So you want to read a visual novel?
Last updated: 9 May 2019 - added stef’s review for Higurashi Chapter 1.
The visual novel genre can be pretty hard to get into for a myriad of reasons - it’s not really that ‘game-y’, they’re a fast way to make crappy games, they can look off-putting, there’s a lot of genre conventions that can be difficult to get used to, and a lot of them are just… they’re porn. It’s pretty much just porn. But there’s a lot of good stuff about the genre, too! Relaxing gameplay, in-depth worlds and characters, nice exploration of feelings and some pretty cute kissing scenes, too c;
There’s been a few people on BLAEO who seemed interested in visual novels, but perhaps started off with the wrong one. I’m hoping that this post can be a place I can link back to and continue to curate for people who want to get into visual novels but don’t quite know where to start. There are other worthwhile VNs than what I’ve posted here, but here are all the ones that I found somethin’ special.
That “somethin’ special” is, of course, very subjective, and as I’ve built the list I’ve found myself adding some… hmm… questionable entries (like Everlasting Summer, BAD END, or Pub Encounter). I wanted to just clarify their place here on this list:
This list has become, in my eyes, a good overview of the genre in all aspects, that run a huge gamut. Trashy goofy fun games, male and female targeted, are part of that gamut and, to be honest, are probably what people have heard of if they’ve heard of visual novels. If you’re GONNA dip into galgames, or otomes, I reckon, it might as well be these ones. Popcorn and cotton candy are just as important as coq au vin, and I want that represented here.
Some context: I am a bisexual woman who does not find sexism, the exploitation of women ESPECIALLY underaged girls, and lack of consent appealing or sexy in the least. I have a preference for female narrators and emotional intimacy and a bias against male narrators and things that are clearly just there for erotic material. I like erotic material, but there has to be more effort put in than ‘titties and moaning’.
An additional note: I include ‘VN+’ games in this list. These are games with an additional gameplay mechanic beyond making choices and reading, like the investigation/trial mechanics in Ace Attorney or the drink mixing mechanic in Va11 Hall-A or the escape-the-room puzzles in the Zero Escape series.
Click the accompanying picture to be taken to each VN’s webpage. If you’d ever be interested in the full scope of VNs I’ve played, here’s my VNDB rankings.
With that in mind, what VNs would I recommend? Well, in no particular order…
“Welcome to 1bitHeart―the latest title from Alicemare and LiEat developer △○□× (Miwashiba). In this unique and endearing adventure game, take on the role of Nanashi, a lonely, agoraphobic boy, as you solve a slew of mysteries around town while also making friends.”
VN+ - Male protagonist - Friend Making Simulator! - Three endings + 1 post-game episode - Futuristic - Hip and Happenin’ - Great Production Value
“A dark visual mystery novel featuring transhumanism, traditional marriage, loneliness, and cosplay. Two pursuable characters. Five endings. Welcome to the future.”
Choose Your Gender - Two female routes - Sci-Fi - Story Heavy
See its sequel: Hate Plus
“Samantha and Lillian are best friends. At least, they were, until everything fell apart. Now, Samantha has a day to repair their relationship – but is it already too late?”
Female Protagonist - One female route with a female side route - Light Romance - Young Adult - British as hell
Blue Ϟ Lightning’s review
“It’s rumored that those who play ‘BAD END’- a Visual Novel will die in REAL LIFE if they make the wrong decision in the game itself.”
Male Protagonist - Multiple Bad Endings - School Life/Horror - Silly/Goofy/”Scary” - Short n Cheap
“Battle demons and undead attorneys, and win souls to pay back your student loans! At the elite demonic-law firm of Varkath Nebuchadnezzar Stone, you’ll depose a fallen god, find romance, and maybe even make partner, if you don’t lose your own soul first.”
