by Chris Walden
When clearing out some of my recent StreetPasses, I noticed that Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has taken over the play time of the local 3DS owners. It’s no surprise to see Layton’s name cropping up given how successful that franchise is in the UK, but the visual novel genre has been slowly increasing in popularity. It’s always been very hit-or-miss, and I don’t think I know of any other genre that can strike such fear into the hearts of gamers who’d rather get stuck into some action instead.
There are a number of reasons why we’re warming up to wordier games. We have initiatives like Steam Greenlight that are putting niche titles into the view of the average gamer, as well as localisation companies and western developers adding to the pool of available English-language visual novels. There’s more for us to consume: as the catalogue grows, so does the fan base.
It’s a hard genre to introduce yourself to, though - if you’re interested, where do you start? Here are my top six visual novel picks, as well as a few extras for fans.
If you’re running out of ways to satiate your pigeon addiction…
“But wait, why would I bother to play through these games when I could just read a book instead?”
A valid question, but what if I told you that visual novels also have this strange…well, visual element to them? They’re like books, but with pictures. An alien concept, I know, but there are some games out there that you just couldn’t do justice with a book, even if you were using some kind of ‘choose your own adventure’ model to factor in the decision making. Take Hatoful Boyfriend for example. It’s a game where you play as a young girl who has been attending school for just over a year. As you progress through the game you will meet new characters, and as you get to know them better there will be opportunities to sow the seeds of romance. Oh, and you’re the only human in this story, because all of the other characters are pigeons. Tell me where I can read that book.
If you like this, you should try: Jurassic Heart.
If there is one franchise you can’t object to…
The Ace Attorney Series
You may not even think of the Ace Attorney games as visual novels, which is exactly why they’re a great place to start. The flavourful characters and extravagant animations do a great job of making the dialogue enjoyable to read, and if that’s somehow not doing it for you there are also engaging point-and-click style crime scene investigations. Uncovering the truth behind mysteries and driving culprits into a corner with their own testimony is really satisfying, making this such a tough series to put down. Be sure to start with the first game if you have a Nintendo DS, 3DS or a smartphone kicking about.
If you like this, you can try: Danganronpa, Ghost Trick, Layton Brothers: Mystery Room.
If you’ve spent too much time watching Battle Royale…
999: 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors
We're sticking with the point-and-click theme for this one, which takes us to a sinking ship occupied by nine clueless strangers. If that wasn't bad enough, bombs have been implanted in their stomachs, so they have no choice but to abide by the rules of a game thought up by Zero, their gasmask-wearing captor. Unlike the Ace Attorney series, 999 features a mechanic that you’ll see plenty of in visual novels: multiple endings. Not only are there six to find, but four of them are rather unfavourable for the main characters. Be sure to check out the sequel Virtue's Last Reward, too. It's arguably the better game, but you should play 999 first if you can.
If you like this, you should try: Virtue’s Last Reward, Ever 17.
If you want to try something a little more indie…
To the Moon
You don't need a big budget and the backing of a publisher to make a good game in any genre. To the Moon was made using RPG Maker, a piece of software you could download and start making games in right now. But I don’t mention this to dampen your expectations of the quality of Freebird Games' effort. In fact it trumps many of the visual novels that have the backing of large teams and years of experience, despite its brevity. It boasts gorgeous pixel art, a great soundtrack and a story that'll truly tug on your heartstrings, making it a must-play.
If you like this, you should try: Digital: A Love Story.
If you don’t plan on sleeping tonight…
The horror genre lends itself well to visual novels. As you flick through text in games like Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni you find yourself pumped full of adrenaline, cautiously awaiting the next grim event to befall the cast. This is exactly why Corpse Party is on the list, as I know of no other game with horror themes as impactful as this when the volume is turned up. It’s the audio that truly sets this game apart from similar titles, as every footstep, floorboard creak and grisly sound effect adds so much to the atmosphere. Grab some headphones, but perhaps don’t play before bed.
If you like this, you should try: Saya no Uta, Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni.
If you want a good, crazy story featuring bananas and a microwave…
It’s presumably a lot easier to craft a memorable experience when you’re putting most of your efforts into dialogue and 2D art rather than having to build a whole 3D world. Note that I said ‘easier’ and not ‘easy’, because when the focus is on the story, you better make sure it’s a good one. Steins;Gate is a great example of this, as it shows that visual novels have serious capacity for humour alongside emotional involvement. This kind of visual novel relies on you becoming invested in the story, so don’t be too surprised if you come away from it sobbing like a child.
If you like this, you should try: Little Busters! and anything else by Key, Katawa Shoujo.
Have you got any recommendations, either for those new to the genre or for long-term fans? Leave them in the comments.