Since 1983, the visual novel genre has produced a variety of diverse and innovative games. From romantic simulations to science-fiction mysteries, the genre has had so many different types of games that it is hard to narrow it down to a single definition.
The broadness makes it difficult to know which games to play, especially if the player is new to the genre. Among the many visual novels that have been released, there are some that stand out among the rest. These gems show the best aspects of the genre and what makes it so popular to this day.
10 Hotel Dusk: Room 215
Released in 2007 for the Nintendo DS, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a mystery visual novel that follows Kyle Hyde, a former New York City detective, as he explores the motel called Hotel Dusk in 1979 Los Angeles. While there was a sequel to this game called Last Window: The Secret of Cape West, this sequel never came to North America because the developer, CiNG, went bankrupt.
For this game, the DS’s dual screens are used equally with the touch screen being a way for the player to interact with the environment, solve puzzles and move around while the other screen shows character portraits and biographies. In addition, some puzzles require the player to use the microphone or even close the DS lid, making Hotel Dusk: Room 215 one of the few games to take advantage of the DS’s many features.
9 Hatoful Boyfriend
With the prevalence of romance visual novels, some recent ones have tried to play with the typical romantic sim structure to make something new and unexpected. One prevalent example is Hatoful Boyfriend, which is a 2011 flash visual novel game that featured a female protagonist romancing multiple male characters, who also happen to be pigeons.
The main heroine is a human who attends a school for pigeons. While absurd, the first half of the game is mostly a romantic comedy where each of the pigeons is on a different route. As the player continues to complete the routes, they discover that there is something wrong going on behind the scenes. With the sequel, Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star, and other extra content, Hatoful Boyfriend can easily get players invested in a world of birds.
While the famous video game director Hideo Kojima is mostly known for the Metal Gear franchise and the recent video game Death Stranding, he also created a visual novel game during his early career. Released in 1994 for the PC-9821, Policenauts is a mystery science fiction story about a detective and former astronaut named Jonathan Ingram as he investigates a space colony.
Policenauts takes the point-and-click gameplay and extensive story of Kojima’s other visual novel game Snatcher and takes it to the next level. While the gameplay of Policenauts is much more linear compared to Snatcher, the gameplay feels smoother and the game uses higher-quality graphics. The plot of Policenauts is also longer and has a more detailed in-game universe.
7 Umineko When They Cry
Umineko When They Cry is a series of mystery visual novels that are told entirely through text without any dialogue choices or branching paths. Besides some portions of the final entry, the reader can only advance the text and access hints about the plot. The game aspect is the reader being challenged by the author to discover the mysteries as the story progresses.
The game focuses on a group of 18 people who visit a secluded island and get mysteriously murdered one by one, and the player needs to find out if this was done by supernatural forces. As part of the When They Cry franchise, the series has had a major impact on both other visual novels and anime.
6 Your Turn To Die -Death Game By Majority
Your Turn To Die -Death Game By Majority is an episodic horror visual novel that began in 2017 and is still ongoing. With a plot similar to the 2000 movie Battle Royale, the game follows high schooler Sara Chidouin as she gets trapped in a facility and forced to compete in a “death game” where the majority votes determine who lives and who dies.
While inspired by previous well-known visual novel franchises, the game adds its own charm by using different games in each chapter such as escape the room puzzles and various minigames. Also, the unique art style and characters keep the player invested during the long story.
5 VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
Sometimes, actions speak louder than words, or, in the case of this game, drinks speak louder than words. VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a 2016 indie visual novel cyberpunk dystopian bartending sim. A spiritual sister to the possible GOTY contender Cyberpunk 2077, the player takes on the role of Jill, who is a bartender at a small establishment called “VA-11 HALL-A.”
Instead of selecting dialogue options, the player determines the direction of the story by mixing certain drinks for certain characters who visit the bar. If the player makes the correct drinks, then they will succeed in getting the special endings with the characters.
4 The Portopia Serial Murder Case
No discussion of visual novels is complete without the game that started it all: The Portopia Serial Murder Case. Released in 1983 for the NEC PC-6001, the game follows an unnamed detective as he tries to uncover who killed a bank president.
Besides starting the visual novel genre, the game is also well-regarded for having gameplay mechanics way ahead of its time. Although the player cannot save and there is no music, the game does have a large open world with many characters the player can talk to and even call on the phone in-game.
In 2010, Spike Chunsoft released Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc for the PSP, and since then this series has become one of the most popular visual novel franchises and has influenced many other games. These murder mystery games center around an elite high school, called Hope’s Peak Academy, where a group of talented students are chosen and later forced to murder each other.
Along with the unique art style and characters, these games are known for having a mix of several different gameplay styles. During the “Daily Life” segments, the game is mostly a visual novel where the various characters interact, but, once a murder has occurred, the game switches to the “Deadly Life” segment where players must investigate the crime scene and gather clues. Finally, the chapter ends with a “Class Trial” where players need to deduce who the killer is. This diversity of gameplay is what makes the game and the series the best in the genre and why fans are eager to see if there will be a Danganronpa 4.
2 Ace Attorney
With over 8.2 million copies sold, the Ace Attorney franchise is one of the most best-selling visual novel games in history. The series typically centers around a defense attorney named Phoenix Wright as he tries to solve mysteries and win a “Not Guilty” verdict for his clients. After the release of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney in 2001, the franchise has had countless sequels, spin-offs, and adaptations.
While each of the games has its own unique mechanics, most of them are split up into two main sections. During the investigative segments, the player visits crime scenes gather evidence and talks to other characters. In the court segments, the player cross-examines other characters, submits evidence, and makes dialogue choices. The methodical evidence presentation, combined with the over-the-top cases that leave gamers guessing until the end, make Ace Attorney one of the most enjoyable visual novels in addition to the most popular title in the genre.
1 Zero Escape
Back in 1996, the visual novel YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World was released for the NEC PC-98. The game is considered an important part of the history of visual novels since it introduced many genre tropes that have continued to this day. Years later, the science fiction mystery series, Zero Escape, took many of these concepts and brought it all to another level.
The games follow a group of individuals who are trapped in a facility by a person named “Zero,” and are forced to play deadly games. In between visual novel sections, players will have to solve riddles and escape-the-room puzzles. Similar to YU-NO, the games require the player to travel through time to explore different paths, and they focus on multiple scientific theories.