DISCLAIMER – Visual novels have a history of containing adult content intended for audiences of eighteen years or older. These types of visual novels, called “eroge” because they contain erotic content, are marked throughout the article. We made selections based on the strength of narrative rather then discriminating based on the inclusion of adult content. We recommend you do your research if that content is a concern, as most of these titles have options to remove any adult content from the game. In some cases this may affect important storyline aspects, and in some cases may replace an intimate scene between two characters with a CG-animated dragon that makes literally zero sense, but the choice is yours. In addition, as most of these titles were never released or licensed out of Japan, the translations are available for the most part at the unbeatable price of free. So have fun!
Visual Novels are a video game genre that has never quite left it’s roots in Japan. As the name implies, they are basically books with little gameplay, lots of reading, but with the added benefit of music and artwork. Due to fans, English-speakers like us have had access to a great many of them through translations. With that in mind, Eric Van Allen and I have decided to jump in here you provide you a guide to our very favorite visual novels as well as offer our experiences with them. Not all of them are translations of course, but a great many of them are. Whether you’re a long time fan looking for a new read, or a beginner who wants to know what all our buzz is about, you’ll find some of our recommendations here.
Now what do you say we kick this off?
” My personal experience with Visual Novel’s kicks off way back in the year 2012 with the first, and some would argue best, piece of Key’s Holy Trinity of visual novels… Clannad. This came soon after the first time I ever watched the anime adaptation, which was so powerful to me I just had to get a shot at the source material. Hours later, I was a fan of visual novels. Over the past three years I have read visual novels off-and-on, with most of them providing extremely engrossing storytelling whenever I got bored of my traditional games. 2014 was a particularly big year for me, as thanks to the boredom of the releases I finished one after another. Danganronpa, 999, Fate/stay night, and Devil on the G-String were the four that kept me really entertained. I feel people really underestimate the power of this genre as a storytelling format. It doesn’t require an enormous budget or even voice acting to tell a good story in a VN, and I can’t wait to see what world they bring me to next or what characters they introduce me to. Also just go read Devil on the G-String if you like Thrillers, you’ll really enjoy it. I know I did! It’s my favorite just in-case you were wondering. ” – Niko DelValle, Editor
” My first experience with visual novels was Katawa Shoujo. It had been making the rounds on most gaming communities, and I figured it was likely an experience I shouldn’t miss. Amazed by the character depth and stories that could be told, as well as the possibilities of the format itself, I took a deep breath and dove in. Over the next few years, I experienced some of the best stories I’ve read in gaming: 999, Steins;Gate, Fate/Stay Night, and of course Muv-Luv. I was hooked for a good amount of time, and amazed. While I cooled on the genre for a while, this last year has made me excited for a new surge of visual novel development in the US. Danganronpa has shown that VNs can continue to see critical success, anime adaptations for major titles like Fate/Stay Night, and grassroots movements like the Kickstarters for Clannad and the Grisaia series are creating a swelling fanbase for the genre. I hope that anyone toeing the waters can find something they enjoy in this article, and I envy those about to jump into such profound experiences for the first time. Now stop reading this and go start reading Muv-Luv. Now. Right now. Go. After reading this of course, and checking out my piece on visual novels. ” – Eric Van Allen, Editor
Now without further ado, let’s kick off the guide. We’ve conveniently sorted them into tiers based on how experienced you are with visual novels to make sure you find the very best for you. Beginner means these titles are recommended to total visual novel noobies, Advanced for those still relatively new to them, Expert for those who have the time and endurance to read through the very longest ones, and an honorary mentions tier for the games that are a lot like visual novels but have actual gameplay.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide of every visual novel in existence, if you want to see some more visual novels, download the ones we suggested, or even find out more about VN’s… you should check out info on every VN ever released over at VNDB. I can’t express my thanks enough for the people who work hard to bring us these things! We would’ve never read some of our favorite visual novels without these hard-working fans!
