Visual novels are not as uncommon as one may think. There are many role-playing games such as the Persona series and Sakura Wars that implement aspects of the genre into the development of the story and characters. But games that are purely visual novels fall into a niche category as the major focus is the story. Playing a visual novel game means doing a lot of reading with some possible choices to affect the ultimate outcomes along the way. This is not a genre that is based in action. Probably the best way to describe visual novels is to say it is the equivalent of reading an interactive book that also happens to be a video game. It’s a more visually appealing, interactive manga. I do believe you should enjoy reading to some extent to get into this gaming genre.
So what got me into visual novels? Learning that my favorite anime, STEINS;GATE, had video game counterparts. The more I investigated the visual novels based on the popular time travel anime, the more interested in them I became. Many visual novel ranking sites either rank STEINS;GATE as the top visual novel or at least in their top five. Without spoiling the story, the gist of it revolves around a character named Okabe Rintaro, who can travel between different timelines. As he is attending a seminar with his childhood friend, Mayuri, there are a series of events that occur eventually leading him to discover a young woman’s body lying in a pool of blood. Things really start getting interesting from there leading to an unforgettable journey through time.
My first visual novel was STEINS;GATE 0 in late 2018. It is the sequel of the original Stein’s Gate visual novel and the second season of the anime series. The anime version of STEINS;GATE 0 had also come out the same year. I found myself going back and forth between the two because I wanted to spot the differences. What impressed me about the visual novel was that it had tons of content and storyline possibilities that the anime never explored. As much as I enjoyed the anime version, I felt it was lacking compared to the visual novel. I ended up feeling much more invested in the STEINS;GATE 0 game as a result. Even though my playthrough led to a bad ending, I still felt that I had been taken on an enjoyable rollercoaster ride that the anime couldn’t replicate.
The same was true with Persona 4 and Persona 5. Both games have tremendous depth in story and character development that also allow for the player to make a variety of choices to influence the narrative to a certain degree. With anime, you are more of a passive viewer of what is going on. Not to mention that while television shows have a set amount of episodes within set time frames, video games do not possess those types of limitations. You can easily spend more than 100 hours playing Persona 5. But the anime has the task of taking all of that content and condensing it into less than 30 episodes that are around 24 minutes apiece. Many people may not consider the Persona games as visual novels, but the parts of the game where you build your bonds with other characters are very much visual novel based.
After playing Stein’s Gate 0, I then came across AI: The Somnium Files. This ended up being my favorite visual novel to date. It’s a futuristic murder mystery where the player takes on the role of detective Kaname Date as he seeks to solve a case involving a serial killer that continuously eludes him. It is very interactive for a visual novel. You make choices, investigate crime scenes, and even use your AI companion to examine the subconsciousness of witnesses while they’re in a dream state. AI: The Somnium Files has multiple branches that can lead to various endings. This encourages players to replay the game. AI: The Somnium Files has my highest recommendation for a visual novel and one of the best games to play if you’re starting in the genre.
I must mention the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy. When I had first heard of the Phoenix Wright series a long time ago, I had always dismissed it as a silly set of games that weren’t worth my time. Then there was a day several years ago that I found myself watching a gameplay video on it for hours. I then ended up playing it a little bit on the Nintendo DS before purchasing the trilogy on the Nintendo Switch. Yes, it is a wacky game that revolves around a lawyer and the cases he takes on with some outlandish characters. But that is really what gives it its charm. If you embrace what the game is and don’t try to read too much into what a real courtroom setting looks and acts like, then the games are very entertaining and relaxing to play. I’m having a great time.
Lastly, I want to point out a visual novel I recently finished called Ace Academy by PixelFade. It’s a slice-of-life, part dating-sim game available on Steam that revolves around a guy who just recently moved from the United States to Japan with his sister to enroll in the prestigious Ace Academy. Along the way, he meets a group of students (mainly female) that he can have deeper connections with. The game was a delight to play with great artwork, voice acting, and lots of choices for a visual novel game. I also appreciated that there was a narrative that went further than just the dating sim parts of the game. And kudos to PixelFade for having more tact and respect with how they handled the dating sim parts of the game because there are lots of games out there with dating sim elements that descend into raunchiness. Dating was tastefully done in this game and I appreciate that. Overall, this game was a great package.
I’m come to appreciate the visual novel genre. Part of it could be that I naturally love to read. This is definitely not a gaming genre for gamers who do not like the read because visual novels are dominated by text. I also appreciate the complete package of a visual novel. There’s text to read with artwork and music to support it. The higher-budgeted visual novels can also include voice acting and fully animated scenes. It’s a unique experience in gaming and I tend to enjoy visual novels when I want a more calming and relaxing gaming session. And if you’re already a person who regularly reads books and mangas, then visual novels may be worth a try.