Choose Your Gender - One main male and one main female route, a few additional side routes - Several different endings - Traditional Choose Your Own Adventure Story - Modern Fantasy - Story Heavy
“The Fairytale Curse was only the beginning…”
Female Protagonist - Five male routes - Fantasy / Fairytale Retelling - FREE!!
“Cinders is a mature take on a classic fairytale with a heavy emphasis on player choices and role playing.”
Female Protagonist - Three male routes - Multiple endings - Crazy production value - Fairytale Retelling
“From the world renowned visual novel studio Key, the highly rated story of CLANNAD is now available on Steam! Improved visuals, achievement integration, and Dangopedia make this the best version of CLANNAD to date.”
Male Protagonist - 8 female routes - TONS of endings - LONG AS HELL - Slice-of-life/School Life
Tsuper review - AshenOne’s review
“Every granddaughter visits her grandmother for tea and something delicious to eat. Lumy is no different from millions of other girls.”
Female Protagonist - 5 male routes - Fairytale Retelling - Popcorn Read - Cute, Dumb, & Goofy - Tons of (Bad) Endings
“Investigate murders, search for clues and talk to your classmates to prepare for trial. There, you’ll engage in deadly wordplay, going back and forth with suspects. Dissect their statements and fire their words back at them to expose their lies! There’s only one way to survive—pull the trigger.”
VN+ - Male Protagonist - No Romance - One Ending - School Life/Murder Mystery/Court Drama - Story Heavy
See its sequels: Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony
“Jabberwock Island—You and your classmates were ready for fun in the sun until Monokuma returned to restart his murderous game! Trapped in a kill-or-be-killed situation, your only hope rests in solving the island’s mysteries.”
VN+ - Male Protagonist - No Romance - One Ending - School Life/Murder Mystery/Court Drama - Story Heavy
See its prequel: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, and its sequel: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony
“A new cast of 16 characters find themselves kidnapped and imprisoned in a school. Inside, some will kill, some will die, and some will be punished. Reimagine what you thought high-stakes, fast-paced investigation was as you investigate twisted murder cases and condemn your new friends to death.”
VN+ - No Romance - One Ending - School Life/Murder Mystery/Court Drama - Story Heavy - Mega Production Value
See its prequels: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair
“The Literature Club is full of cute girls! Will you write the way into their heart? This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.”
Male Protagonist - Fo – Three Female Routes - Two Endings - School Life - Dating Sim - Psychological Horror - Poetry Simulator - meta - FREE!!
Tsuper review - Ragnar’s review - Neku’s review - VitoStippkow’s review
“A spiritual sequel of sorts to Digital: A Love Story, set in a prestigious private high school, and on the social networks of 2027.
Seven students, three endings, one eavesdropping teacher. A full length visual novel about the erosion of privacy, gay drama, young sexuality, and the perils of modern online life for a high school literature class.”
Male Protagonist - Three endings - School Life but YOU’RE the teacher - Social Media Mechanic - Not on Steam - FREE!!
“Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator is a game where you play as a Dad and your goal is to meet and romance other hot Dads. Are you ready? Hi ready, I’m Dad.”
Male Protagonist - Seven male routes - Dad simulator - Sweet romance - PG rated
Tsuper review - ninglor03’s review
“From Dischan Media, creators of the highly acclaimed Juniper’s Knot, comes Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos.Dysfunctional Systems is a visual novel series featuring Winter Harrison, a student mediator from a utopian world.”
Female Protagonist - No Romance - Multiple Endings - Sci-Fi - Great Soundtrack
Tsuper Note: This game was the planned opening arc of a series that seems to now be defunct. I enjoyed my time with this game and the ideas put forward, and it stands as a testament of how good things can come to an end too soon. I still feel like it’s worth it to recommend, even if we’ll never get the full payoff. The soundtrack you get along with the game is worth it alone.
Tsuper Note Update: Within a few days of this post going live, Dischan Media released a prequel for this game, and the series seems to no longer be defunct!