Rewrite – Eroge: No – Rewrite is an oddity among Key developer VN’s in that it’s atmosphere can be really varied. I also think it’s probably one of the best visual novels for beginners, not only because of this, but because it’s individual routes aren’t really all that long. Put them all together and it’s actually Key’s longest Visual Novel to date. It’s a great VN to start with because it has a lot of different stories by different writers, allowing you to see a lot of the different ways these products can function. There’s a route for you in here whether you want to save the world or fall in love. Even if the quality of the routes isn’t exactly spectacular, it’s definitely a good way to sample the different elements of the genre even if you won’t really remember it once you move on to better visual novels. – Niko DelValle, Editor
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc + Super Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair – Eroge: No – Hope’s Peak Academy, the most successful school in the world whose graduates, all top in their field, are guaranteed to do well in life after graduation. Makoto Naegi has no talents, but pure luck has given him the chance of a lifetime to attend. Yet after arrival, he is knocked unconscious and wakes up inside a boarded-up Hope’s Peak. The enigmatic mastermind of this scheme, a devilish teddy bear, appears in front of Makoto and the 14 others gathered in Hope’s Peak, and informs them they have an ultimatum: live the rest of their days in the locked-down school, or murder one of their fellow students and escape conviction in the ensuing school trial. A mix of social sim, thriller and murder-mystery, both Danganronpa and its sequel are must-own titles on the Vita, and a perfect example of how mechanics like contained debates and minigames can add to the atmosphere of a visual novel. Fans of suspense and intrigue need look no further than Danganronpa. – Eric Van Allen, Editor
Katawa Shoujo – Eroge: Yes – Katawa Shoujo was a recipe for disaster. The idea was started on 4chan along with it’s developer, based on sketches that proposed the life of a boy with a heart disease attending a school for the disabled. As such, Katawa Shoujo has you romancing girls with disabilities. Yet… this recipe for disaster ended up turning into a really good slice-of-life visual novel. The romance which could’ve been really offensive due to all the girls being disabled in one way or another ends up being touching and heartwarming. There is one particular route I despise (it’s Shizune’s), but in the end the Japanese who automatically profiled this game as bad based on the title (which contains an offensive word meaning “cripple” in Japanese) are missing out on one of the better visual novels out there. – Niko DelValle, Editor
999: Nine Doors, Nine Persons, Nine Doors / Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward – Eroge: No – 999 is an interesting beast of a visual novel. It has quite a few routes, it’s easy to stumble on the bad endings, and it’s premise is just as awesome as it’s predecessor Ever 17. It even has you stuck on a boat, so apparently the writer for these really likes water because Ever 17 takes place under the ocean. Anyways, 999 is what I think Ever 17 could’ve been if it was executed better. The twists are mind-blowing, the mystery is really interesting, and it mixes in fact with fiction to offer some brilliant atmosphere. I’ve never actually played Zero Escape (which is 999’s sequel), but if 999 is any example, it’s probably a must-play among Visual Novels just like it’s predecessor is. – Niko DelValle, Editor
Long Live the Queen – Eroge: No – A title that garnered a following as a sleeper Steam sale hit, Long Live the Queen places you in the shoes of Elodie, a princess suddenly thrust into queen training when her mother passes away. You must manage your kingdom, train in areas and skills to benefit your rule and inform decisions, and avoid many different assassination attempts and other deadly dangers. It runs pretty short – one run of the game will probably take close to an hour at most – but there’s a plethora of situations to encounter and endings to achieve. A strange mix of roguelike mechanics, stat building and ruler simulation, Long Live the Queen is a fascinating title that bodes well for future American VN production. – EricVan Allen, Editor
The Key Holy Trinity – Eroge: No (when it comes to Clannad) Yes (when it comes to the other two) – The “Key Holy Trinity” as fans affectionately call it consists of three visual novels. Clannad, Air, and Kanon. If you’ve ever watched the anime for any of these visual novels, you’ll know what you’re getting into with these things. I consider “get ready to board the feel train” the most apt description I could give to the Key Holy Trinity. It has what can be extremely sad routes with really interesting characters. If you decide to read these or even just watch the anime, remember that it will usually get better in the end! So hug yourself and persevere through the emotions! – Niko DelValle, Editor
Steins;Gate – Eroge: No – Time travel, green bananas, and crazy scientists. Steins;gate is considered a modern classic for a reason; the story is brilliant, with a slow build up to emotional high points before letting off the brakes and going crazy. Kyouma is a fantastic protagonist, and the interactions between characters drive the first half of the novel, and add a lot of emotional weight to the plot-heavy second half. The routes are thankfully easy to follow as well, and there’s very few flag checks or obscure point requirements. Bouncing through time, fixing paradoxes and problems, and developing realistic relationships, Steins;Gate is a good entry point to “story-heavy” visual novels, and many moments will stick with you long after you finish. – Eric Van Allen, Editor
