Let’s start with the ABC. The gameplay in the visual novels is very simple: the whole setting is a static background; the story is transferred by dialogues, monologues and descriptions; the characters are presented in 2D. They are modestly animated, often confined to a few selected sprites with various poses or state of mind.
Visual novels began to appear in the late 70s, but by then, they were uniquely erotic – other themes just started to appear in the 90s. The first non-erotic novel is considered Dokyseui, where the high school protagonist explores the city and befriends classmates. But it took a while for visual novels to appear on the western market. The first steps were taken by “hybrid” games like Ace Attorney, Zero Escape, Danganronpa and even Persona, in which one of the major components of the gameplay were dialogues. The main constraint was the language barrier as it’s not that easy to translate from Japanese, not every other man knows kanji like the back of his hand.
As with walking simulators, the lack of certain gameplay elements is just a reason to focus more on others. Visual novels rely heavily on plot complexity and character development. The existence of one without the other is neither possible nor acceptable, as your choices really matter and, at times, can radically change the ending. It’s important that the players feel they are making significant and important decisions. And for that, they must not only dive into the story but feel connected to the key characters. From this perspective, a first-person view is a must-have – it’s easier to put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. To reveal all the secrets of each novel and open the true ending, sometimes a dozen playthroughs are needed. Although there are some linear ones, even then you have the possibility to rewind back and try out different possible scenarios.
An interesting fact to finish up – you knew that Hideo Kodzima was developing visual novels early in his career? His first experience in writing unpredictable scenarios was a novel with quest elements named Snatcher. And in 1994, he created a sci-fi police novel Policenauts.
I picked up a dozen visual novels that may not force you to fall in love with the genre but will help to understand why such titles are noteworthy.
Higurashi When They Cry
When it comes to the studio 07th Expansion, I cannot fail to mention all the series: Higurashi When They Cry, Umineko When They Cry and Ciconia When They Cry. They are all different and unconnected stories, so beginning with the first one is not necessary but desirable because Higurashi When They Cry isn’t called a cult classic for nothing.
The setup is standard: an ordinary high school kid Keiichi Maebara moves to a quiet small fictional village Hinamizawa. And at first, nothing disturbs him except talks about a missing person’s case and hideous stories about local demons. Then suddenly, someone from fellow villagers doesn’t mind putting a needle in his neighbor’s meal, and it’s just the beginning.
The story reminiscent of Twin Peaks is entirely linear, but you would almost certainly need a second playthrough. Nobody is telling Hinamizawa’s secrets upfront, and you rack your brain on each episode, pinpointing the crucial information.
Another significant feature of Higurashi When They Cry is its focus on the soundtrack. The same concerns the other two games of 07th Expansion – Umineko When They Cry and Ciconia When They Cry. However, let’s face it, that in this way, the developers are trying to distract us from not the best graphics.
You can find all the episodes on Steam but get ready to spend a great sum of money for it. But I really believe it’ll be worth it.
First of all, I must say that in spite of its apparent simplicity and persistent lyricism, Clannad inspired a namesake anime series of 2007, mangas, and radio plays. Also, a spinoff was released and an erotic sequel Tomoyo After: It’s A Wonderful Life as well, which is well worth exploring and not just for the hentai scenes.
The main hero in Clannad is a Japanese high-school student Tomoya Okazaki, who, due to many troubles, is fully disappointed with his life. Everything seems boring and loose to him until he meets a lonely and sad Nagisa Furukawa. The teens decide to rebuild together a local drama club and elicit the participation of a number of young girls.
The developers are telling a simple story about ordinary people. But the secret to this is how nice they are to them and believe that anybody can have a transformation and become better.
That came out extremely touching, so you’ll have to be ready to cry.
Ever 17: The Out of Infinity
Sometimes the game is referenced as Half-Life because it had the same impact on visual novels as the Valve project on shooters. The original Ever 17 was released in 2002, and it was translated into English long before Stein;Gate, Muv-Luv, Clannad and other legends became available.
