My sister and I have always really enjoyed video games. I'm by no means a gamer girl, but I can be sucked into the worlds of League of Legends (biggest time-killer ever) and Super Paper Mario (my life in middle school) for hours at a time.
While I do love me a good action role-playing-game, I've recently gotten into visual novels. Popular in Japan, they haven't really made a big splash in the U.S. yet. Visual novels are basically a cross between choose-your-own adventure books and video games, so I get the satisfaction of reading a book and the fun of playing a video game. They're usually narrated in first-person perspective. The artwork is often done in an anime-style, but that's not always the case—especially in the visual novels that are being produced by western indie developers.
Read on for a list of some of my favorite visual novels by genre, which I'll probably add to in the future:
Area-X - a science-fiction/mystery visual novel by Zeiva Inc., a game developer that was founded and is run by two people (they're awesome and I'm jealous of their artistic and programming skills). Area-X is about Elcia, a time-traveler from the future, and her efforts to unravel the mystery of her past. Along the way, she meets and interacts with various characters from different time periods, and depending on your choices throughout the story, the plot varies tremendously. The plot is well-written, incredibly complicated, and well-thought out; you get a lot of twists and turns, and it keeps you on your toes. I love the artwork and the music, too.
It's a little pricey at $25, but you can play the demo here.
Screenshot of the main menu from Zeiva Inc's Area-X.
Dysfunctional Systems - Another science-fiction visual novel about Winter, a student mediator who travels between worlds and planets in order to restore peace to them. It's a pretty unique story that's broken up into episodes. So far, only the first episode is released, but it's only $5 on the iTunes store and the graphics and interface are well worth the cost. Check out the ridiculously awesome video intro below:
Isn't the animation great? And that music!
Bionic Heart 2 - A visual novel set in the future that switches between the perspectives of four different main characters: Luke Black, Tanya Vanic (a cyborg!), Tom Sparks, and Tina Gomez. On Mars, you follow Luke and Tom as they try to live as fugitives on the Mars colony. On Earth, you follow Tanya, an outlawed cyborg, and Tina, a police officer, as they work together to bring down Nanotech, a research company with a diabolical leader. The game was produced by Winter Wolves, one of the leading western visual novel developers.
This would be a lot easier to explain if you knew about the first game, Bionic Heart, which I haven't even played. I probably should get around to doing that—but Bionic Heart 2 is a great game on its own. The free demo is pretty lengthy and should give you a good idea of what the story and gameplay are like.
|A screenshot from Bionic Heart 2.|
Jisei - The first of a series of mystery visual novels, Jisei follows a male protagonist who has the ability to experience the death of any corpse he touches. When he accidentally comes across a dead woman, he's suddenly framed for the murder. The story is about his efforts to prove himself innocent by tracking down the real murderer.
Jisei was produced by Sakevisual, another leading visual novel developer in the West. It currently has two sequels, Kansei and Yousei.
|Poster from Sakevisual's Jisei.|
|Promotional artwork for Zeiva Inc's X-Note.|
Nicole - another game by Winter Wolves but entirely different from Bionic Heart, Nicole is about college freshman Nicole as she meets guys at school and attempts to investigate a number of students' mysterious disappearances around campus. While its central plot is about the mystery, Nicole is arguably just as much a dating sim as it is anything else (meaning you have to raise different stats to pursue different male characters). Still, the story is interesting and I think it's worth taking a look at before you dismiss it as a typical dating sim.
You can try the free demo on Winter Wolves' website or buy the game for $20.
|Screenshot from Nicole.|
In case you don't mind playing a few visual novels that involve actively pursuing romantic interests (don't worry, I picked ones with good plots), you can try these out.
Summer in Fairbrook - yet another game produced by Winter Wolves! It's about Steve McFarland, a young college student whose grades, love life, and general approach to things are kind of a mess. His dad sends him to work on his uncle's farm in a small town called Fairbrook, where he's supposed to build character. While he's there, he ends up meeting a bunch of different pursuable girls. The artwork is adorable (and the artist is the same person who did the art for the Jisei series).
This is definitely a stats-based dating sim, so it can get a little repetitive. Depending on the choices you make, you can unlock different scenes and endings for each character.
You can download the demo for free or buy the game ($20 for Mac, Windows, and Linux, $6.99 for Android).
|Promotional image from The Flower Shop.|
Winter in Fairbrook - set in the same town as Summer in Fairbrook and including a few of the same characters, Winter in Fairbrook is about Natalie, a college student who needs a summer job and ends up working at a flower shop in the town of Fairbrook. There, Natalie meets a number of different pursuable guys. Like Summer in Fairbrook, this is more a dating-sim than it is a visual novel, so it involves raising stats more than it does making choices that alter the plot. Depending on the choices you make and the stats you raise, you can unlock different scenes and endings for each character.
I personally thought this game was adorable—the character designs are great, and the music is very relaxing. The way the story is written makes it very cozy and enjoyable, and the characters are all very likable (I love Natalie; she's hilarious!). It's written by Ayu Sakata, founder of Sakevisual.
You can download the free demo from the website or from the Google Play Store, or you can buy it ($20 for Mac, Windows, and Linux, and $9.99 for Android from the Google Play Store).
|Illustration from Winter in Fairbrook.|
A lot of Western indie visual novel developers break into the business by releasing some free titles, and a lot of them are very good. Try these out if you want to get a sense of what visual novels are like without having to purchase anything. You should also try demos of commercial games.
RE: Alistair++ - A short, fun visual novel by Sakevisual about Merui, a girl who loves playing an online RPG called Rivenwell Online, where she meets an obnoxious player under the screen name of Alistair. When she figures out that he is a student at her school, she winds up betting him that she'll be able to figure out who he is. Throughout the story, she interacts with 3 male characters, each of whom could be the mysterious Alistair. It's more a dating sim than it is a true visual novel, but it's quirky, cute, well-illustrated, and well-written. It's worth trying out.
|Promotional image for RE: Alistair++|
The Dolls' Stories - a very short visual novel with a unique premise: you live in a world in which soldiers can raise and train ceramic, humanlike dolls to help enforce laws and keep the peace within the city. Playing as a soldier, you can choose to raise either a male or a female doll, each of which has a different route. The artwork is gorgeous and the story is both action-packed and dramatic.
|Main menu of The Dolls' Stories|