As of late, “visual novel” games have been getting a lot of attention from mainstream media outlets. One thing that most outlets fail to realize and express is that most gamers have had limited exposure to visual novels. With this limited exposure come misunderstandings about visual novels. An example of this is the notion that visual novels are all hentai games about school girls getting felt up by guys, tentacle monsters or even both. While there are some games like that, many visual novels actually focus on the story first. There are even some visual novels even may sound violent in nature, but in reality rarely show gore and instead use a combination of excellent voice acting, mood music and a very descriptive script to tell a compelling story.
I would like to share with you a couple of visual novels that I have played that I highly recommend for those who are curious about visual novels. Now as a warning: all of these titles have adult content that can be compared to a hard R-rated movie in terms of violence, adult themes/situations, language and tobacco/alcohol use. As in anime, just because a game has cutesy anime characters does not mean that it is are meant for children. Also these visual novels are in no particular order in terms of which one is the best. These are just ones that I think that average gamers new to visual novels might enjoy. With that said, on to the first recommendation:
Hakuoki Demon of the Fleeting Blossom (Aksys Games) - A girl searching for her father, samurai fighting out in the streets during an age of drastic change and bloodthirsty demon/vampires running amuck. What more can you ask for in a story? I recently reviewed this otome visual novel and was pleasantly surprised. Hakuoki takes place during the final years of the Bakumatsu era, when Japan was transitioning from a Shogunate to having an Emperor as the main ruler of Japan. It stars Chizuru Yukimura as she enters the secretive world of the Shinsengumi (a special security force formed during the period) to search for her father. It is here where she can fall in love with one of six historical members of the Wolves of Mibu and learn the truth of her father’s involvement with them. The game (and sub-genre) itself is the first of its kind to make it to the US on a portable system and is a great way to introduce those who are not familiar with visual novels as well as the otome genre (see the review for more details). There may be some issues with understanding the mannerisms and translation of Japanese into English, but the in-game encyclopedia is there to help. Don’t let the sub-genre (otome means ‘maiden game’) discourage you from experiencing a semi-fictional account of the last days of the samurai and the Shinsengumi.
Corpse Party (XSEED) - We all like a good horror game, right? Getting scared by what goes bump in the night, monsters, zombies or some other unholy abomination. What if you couldn’t see what was chasing you, though? What if you couldn’t escape and your mind started racing, thinking “I’m never getting out of here?” You feel a cold black aura surrounding you, suffocating you and dragging you into madness. Friends start to go mad and do things that you never thought they would just to survive a bit longer. This is Corpse Party. And to be honest, it freaked me out so much that after the first night of playing it, I couldn’t sleep. I mentioned in my review that the game used binaural recordings, giving players the sensation that they are in the same room as the characters. Thus, every creaking floor board, every gasping breath and every breaking bone is heard as if you are right there. Combined with the audio effects is a story about the vengeful ghosts of school children who are dragging a class of innocent students into a literal hell. Don’t let this game’s 16 bit graphics and chibi-looking characters fool you, because once this game has you in its grasp, it won’t let you go.
Fate/stay Night (Type Moon) - This is the one that got me interested in the visual novel genre a few years ago. If most of what I am about to say sounds familiar, it’s because Fate/stay night inspired the spin off visual novel/RPG hybrid Fate/extra. Fate/stay night stars Shiro Emiya, a high school-age amateur mechanic who possesses some magical abilities. One night he witnesses a battle for the Holy Grail between two Servants and is discovered. Due to the secrecy of the Holy Grail War, those who are not a part of the war must be silenced should they witness it. Shrio is attacked twice, at first coming close to death. During the second attack he inadvertently summons a Servant Saber and is dragged into the centuries old war for the Holy Grail. What is great about Fate/stay Night are the complex branching paths that the game has. Now you may be thinking, “Well, what’s so special about that? Don’t all visual novels and games have branching paths?” Yes they do, but not quite like this. Fate spans a time period of two weeks and within those two weeks are three separate, self-contained paths: Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heaven’s Feel. These three represent the three female leads in the game and have multiple ends within themselves, making for a really complex visual novel. You feel for Shiro and his friends, as he is unwilling to risk his friend’s lives in a war that he doesn’t want a part of, yet he feels compelled to protect them when they’re in trouble. There is only one really major downside to the game, and that’s the price. The game is commercially available through import sites like J-List, but it will cost you to import it. There also the issue of language, since the game itself is in Japanese, but this is easily remedied with a fan translated patch release by mirror moon. I was lucky enough to have a friend who gave me their copy after they didn’t want it any more, but if you can find a copy at your local import shop or at a con, pick it up.
Katawa Shoujo (Four Leaf Studios) - The last visual novel I want to highlight made waves a few months back and I believe that it and its creators deserve to be highlighted again. At first glance, you would think that Katawa Shoujo was just your another visual novel. A guy having to pick between five girls, you know, standard stuff. What’s not so standard is the subject matter of the game and the team behind it. Four Leaf Studios, the creators of Katawa Shoujo, was formed out of the entity known as the /a/ boards of 4chan. Yeah, that 4chan; home of memes, flame wars, Anno, and other things that creep around the internet. The writers, programmers and artists that made up Four Leaf Studios joined together after seeing an image from doujinshi artist Raita showing a group of disabled girls. Yeah, disabled girls with conditions such as burned skin, blindness, deafness, mutes, prosthetic legs and arms. I was in shock just as much as anyone when I heard about this, however once I read about the studio’s motivation for creating the game and you sit down and actually get to know each of these girls, you really feel for them.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. Let’s start with the character you play as. In the game you are Hisao Nakai, a seemingly normal third year student. One day you are called out behind the school by your crush. As you are standing out there in the cold winter snow, she starts to tell you how she feels. Your heart races for joy as the one you were crushing on is confessing her feelings to you. But then something feels wrong. Your heart starts to pound faster, to the point where it hurts. This doesn’t feel right. Being told “I love you” isn’t supposed to hurt this much, you think to yourself, as your vision blurs and you pass out. You wake up in a hospital to find out that you had a heart attack and have been diagnosed with cardiac dysrhythmia, an incurable and life threatening condition. You soon are told that any strain on the heart, be it physical or emotional, will trigger another heart attack and be possibly fatal. Months pass as you are released from the hospital and transferred to a school for the disabled. Here is where you meet the girls and understand the problem Hisao has. I could go on about this game, but it is best that you experience it for yourself. Once you get to know these girls, you feel for them, and want to protect them and help them as much as you can despite your character’s condition. But don’t let their looks or disabilities fool you, these women are very strong and capable. You can get Katawa Shoujo for free from the Four Leaf Studio website. I strongly recommend it, if nothing else you can see how the power of the internet can have individuals from different walks of life come together to create a tear jerker.
Visual novels are much more than what the average gamer might perceive them as. They are not just about sex and violence. Visual novels are about experiencing a story through the viewpoints of a multitude of characters that you will come to care for. Like any book, a visual novel may send you to a time of honorable warriors of the past, to a haunted school of vengeful ghosts. You may be drawn into a war that you want no part in, and into a possible relationship that could kill you. While they often have zero to very little gameplay, visual novels show that sometimes a good cast of characters, an engaging story and quality audio are all that you need to enjoy an experience. If you are curious about visual novels, picking any one of the titles I mentioned above would provide a good starting point.