“Meeting Semyon, the game’s main character, you would’ve never paid attention to him. Just an ordinary young man with thousands, even hundreds of thousands of those like him in every ordinary city. But one day something completely unusual happens to him: he falls asleep in a bus in winter and wakes up… in the middle of a hot summer. In front of him is “Sovyonok” - a pioneer camp, behind him is his former life. To understand what happened to him, Semyon will have to get to know the local inhabitants (and maybe even find love), find his way in the complex labyrinth of human relationships and his own problems and solve the camp’s mysteries. And answer the main question - how to come back? Should he come back?”
Male Protagonist - Five female routes - Multiple Endings - Russian as hell - School Life - It Gets Sexy - FREE!
Tsuper Note: Everlasting Summer is a weird one for me. It’s hard for me to recommend it wholeheartedly but I also can’t… not recommend it? Go into it with a grain of salt, but there’s something about Everlasting Summer that won’t go away.
“fault is a series of Science Fantasy Cinematic Novels using a unique 3D Camera system for a visually immersive reading experience. Follow Selphine, the bubbly Princess and her sharp-witted Royal Guardian, Ritona, on their journey of a lifetime back to their homeland of Rughzenhaide.”
Female Protagonist - No Romance - One Ending - Great Production Value - Fantasy/Adventure
See its sequel: fault - milestone two side:above
“fault - milestone two side:above is a Cinematic Visual Novel that takes place right after the events of milestone one. Please note that this novel is a direct sequel to fault - milestone one and contains massive spoilers of the first story. Play through of the first title is highly advised.”
Female Protagonist - No Romance - One Ending - Great Production Value - Fantasy/Adventure
See its prequel: fault - milestone one
““Master, Master! I did it!!” “I can hear you, no need to shout! Oh, my! This is a rather firm Kidney.” My Organic Garden is an avant-garde organ-clicking game. Whether it’s to get Master’s praise, or to please the customer, click away and ship those organs!”
VN+ - Female Protagonist - No Romance - One Ending - Clicker Game - Slick as hell
Tsuper Note: This is pretty much a straight clicker game with story layered overtop, but I love it so much and the story is really interesting. It’s a self-described ‘avant-garde clicker game’ and god does it work.
RileyHisbert’s Review - gazimply’s review
“Miami, 1986. Chelo Martínez has started a private investigation business to find missing people. Make tough decisions, solve cases, and find love: but you might not have time for all three. Ghosts of Miami features five cases, beautiful art, and the best game OST of 2017!”
Female Protagonist - Three female and two male routes - AESTHETIC, BABY! - Crime drama - Great Production Value
“Let’s spend the next three real-time days together uncovering the mystery of what went horribly wrong on a derelict generation ship, with the help of a spunky/more-than-slightly-traumatized AI sidekick! A sequel to Analogue: A Hate Story that tells a whole new hate story of its own.”
Choose Your Gender - Two female routes - Sci Fi - Political Intrigue - Story Heavy
See its prequel: Analogue: a Hate Story
“Congratulations! You’ve been accepted as the only human student at the prestigious St. PigeoNation’s Institute, a school for talented birds! Roam the halls and find love in between classes as a sophomore student at the world’s greatest pigeon high school.”
Female Protagonist - 9 male routes - Multiple Endings - School Life - Psychological Horror
Tsuper Note: Play. This. Game.
See its sequel: Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star
“The loveable birds of Hatoful Boyfriend are back in the remastered holiday-themed sequel Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star!”
Female Protagonist - 9 male routes - Multiple Endings - School Life - Psychological Horror - Christmas!!
See its prequel: Hatoful Boyfriend
“When your uncle Kent mysteriously disappears, you’ll embark on a journey find out what really happened. What will you sacrifice when trapped in a haunted manor? Will you destroy this evil or claim its power? And can love bloom in a haunted house?”
