily available to a larger audience. This list of the best visual novels will focus on the titles that wowed us with great stories, well-written characters, or intense player choices. We will focus on visual novels that are suitable for larger audiences and are (mostly) age appropriate.
Note: This list is not ranked.
Zero Time Dilemma
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platforms: PS Vita, Nintendo 3DS
Seek a way out. We reviewed Zero Time Dilemma back in June, and we were pleased with the amazing story, intense choices, and overall presentation of the game. It’s no surprise that ZTD would make it as one of the best visual novels of 2016. Jokingly described as an anime version of Saw, Zero Time Dilemma presents players with life or death situations with loveable characters, making the choices even more dire. Set in a creepy bomb shelter, three teams of three must work together to gain enough X-Passes to leave the shelter indefinitely. However, 6/9 people must die. Unlike traditional visual novels, ZTD features complex puzzles in order to escape various rooms. It also is a brilliant finale to the Zero Escape trilogy. If you are looking for a chilling and compelling story, this game is for you.
Read our Zero Time Dilemma review here.
Platforms: Android, iOS
Ding! Your boyfriend just messaged you. Not a real boyfriend, but one that exists in your R.F.A. app. Mystic Messenger is not your typical visual novel. Made exclusively for your phone, the game allows players to befriend and eventually form relationships with the members of the R.F.A. Not only does this game display healthy relationships and have loveable well-written characters with depth, Mystic Messenger lets you take on the role as a fundraising party planner. Gameplay wavers between choosing a route and emailing potential guests and there is also a very intriguing and amazing story that the app has to offer. If you are looking for a game to brighten your day, Mystic Messenger is a great choice.
Developer: Kadokawa Games
Platforms: PS4, PS Vita
Years ago, writing snail mail to a penpal connected people from different cities, lives, and even countries. Exchanging letters about their lives, sending and receiving letters have a certain level of charm that cannot be conveyed through modern day instant messaging and technology. Imagine this scenario. You become penpals with a girl, slowly falling in love with her with each exchange. However, one day she disappears and she stops sending letters back. To top it off, she said she killed someone and you never heard from them again. This is the premise of Root Letter. Taking on a unique twist to the adventure genre, this visual novel focuses on the 30-year old protagonist taking a vacation to uncover the mystery of the girl he once loved, Aya. One reason to really love this game is the mystery, but it also has a focus on Aya’s old classmates, which is a nice deviation from the typical visual novel settings. Using Ace Attorney style investigative techniques, you must confront each of Aya’s classmates she met and try to uncover the truth. Since Root Letter has several endings, it is definitely worth a few playthroughs.
Platforms: PS4, PS Vita
The choice of Steins;Gate is in your hands. Many anime fans may know of Steins;Gate, a beautifully written story about time travel, science, and a little romance and humor in between. The first game, released on multiple platforms, was a rollercoaster of emotions that revolved around the main character Okabe’s struggle of saving the ones he loved. However, Steins;Gate 0, a kind-of sequel was released this year, and it’s a very powerful visual novel. It delves into an alternate timeline if he wasn’t able to save his love, and the events that would transpire in a world doomed for destruction. Introducing new characters and taking time to develop the original characters more, Steins;Gate 0 is a fantastic story that will hit you in your feels and give you hope even in the worst of times.
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
Developer: Sukeban Games
Publisher: Ysbyrd Games
Platforms: Steam, Windows, Mac
Bars are known for the unique culture and intriguing customers with many stories to tell. VA-11 Hall-A takes bartending to a whole new level and is self-described on the website as “a booze em’ up about waifus, technology, and post-dystopia life”. Set in a cruel dystopian world in a cyberpunk setting, VA-11 Hall-A has plenty of charm, wit, and humor that makes it an outstanding visual novel. Taking on the role of a bartender named Jill, players interact with customers. However, the interactions are not with dialogue options, but with how you make or present the drinks to the patrons. VA-11 Hall-A can get pretty deep, serving as the place of relaxation in a “Big Brother” world.
Umineko When They Cry (Question Arc)
Developer: 07th Expansion
Publisher: 07th Expansion, Alchemist
When thinking of When They Cry, many think of Higurashi, one of the most disturbing anime and VN masterpieces. The same developers also made Umineko, focusing on eighteen people staying on a secluded island for a family conference in search of an inheritance. In the span of two days, several murders occur, and it’s up to the player to discover the cause. Although Umineko was released in 2007, it never saw an official English release until 2016. Many fan projects and funding made a translation possible, and now the game is available to play on Steam with the option to switch between new art and sprites. Widely well received, many have fell in love with the characters and intriguing storytelling.
Developer: PixelFade Studio
Publisher: PixelFade Studio
With robots, romance, and a slice-of-life school setting, ACE Academy stood out as a visual novel release on Steam. Set in a academy focused on training students to use Cenorobotics, ACE Academy focuses on an American transfer student who decided to study in Japan. This VN contains hundreds of choices as well as the option to form platonic and romantic relationships with the students. There are multiple endings and routes, which adds to the replay value. It also contains multiple pop culture references and likeable characters.
Sometimes games, especially from a niche genre, use Kickstarter as a platform to bring favorites to the west. Muv-Luv, a critically acclaimed visual novel trilogy, made it’s way to Steam in July 2016. Told in three parts, the story contains two arcs, with the finale to be released as a standalone title. The sci-fi visual novel features a delightfully complicated story that starts off as a dating sim, then surprises you with mecha, alien attacks, and more. Players must make decisions at “decision points” throughout the story, with 19 possible endings. It has plenty of replay value and is recommended for fans of VNs.
Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Although it is debatable whether or not the Ace Attorney games are considered VNs or simply point-and-click adventure games, Spirit of Justice definitely deserves a spot on this list for storytelling alone. Famed character Maya Fey makes her first appearance since the ending of the original trilogy, making it a great experience for long-time fans. Gameplay wavers between Phoenix’s encounter with an entirely new country/legal system as well as Apollo and Athena back home. Like all the games, players must defend their clients using evidence in epic lawyer style. Spirit of Justice also introduces new gameplay elements that spice things up and keep the courtroom drama at high levels.
The House in Fata Morgana
Set in a cursed mansion lies a visual novel masterpiece with gothic elements of storytelling. Waking up in a mansion with no memories or even the certainty of still living, the player is greeted by a maid and must choose doors to experience the various tragedies that occurred in the mansion. Hopefully, through exploration you will uncover the mystery of yourself. The visual novel has outstanding reviews and is praised for its storytelling and execution. It is also not the typical Japanese visual novel, but is more reminiscent of opening and reading a book, making it a unique experience.