In the story, a catastrophe struck at an underwater amusement park, and six visitors couldn’t make their way out. There are around 30 metres of the ocean above them, and they’ve got around five days to wait for rescue. In the beginning, they just try to kill time but then the playing field changes. Anyway, Ever 17 quickly stops to pretend to be a dating sim and is embarking on a significant journey, where science fiction and time travel mix with mysticism and a myth about a forgotten continent.
There are 11 different endings in total, and is not an easy thing to get to some of them. The game itself is too hard to find, though I’ve seen it a couple of times on Steam.
The House in Fata Morgana
Everything is so much easier here: the re-release of this gothic novel is available on Steam. The expanded and enhanced edition is available on PlayStation 4.
The story starts off as a romantic story but let’s not delude ourselves: it’s so much more complicated than that. Actually, we are about to face four tragedies, which occured in different periods of time in the same haunted mansion. The victims just stayed there, reliving the events over and over again.
Brother and sister, which amusement didn’t last. A monster, which wasn’t able to find peace. An industrialist, who loved power more than his own wife. A cursed boy and a witch sentenced to death – at first sight, they have nothing in common. But the developers will surprise you: they don’t follow the rules and avoid cliches.
Katawa Shoujo is usually translated as Disability Girls, although the used Japanese word means rather “cripple” or “freak”. Let’s forgive the developers: they’re not linguists and not so Japanese. This visual novel is an amateur project, and the idea originated from 4chan, where the teammates have met. There are benefits to its disputable background: the game is totally free and is easily accessible. And the result is generally good: Katawa Shoujo is as catchy as other novels.
Here the heroines are limbless, deaf, blind or covered with gruesome scars. The most fortunate is the main protagonist as he is “only” suffering from heart arrhythmia, and a strong shock could simply kill him. Such a diagnosis encourages him to lead a pathetic life, and only a transfer to a school for kids with disabilities makes him think differently. The central idea is laconic and simple: people with physical differences are just like everybody else with their own dreams, fears, ambitions and complexes. The heroines of Katawa Shoujo aren’t poor and unfortunate, but ordinary girls with vivid and highly relatable nature.
Lucy – The Eternity She Wished For
What in the world could be more trivial than a story about an android capable of feeling? After Detroit: Become Human, it seems like there’s nothing else to say. But trust me, the story of an android named Lucy is capable of making an effective appeal to your heart.
The main hero finds in a junkyard an unusual robot and brings it home, which is a true shock for his father, who hates modern technologies. While we think about what makes human beings human, Lucy is learning to dream.
Lucy – The Eternity She Wished For narrative is linear, but the true ending reveals only after completing the final episode.
And so, we come back to the roots of the visual novel, and by that, I mean adult scenes. However, Tsukihime has enough merits apart eroge. The main hero, a highschool student Shiki Tohno, survived a terrible accident 8 years ago. After that, everything he looks at has strange lines and dots on, and therefore he is forced to wear special glasses. And it’s not just illusions: if you follow these lines with a sharp object or stab those dots, then the object, living or nonliving, will be destroyed.
Once Shiki encounters a young girl and powerless to stop himself, chops her up following mystical lines of death. And the next day, she comes to him as if nothing has happened and seeks compensation for the damage he caused. Her name is Arcueid Brunestud, and she turns out to be an ancient vampire, that very same Lunar Princess.
Back in 2008, the developers of Tsukihime announced a remake: the original visual novel appeared in 2000 in 640x480 resolution. However, they were working on Fate/Grand Order and the project was put on hold.
Kara No Shoujo
Talks about Girl of the Shell are often accompanied by numerous warnings of the shocking content, explicit erotic scenes, mindless atrocities and all-consuming depression. Here is another strike: the chain of plot triggers is so complex that your first blind playthrough will probably end in tears. However, in this case, the terrible ending is well within the overall setting: in Kara No Shoujo, you have so many macabre murders, family secrets and complicated relationships that your investigation complete failure definitely makes sense.
The novel is set in Tokyo in 1956. The main hero is Reji Tokisaka, a former police officer, who has become a private detective after he couldn’t manage to solve the murder of his own wife. But he goes back to the investigation when he learns that the serial killer is active again. However, this time, the latter crimes not only look nightmarish but entirely absurd.