Choose Your Gender - Two opposite sex, one same sex, and one nonbinary romance route - Gothic Romance - Haunted House - Spooky Mystery - Traditional Choose-Your-Own-Adventure
“HEAVEN WILL BE MINE is a visual novel about making terrible life decisions in the midst of a hot-blooded battle between giant robots. Select one of three terribly behaved girls to fight and/or make out with each other in their struggle for the fate of space.”
3 Female Protagonists - Space Future - Mecha - Metaphorical Sci-Fi - Multiple Routes - Transhumanist Cyberpunk
“A gothic suspense tale set in a cursed mansion. “The House in Fata Morgana” is a full-length visual novel spanning nearly a millennium that deals in tragedy, human nature, and insanity.”
Gothic Horror/Suspense - Romance - DARK - Great production value - So so so so good so very very very very good play this game
See its prequel: the House in Fata Morgana: A Requiem for Innocence (but PLAY THIS GAME FIRST)
tsuper review - gazimply’s review
"”A Requiem for Innocence” is a companion to the visual novel “The House in Fata Morgana.” It tells the tale of a young man dragged down by his ambitions and a girl both worshiped as a saint and maligned as a witch. For them, there is no happily ever after.”
Gothic Action/Tragedy - It’s Time for Pain - DARK - Great production value - So so so so good so very very very very good play this game
See its sequel: the House in Fata Morgana (but PLAY THAT GAME FIRST)
“The gold rush has struck the west for a second time. Highway Blossoms is the story of Amber, a girl trying her best to be alone on the road until she stumbles upon a young hitchhiker and the journal of a prospector from long ago.”
Female Protagonist - One female route - Modern Romance - It (Might) Gets Sexy!! (adult patch available) - Treasure Hunt!! - Road Trip!!
tsuper review - Blue Ϟ Lightning’s review - Kaleith’s review
“Higurashi When They Cry is a sound novel. The music, backgrounds and characters work together to create a world that is the stage of a novel for the user to read. They laugh and cry and get angry. The user takes the point of view of the protagonist to experience the story.”
Male Protagonist - No Romance - One Ending - School Life - Psychological Horror - Mystery - LONG AS HELL
Tsuper Note: Higurashi is comprised of 8 arcs, five of which are out on steam. They are sicknasty and I love them. I recommend you download a mod that replaces the weird-looking mangagamer sprites with the PS3 versions.
tsuper chapter 5 review - tsuper chapter 6 review - Cece09’s chapter 1 review - stef’s chapter 1 review
“If My Heart Had Wings is an animated visual novel that tells the tale of a refreshing yet bittersweet youth story. With elements of both romance and comedy, play as Aoi Minase as he meets female companions, working with them to revive the Soaring Club in order to realise their dream.”
Male Protagonist - Five female routes - School Life - LONG AS HELL - Aviation
“Katawa Shoujo is a bishoujo-style visual novel set in the fictional Yamaku High School for disabled children, located somewhere in modern Japan. Hisao Nakai, a normal boy living a normal life, has his life turned upside down when a congenital heart defect forces him to move to a new school after a long hospitalization. Despite his difficulties, Hisao is able to find friends—and perhaps love, if he plays his cards right. There are five main paths corresponding to the 5 main female characters, each path following the storyline pertaining to that character. “
Male Protagonist - Five female routes - School Life - It Gets Sexy! - Not on Steam - FREE!! - Medical Drama
Tsuper Note: Katawa Shoujo is, I think, the first straight-up visual novel I played (not counting Ace Attorney) and I really, actually love it. It takes what I dislike about the genre (you play a boy n fuck gurls, thassit) and turns it into really great, interesting, deep relationships. It’s not about pursuing your favored girl, it’s about getting to know them and helping them work through their problems - and yours, too. Emotional AND physical intimacy? Yeah boy!! Also, some of the h-scenes actually… go wrong? And the two characters laugh about it and it is so, so sweet.
