Jeremy enjoys gaming when not helping manage the college he graduated from.
What Is a Visual Novel?
Somewhere between books and video games, visual novels are plot-driven, dialogue-heavy experiences bolstered by graphics and music to accompany the text. Many feature anime-style art, some include puzzle-solving aspects, and nearly all allow users to select between different options at various points—similar to the "choose your own adventure" books you may have encountered.
Although they vary, visual novels are most similar to books; I'd recommend them even to people who have never touched a video game controller. And just like books, some of them are exceedingly well-written, while others—not so much.
5 of the Best Visual Novels
Today, we'll count down five of the best visual novels available to help you decide which to experience! Note that these tales tend to feature adult stories, so I'd keep them away from the younger kids. Also, no plot spoilers ahead.
- Katawa Shoujou
- Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
- Fate/Stay Night
- Stein's Gate
5. Katawa Shoujou
Available on: Computer
Katawa Shoujou's story centers around a teenage boy, Hisao, who attends a high school designed for students with various physical disabilities. Hisao's heart doesn't function properly, one female student has severe burn scars, another has her legs amputated, etc. Hisao must learn to accept and cherish life despite his failing body, and he encounters a variety of characters along the way.
Katawa Shoujou allows you to meet its cast, then you may select one person for Hisao to grow close to, leading to several different "routes" in the game. You can befriend (and fall in love with) a plethora of students, and each one has their own story. Completing one story might take a few hours; doing them all will occupy much more of your time. Plus, each individual story has several outcomes depending on Hisao's choices. Will he successfully connect with his peers, or does his arrogance hamper the relationship?
Best of all, Katawa Shoujou is available at the low, low price of . . . free! Download it here. And be aware that some routes include sexual content, but the game has an option to disable this for anyone wishing to skip these brief sections.
4. Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
Available on: Nintendo DS, iOS devices
The story of 999 grabbed my attention from the get-go. Nine people, including protagonist Junpei, are kidnapped by the mysterious mastermind Zero and strapped to bombs that will detonate if the group doesn't successfully navigate a series of puzzles and trials within nine hours. You'll have to guide Junpei through the challenges while trying to discover the truth. Your companions are a likable, motley bunch, though many are hiding secrets for you to discover.
While playing, there will come several points where the group is forced to split up and you choose which companions to travel with, leading to different endings and puzzles. Which people will you ally with? Who is Zero, and why are they doing this? Can you trust everyone in your team?
999's story, cast, and plot twists are nothing short of amazing, and it features several environments with puzzles to break up the dialogue segments. The game's only shortcomings are how difficult it is to unlock the "true" ending, which requires very specific pathways to take, and, honestly, you might have to Google the necessary actions. But don't do this until you've at least completed one playthrough; you don't want to spoil the gripping tale that awaits.
3. Fate/Stay Night
Available on: Computer, PlayStation Vita
Likely the most well-known of today's entries, Fate/Stay Night began as a visual novel, and it has expanded to an anime adaptation, prequel anime, movie, several video games, and more. But we're here to talk about the visual novel that started it all.
Fate's story, set in modern day, revolves around a "Holy Grail War" that takes place between seven humans. These people have trained to use magic, and for the war, they each summon a "Heroic Spirit," a great hero from the past to act as their servant and partner. For example, teenage protagonist Shiro summons King Arthur. The seven teams of summoner and servant clash until only one pair remains. That team will be awarded a single wish from the mystical Holy Grail. Join Shiro as he reluctantly takes place in the fight and meets many formidable servants of the past.
Fate offers a few choices to make, but it is heavily story-driven and doesn't include puzzles. Once the first route is completed, another, titled Unlimited Bladeworks, unlocks, offering a different take on the events of the war. Completion of that campaign opens the final route, Heaven's Feel, giving a total of three complete stories for players to experience.
Available on: PlayStation Portable, Computer
Anime fans will love the Japanese style of Danganronpa, but anyone can appreciate its story. Somewhat similar to 999, several high school students are kidnapped, locked in an enormous high school, and forced to play a deadly game. The mastermind communicates with the group using a strange robotic bear, who explains the rules: Anyone who kills another student will be free to go . . . if they can get away with the murder.
You'll play as Makoto Naegi as he attempts to keep the body count to a minimum and discover the identity of the killers hidden amongst the sizable cast. You'll also choose which students to ally with, unlocking special abilities and delving into the personas of the colorful cast.
Danganronpa features the most gameplay of today's entries. While it's mostly dialogue, there are exploration segments and class trials where the group will decipher who the murderers are. These trials feature different methods of player interaction, setting Danganronpa somewhere between visual novel and video game.
With great artwork, music, and a chilling story, Danganronpa will especially captivate fans of the horror and mystery genres.
1. Stein's Gate
Available on: Computer, Xbox 360, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 3. Almost anything more advanced than an Etch-a-Sketch.
Beautiful music and art mesh with an amazing story to create Stein's Gate. Without giving away too much, the tale focuses on a group of close-knit young inventors who get in over their heads when they accidentally build a team machine. I won't spoil the following events (and different possible endings), but trust me when I say the novel gets better and better as you read on.
Stein's Gate will especially appeal to anyone interested in science and physics. The game goes to great lengths to explain how its mechanics work, discussing many real-life theories of time travel. I felt like, in addition to experiencing a gripping tale, I walked away from the novel having learned quite a bit about physics, chemistry, and the possibility of time travel.
Stein's Gate admittedly has a slow start, and it'll likely take some time before immature but well-meaning protagonist Rintaro Okabe grows on you, but by the end you'll be cheering for him and his friends to surmount their obstacles. Like 999, you might have to Google the exact actions needed to unlock the true ending, but Stein's Gate is an exemplary and surprisingly heart-wrenching tale that visual novel fans (and just about everyone else) should not miss out on.
More of the Best Visual Novels
Hopefully I've convinced you to give some of these stellar novels a try! Visual novels haven't fully caught on in America, and many consumers still don't understand what they are, but American interest is gradually growing for these interactive stories. Note that several of today's entries, like 999 and Dangonronpa, have multiple sequels to continue your adventures if you like the original.
Just like books, since visual novels come in dozens of genres, there's bound to be some out there that you'll enjoy. But before you enter your own fantasy world, vote for your favorite entry, and I'll see you at our next gaming countdown!
© 2016 Jeremy Gill