Five Visual Novels You Must Play, Even If You Don’t Like Anime

Five Visual Novels You Must Play, Even If You Don’t Like Anime

When you think of the term “visual novel”, you probably think of dating simulators stuffed full of anime tropes and hentai scenes. I am here to convince you that this is wrong.

See, there are visual novels worth playing even if you’re not a fan of anime. Take it from me, a Person Who Does Not Like Anime. Visual novels — that is to say, interactive stories where a player’s goal is not to shoot down enemies or sneak through hallways, but to read — can be powerful, entertaining, and as emotionally absorbing as some of gaming’s best stories, like BioShock or The Last of Us.

“But wait!” you might be thinking. “If you want a great story, why don’t you just read a book?”

Well, sure. I read novels all the time. But these visual novels are as solid as any book, and some of them play around with the interactive form to tell stories that only a video game could. By augmenting their narratives with puzzles, detective work, and other interesting bits of gameplay, these visual novels do some fascinating things, and I wish more game developers would dig into this genre.

Trust me when I tell you these are all must-plays.

Five Visual Novels You Must Play, Even If You Don’t Like Anime

1) Phoenix Wright

Why: The most famous visual novel series is famous for good reason — it’s funny, entertaining, and full of psychic lawyers. You play a defence attorney — the eponymous Wright — who must both investigate crime scenes for clues and use those clues to poke holes in witness testimonies in an attempt to find the truth behind a series of increasingly vicious and mysterious murder trials. Almost all of the cases will subvert your expectations, and the series just keeps getting better and better the more you go. The Phoenix Wright series is full of plot twists and little moments that raise all the hairs on the back of your neck. It’s wonderful.

How to play it: Start with the first game (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) on DS or iOS, then work your way through the series in sequential order. Then get the fifth game (Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies) on 3DS or iOS. Also, if you don’t mind waiting, Capcom is releasing a 3DS remake of the first three games later this year.

Five Visual Novels You Must Play, Even If You Don’t Like Anime

2) Danganronpa

Why: Danganronpa is best described as a cross between Persona and The Hunger Games, with a dash of Phoenix Wright. If that’s not enough for you, well, the premise is this: 15 students are trapped in a high school and told by a lovably malicious teddy bear that the only way to escape is to A) kill one of their classmates; and B) avoid getting caught. Your job is to make sure the murderers all get caught. The story is funny and twisty, full of moments both terrifying and entertaining as you power through school, hoping your favourite characters don’t die. It’s a trip.

How to play it: Though Danganronpa was originally released on the PSP, you can only get it in English for Vita, either as a retail or digital game. Play the first one before you check out the second, which comes out in September.

Five Visual Novels You Must Play, Even If You Don’t Like Anime

3) Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999)

Why: Like Danganronpa, 999 is a mystery-horror story full of twists, turns, and fascinating characters. Nine people are trapped on a cruise liner and told they have to work together in order to escape. By solving through a series of escape-the-room-type puzzles, you and your buddies will eventually get to one of several bloody endings in hopes of finding the real truth behind why you’re there. The prose can get a little flowery, but the story is well worth your time.

How to play it: Your only option is DS. Also, be prepared to play through the game multiple times in order to complete it. (Don’t worry: you can fast forward through text you’ve already seen.) Use this handy flowchart if you don’t want to accidentally repeat any endings.

Five Visual Novels You Must Play, Even If You Don’t Like Anime

4) Virtue’s Last Reward

Why: The sequel to 999 and my favourite game of 2012, Virtue’s Last Reward ramps up the horror and mindfuckery to tell yet another story about people trapped in a terrifying place where death seems inevitable. VLR fixes the shortcomings of its predecessor — no more repeating puzzles! — and tells an even better story.

How to play it: You can get it on either 3DS or Vita, though some people have reported a save-erasing bug in the 3DS version, so I’d recommend Vita. I’d also recommend playing 999 first.

Five Visual Novels You Must Play, Even If You Don’t Like Anime

5) Hotel Dusk

Why: Before Rockstar took the plunge into pulp with L.A. Noire, there was Hotel Dusk, a quiet DS game about a hardboiled detective named Kyle Hyde. Though Hyde’s mystery isn’t quite as shocking or groundbreaking as some of the others on this list, it’s still one heck of a story, full of darkness, regret, and all the other tropes we’ve come to expect from a good noir. Plus, it all looks like that one A-ha video.