“During lunch one day, Toomi Yuna meets two “Kindred Spirits” on the roof of her school. When they insist she help them nurture young love, Yuna finds herself playing “yuri cupid” to six unique and adorable couples. Can she remain aloof or will the promise of a “yuritopia” reach her too?”
Female Protagonist - Seven female couples - School Life - It Gets Sexy! - YURITOPIA!!! - Long as Hell
“A brand new entry in the landmark yuri game series, “A Kiss For The Petals!” The story of how fan-favorite couple Risa and Miya first met is now available on the PC!”
Female Protagonist - Female romantic interest - School Life - Everything is fluff and nothing hurts
“„The Lion’s Song: Episode 1 – Silence” draws the player into the life of a talented young composer, Wilma, preparing for her breakthrough concert, the defining moment of her career. Searching for inspiration she escapes from the pressure for success to the solitude of the Austrian Alps.”
VN+ - 2 Female and 2 Male Protagonists - Historical Fiction - Early 20th Century Vienna - Great Soundtrack - Choices matter!! - The Creative Struggle - (the first episode is) FREE!!
Tsuper review - Lengray’s review - 86maylin’s review
“Rule the world or die trying!Being a Princess is not an easy job. Being a Queen is even harder. Especially when you’re only fourteen years old, and the reason you’ve inherited the throne is that your royal mother has just met an untimely end. Now power is up for grabs.”
VN+ - Female Protagonist - A couple male routes - Fantasy - TONS OF WAYS TO DIE - Multiple Endings - Political Intrigue
“The CORE, a private research station, 2352. A celebrity scientist must rely on a mysterious companion to help him find his loved ones in the ruins of a fallen utopia. The Mind’s Eclipse is a science-fiction tale featuring beautiful hand-drawn scenes & emotional narrative-driven gameplay.”
VN+ - Male Protagonist - Sci-Fi - Point ‘n Click - Exploration - Heavy Themes - TONS of CGs - Black and White
“This is a story of disease and suffering; of medication and adverse effects; of thoracotomy scars and cellular poisons; of the living who cannot help but to die and of the dying who cannot help but to live; of a resting place other than “on 7F” or “at home”.”
Male Protagonist - One Female Romance - One ending - Medical Drama - exquisite sadness - Beautiful soundtrack - FREE!!
“A yuri (GxG) VN about a traveller who runs across two nuns in an abandoned church.”
Female Protagonist - Two female routes - Multiple Endings - Fantasy - Meta - FREE!
“In time for the 10th anniversary since its original release in Japan, planetarian is an engaging and emotional visual novel from legendary game studio, Key. A sub-brand of VisualArts, Key are also famed for creating Kanon, AIR, CLANNAD, Little Busters!, Rewrite, and Angel Beats!”
Male Protagonist - One Ending - Sci Fi - Post-Apocalyptic - exquisite sadness
"”Pub Encounter” is a romance game where you can fall in love with one of several middle-aged men.”
Female Protagonist - Five Male Routes - Otome as hellllllll - If you play a Dogenzaka game it might as well be this one - It Gets Sexy!! - Dating Sim - Workplace Drama - DrinKING! - Rough around the edges but I’m fond of it anyway
“Rose of Winter is a charming visual novel with adventure, romance, and heartbreak. Choose one of four princes to take on your adventure, and make decisions to unlock multiple endings.”
Female Protagonist - Four male routes - Fantasy - Dating Sim - Cute n Sweet - Plus Size Protag
“Solstice is a dystopian mystery thriller about small personal disasters that turn into great catastrophes.”
Male and Female Protagonist - Two m/m routes, two f/m routes - Multiple Endings - Fantasy - Political Intrigue - Great Production Value
“Play as Aria and romance the two sultry demon girls, Lyria and Scherza, or your best friend Melody in this yuri (girl x girl) visual novel where your choices will ultimately decide the fate of this spellbound girl.”
Female Protagonist - Three female routes, one harem ending - School Life/Fantasy - It Gets Sexy!!