Saya no Uta / Song of Saya – Eroge: Yes – Most VNs on this list are emotional stories. They tend to evoke romantic ideals, touching moments between characters as they come together through adversity and find a deeper understanding. The Song of Saya is like the American Horror Story of visual novels; written by Gen Urobuchi, Saya no Uta is a story about Fuminori, a boy who loses his parents in a car accident, and forces him to undergo brain surgery to stay alive. The surgery gives him a rare disorder – he sees the whole world as a disgusting, grotesque nightmare. In his eyes, the streets are filled with blood and organs, his friends are hideous monsters, and every piece of food he eats makes him unbearably nauseous. The only thing that still appears beautiful to him? A girl named Saya, who appears to him in the hospital and becomes his only solace. This is a story with no happy ending. Blood will be shed, horrors will occur, and no conclusion ends satisfactorily for all involved. Song of Saya is about the tragedies of life, and the macabre beauty that can be found in these situations. – Eric Van Allen, Editor
Fate/Stay Night and /Hollow Ataraxia – Eroge: Yes – Fate/stay night is definitely a visual novel you don’t trifle with. It took me 65 hours to finish this monstrous VN and it’s three routes (that contain 6 different endings). But you know what? I enjoyed every second. Each of it’s routes have more or less completely different atmospheres, and it puts you through a definite ringer of different emotions. One route will have you excited at all the high points for it’s compelling action, another will have you holding back tears at the tragedy that is the main heroine, and another will have you smiling at the fun romance. Then you’ll move onto Hollow Ataraxia which is just as long if not longer then Stay Night and enjoy it’s little groundhog day story. I enjoy this one a bit more because the pacing is really up to you. Anyways… Fate may be long, but it’s well worth your time if you have the endurance to read the whole thing. Just try not to get too annoyed that your protagonist is a complete idiot most of the time. – Niko DelValle, Editor
Devil on the G-String/G Senjou No Maou – Eroge: Yes – Devil on the G-String is special. It tells a story more or less unlike most if not all VN’s I’ve ever read. It’s funny because when I first started reading this, I didn’t like it much. The protagonist is a real douchebag so it made it hard to sympathize with the person whose eyes I was seeing the story from. Yet, as the story progresses, you realize that it’s a real masterstroke. The writing is fantastic, the characters are fantastic, the thriller and mystery aspects of the story are really well done, the music is good, and Haru is my favorite VN heroine ever. The other heroine’s in this story get neglected, but the focus the story gains as a result is really great as long as you stay on the true path. I frequently call Devil on the G-String the Death Note of visual novels, it’s just that good. So read it. – Niko DelValle, Editor
Muv-Luv Trilogy – Eroge: Yes – Ah, Muv-Luv. It’s almost a disservice to attempt to explain Muv-Luv in such a small space. With a word count higher than most literary series, the three titles (Extra, Unlimited, Alternative) number among, in my opinion, some of the best stories told in gaming. Extra starts as an innocent teen rom-com romp; the main character, Takeru, is torn between his childhood friend Sumika, and a rich girl who appears in his bed one morning, claiming that she is his wife-to-be. Unlimited starts, and Takeru awakes in his room to find the world has changed. His neighborhood looks like a warzone, and his school has become a UN headquarters. Aliens called the BETA have invaded and laid waste to most of the planet. What ensues in Unlimited, and the finale Alternative, is a story of sacrifice, bravery, heroism and the desperate fight to give anything for the ones you love. I could wax poetic about Muv-Luv for days, but to make sure I don’t monopolize the entire article, I will simply say I cannot recommend this enough to fans of the genre. While there are barriers to entry, in both acquiring the games themselves and reading the massive amount of content, the payoff is well worth the investment. If you ever find the chance to tackle this series, don’t think twice. Just hop on and enjoy the roller coaster ride of Muv-Luv. – Eric Van Allen, Editor
Persona 4: Golden – Eroge: No – Persona is probably one of the most popular Japanese RPG series in the west… and contained on one of the most unappreciated platforms in existence, the PlayStation Vita, is the gem that is Persona 4 Golden. It has the story and characters that you see in VN’s, but it also comes with impressively addicting dungeon-crawling and of course the grind. Golden was the first game I bought for my Vita, and I can never seem to get enough of it. If you end up liking it, you might want to look into the series past to play the arguably better (from my point of view at least) Persona 3 Portable. – Niko Delvalle, Editor
Fire Emblem: Awakening – Eroge: No – The Fire Emblem series has long been one of my favorite of Nintendo’s franchises. The perfect blend of strategy and RPG, Awakening added social elements commonly found in visual novels to add a layer of depth beyond previous entries. The result is that characters have a deeper tie to the player than just stats and appearance, and the permadeath is that much more terrifying. After every battle, you’re eager to see your units bond and connect, whether it’s over training for combat or something silly, like Tharja’s delightfully awkward encounters with the player’s avatar. It makes every sword swing more terrifying, as you worry that it could end the life of not a unit, but a key character in your army, one that has a story and other characters that care about him. Awakening is already, mechanically, one of the best Fire Emblems, but the VN elements elevate it heads and toes above the rest. If you own a 3DS, do yourself a favor and pick this up. – Eric Van Allen, Editor