How to play it: You can get Hotel Dusk on DS and play it either on a DS or 3DS.


  • Loved Ace Attorney at first, but the game design falls apart when they try to scale it for difficulty by adding more evidence to the point where it becomes tedious, and it can be unforgiving when your logic doesn’t match the game’s logic. I’d still recommend it, but you’ll hit a wall at some point where it becomes too much.

    • I loved the first game, in the middle of the second game I hit a point where what I wanted to do wouldn’t fit in with what the game wanted me to do an I had to google for some answers, got a bit monotonous too at that point. I’ll revisit it later.

    • Gotta admit though, after fingering through all the evidence and learning every in and out of the case, it feels so good to deliver that final objection.

  • 999 is available as a visual novel with no game elements on iOS. You still have to play through all the endings before they all open by reading and rereading using the flowchart. I stopped playing Virtue’s Last Reward when I found 999 on iOS and then finished it up, well worth it, and saved me tracking down a DS and a copy of 999.

  • I absolutely recommend this list I would say out of all of them Danganronpa has the most anime tropes and might be off putting for people that dislike anime.

    Try to play 999 before Virtues Last Reward as the stories are connected. Not in an essential way but I ended up playing Virtues Last Reward before even knowing about 999 and it pretty much spoiled the story for me.

  • Hotel Dusk is so, so good. Man, I just loved Kyle so much. What a great, flawed character. The follow up, The Last Window, was pretty decent too, but man. I remember the balmy summer I spent sleuthing that hotel so well.

  • Also worth noting that the first 3 Phoenix Wright games are on iOS and also have a free demo of the first case

  • Danganronpa is awesome. Trying to figure out what happened in the cases before the case actually starts was so fun.

  • Really enjoyed Hotel Dusk, actually playing through the follow up as we speak, hopefully they can relaunch Kyle Hyde’s story for the 3DS, might be time to check out the others on the list!

  • When you think of the term “visual novel”, you probably think of dating simulators stuffed full of anime tropes and hentai scenes. I am here to convince you that this is wrong.

    B-but the best ones have H scenes ;_; muh Katawa Shoujo.

    • I’ve watched a lot of anime, and visual novels have a very definite stereotype in my mind from that, so I was pretty skeptical when I ‘played’ (read) Katawa Shoujo as my first one, but damn was I surprised.
      Some of the writing was outright horrible, betraying the fact of multiple authors, but the majority of it impressed me greatly, dragged me along for several pretty tense days.

  • Played through 999 multiple times on DS and adored it. Got balls deep into Virtue’s Last Reward on 3DS, untiI encountered that dreaded save file bug. I didn’t have the heart to start over, so I’m biding my time till I can bring myself to start again.

  • Hmm, what about both guilty gear series & blazblue (including xblaze & soon to be sequel), I mean they are both fighting games & visual novels, what makes them both good visual novel series is that it is not the combat that helps with the story, but the choices in dialogue you make. Plus there is that visual novel series patricia did some articles on based on a suicidal AI & former genocidal AI. Plus there is when they cry, a very disturbing visual novel, which has the time loop feature later used in blazblu. There is also the bible black series, a very evil looking visual novel series, which makes people want to brain bleach their eyes from watching some scenes, akin to the elclipse arc of beserk. Yeah there are some good ones out there.

    • It’s the same ‘remake’ as the ios one that came out. I’m personally not a fan of it at all and prefer the original sprites any day, but some people prefer this so *shrugs*

      • I haven’t seen those ios remakes. Though the only one I don’t already own is the original game. Might feel safe giving it a miss, then. Thanks!

        • The original is definitely worthwhile though, some great cases, one of which is easily one of my favourite cases – the final one they did for the DS version. Its a mammoth 5 day long case (iirc) with many great moments. Should track it down if you can! First game always has relatively low priced copies on ebay from my experience.

  • Tried to get into Phoenix Wright: DD, but I’m impatient, and text scrolling/typing is distracting. Don’t suppose there’s a way to disable character animations and text scrolling? I know you can press A to get past the text typing thing, but that’s RSI-inducing after about five minutes or so. And it still means waiting for canned OTT animations to finish before I can continue reading…

  • Another code on ds and wii are worth checking out think its the same people who made hotel dusk. Also broken sword

  • Played the Virtue’s Last Reward demo and I can safely say visual novels bore me to tears. There’s only so much of talking portraits I can take before needing gameplay, any form of minigames. I’d even take badly implemented QTE to break up the monotony.

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