"”Feed me, or I’ll reap your soul!” And with those ridiculous words, my whole life was turned upside down. Sakuraba Rie, aged nine, is a cynical and grumpy girl who cares little for her fellow classmates, and does not have a single friend.”
Female Protagonist - One female route - Multiple Endings - So sweet you’ll die - School Life / Fantasy elements - Light cute blossoming romance - they like hold hands bc they’re young girls
“When the truth is buried, go underground. Step into this new take on text-based adventure from the award-winning team behind Thomas Was Alone and Volume. A short story that hands you the fate of the world above, as a detective looking for answers on the Subsurface Circular.”
“Madeleine Valois is a prince’s companion. It is her responsibility to keep him out of trouble - not to let him walk blindly into a political minefield, not to let him get arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and definitely not to let him fall in love with her…”
Female Protagonist - Four male routes, one female route - Political intrigue - Fantasy - Multiple Endings
“A free game created by Ebi-Hime, author of Asphyxia, The Way We ALL GO, and Strawberry Vinegar. TSSofEB is a free yuri (girls’ love) game created for a game jam. As the saying goes, dead men tell no tales. They only leave tales behind.”
Female Protagonist - One female route - School life - Historical fiction - GHOSTS! - FREE!! - sad n sweet - light romance
“Guide Hamlet, Ophelia and Hamlet Sr. to hundreds of hilarious deaths in Ryan North’s chooseable-path edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet!”
Two Male and One Female Protagonist - Traditional Choose Your Own Adventure Story - HYSTERICAL - Shakespeare retelling - Multiple Endings
Tsuper Note: Some people might be put off by the particular humor style, but I loved this game and played it through to 100% completion, getting all 70-something(!) endings.
“VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a booze em’ up about waifus, technology, and post-dystopia life.”
VN+ - Female Protagonist - Bartender sim - Slick style - Multiple non-romance routes and a few different endings
“Follow Mariko as she boards a train to a completely different world - A world of unbelievable beings and happenings.”
Female Protagonist - No Romance - Fantasy Journey - Short, Sweet, and Cute!
“Welcome to the world of “Umineko When They Cry” (When Seagulls Cry) Welcome to the Rokkenjima of October 4, 1986. You have been given a chance to catch a glimpse of the family conference held annually by the Ushiromiya family. The remaining life in the old family head who has built up a vast fortune is very slim. To his children, the greatest point of contention at this family conference is the distribution of his inheritance. Everyone desires all that money, no one relents, and no one believes. Who will gain the old head’s vast inheritance? Where is the 10 tons of gold that the old head is said to have hidden? Can the unnerving riddle of the epitaph which is said to point to the location of that gold be solved? In the midst of this, a suspicious letter is sent from one claiming to be a witch. The presence of a 19th person on this island, which should only have 18, begins to hang in the air. Brutal murders repeat, and unsolvable riddles are left at the scene. How many will die? How many will live? Or will everyone die? Is the culprit one of the 18, or not? Is the culprit a “human”, or a “witch”?”
Huge cast of characters - Kinetic novel - LONG AS HELL - Murder mystery/fantasy/whodunnit/psychological thriller - Guts n Gore n Tears n Stuffed Lions - Story Heavy
Tsuper review for Question Arcs - Blue Ϟ Lightning’s review for Question Arcs
“Kidnapped and taken to an unfamiliar location, nine people find themselves forced to participate in a diabolical Nonary Game by an enigmatic mastermind called Zero. Why were they there? Why were they chosen to put their lives on the line? And more importantly, who can be trusted?”
VN+ - Male Protagonist - One Ending - Escape the Room puzzles - Mystery - These games are sooo goood
Tsuper Note: The third installment, ‘Zero Time Dilemma’, is also on steam. It is awful. Play at your own risk.
Neku’s review for 999 - Neku’s review for Virtue’s Last Reward