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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.