The detective never has a chance to get bored. Two students are missing from his sister’s school. Another one reaches Tokisaka and asks to find out who she is. Literally. There is a ton of characters, and each of them is hiding a bunch of skeletons in his closet.
Getting into those crimes is not only interesting but nervous: time is running out, and each wrong step has its terrible consequences. The initial excitement quickly gives way to hopelessness, and any of the good endings seem only relatively good. And some of the secrets are blown only in the sequel and the prequel Cartagra.
The Song of Saya
Last year the remaster of The Song of Saya appeared on Steam, which provided an opportunity for re-examining the 17 years old title. And make sure that after a decade, the game is still able to shock even the fans of the Human Centipede.
The main hero, a medical student Fuminori Sakisaka, survived a horrible accident, in which he lost both parents. This was too much for him, and since then, he finds the world around him composed of piles of bleeding flesh, and people appear to be hideous monsters. Once in the asylum, he sees a lovely girl, the only beautiful creature in this rotten world. But this meeting marks only the beginning of a terrible nightmare.
The visual novel is unusual in that we’re looking at the story from all different perspectives and angles: depending on one’s viewpoint, the world varies widely. And in order to achieve the story’s true potential, you should go for one of the worst endings.
The hard name Utawarerumono can be translated as “the one who are singing songs about”, and the anime title based on the novel sounds like “glorified”. And since people write songs not just about anybody, it means that something epic is waiting for us.
The protagonist, wounded and with memory loss, awakens in a lovely village, inhabited by the best folks. It turns out that an evil empire attempts to invade the village, and you should literally confront it during tactical turn-based combats. However, they are not a particular challenge (except the final ones), and there’s always a way to reduce their complexity if you don’t want to spend your time on fights. The whole point here is in the story: over the course of events, you will find out that everything is not as it seems at first glance.
Currently, on Steam, you can find the final parts of the series: Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth. And as for the first part, soon, a remake named Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen should be released.
SciADV is an abbreviation for the series Science Adventure that includes a whole collection of visual novels, developed by 5pb together with Nitroplus. In total, there are six key titles: Chaos;Head, Steins;Gate, Robotics;Notes, Chaos;Child, Steins;Gate 0, Robotics;Notes DaSH. In all SciADV novels, there are different heroes, events and the technical wonders are different. But they all bind to the same universe, which looks very similar to ours with only one minor difference – their world is drenched in real conspiracy theories.
The SciADV characters do fantastic things: the Steins;Gate series feature time travel and changing the past. In Chaos;Head illusion can gain a material form and Robotics;Notes tells about the inventors of robots.
The same developers own another fantastic novel series – SVN or Science Visual Novels. It contains two games Occultic;Nine and Anonymous;Code and the events unfold in a different universe, which is explicitly linked to the SciADV one. Anyway, it could take a while figuring out the maze of different settings. Main conclusion: if you see a semicolon in the name, this title definitely deserves your attention.
And of course, my compilation would be incomplete without mentioning Muv-Luv – one of the most critically acclaimed visual novels. It is to this epic saga other titles are usually compared.
When it first appeared in 2003, Muv-Luv belonged to the eroge genre. Over time, when it moved to other platforms, the adult scenes were being censored, but still, the developers failed to make the game completely innocent. The main plot consists of two main storylines, so the playthrough is pretty linear. At first, everything seems like a typical dating sim: the main hero speaks to a whole bunch of high school girls, has fun with them, and begins relationships. This part is called Muv-Luv Extra and most of the people hate it, but without completing the basic storylines, it is impossible to unlock Muv-Luv Unlimited – the main one.
Everything changes by then. The Earth is in the grip of aliens, the human race faces extinction, but even in this setting, various power factions try to benefit from the situation. The main hero and his classmates are now students of a military academy and are expected to fight on huge humanoid robots. But all decisions made, everything the heroes do, all the story’s weirdness and secrets reveal in all their glory only in the final part – Muv-Luv Alternative.