Steam Base Price: FREE!
Quite possibly the closest thing to a mainstream visual novel on this list. This visual novel was developed by Dan Salvato, a developer of Project M and competitive player in Super Smash Bros Melee. It is also the only Original English Developed Visual Novel on this list. Every other one was originally developed by a Japanese company. If you're following GameFAQs Character Battle X, Monika from this VN is in there.
You are an unnamed protagonist in high school who gets invited to a Literature Club by your childhood friend Sayori. In each chapter, you create a poem based around twenty words selected by the player, which the girls will comment on and compare to previous poems, allowing your bonds to grow stronger with the different club members.
This VN starts very lighthearted, with you as the protagonist slowly getting to know the characters more. There is a certain... twist to this VN that made it the classic that it's known as today. I won't spoil what it is, but don't let the slow beginning turn you off. Once the twist hits, the visual novel turns into something very engaging and unique.
There are two important warnings that show when the VN starts that should give you an idea what to expect: "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed." and "Individuals suffering from anxiety or depression may not have a safe experience playing this game."
The presentation of the visual novel is average. It has very typical bright designs for the 4 main anime-inspired girls. Lots of the soundtrack towards the VN is fairly unmemorable but later on gets much better and more fitting given the events that happen.
The visual novel also isn't very long compared to the other ones on this list (between 4-10 hours) so you can potentially read this first if you haven't read a visual novel before.
Steam Base Price: Free with just the common route. $40 if you want all 4 routes.
Dies Irae takes place in modern Japan and stars Ren Fuji, a high school boy who just wants to have a simple, everyday life. Unfortunately, a fight with his old friend led to their friendship being broken and him being hospitalized for a few months. Things get worse when he eventually has to fight... magical Nazis. This is not a joke, many of them have become nigh-immortal and want to take over Japan for a very specific purpose.
This visual novel is both an action-oriented and character-driven visual novel. The main character gets a power where he can turn his right arm into a black and red scythe and fight with it. The Nazi Villains have a wide variety of over the top powers such as having fortress like defense, a fiery sword, vampiric abilities, the ability to immobilize and absorb opponents, among many more. It's worth reading this visual novel for the crazy fights and music alone.
The main villains being Nazis might make you think otherwise, but many of them have their own backstories which makes them surprisingly sympathetic. Ren's group of friends all have their motivations on why they fight as well as why they're friends with Ren in the first place.
The presentation of this visual novel is fairly decent. The sprites get the job done and there are a pretty good variety of character designs. The CGs have really solid art, especially the ones depicting the action and the weapons the characters use. The soundtrack is quite memorable and has a lot of nice orchestrated songs.
Steam Base Price: $14.99
One of the first visual novels to get really popular through Steam. It currently has over 2000 positive reviews on Steam, when most of the entries only have about 300 total reviews each, outside the ones that are free or have anime adaptations.
This visual novel stars Aoi Minase, a former bicycle race student, heading back to his hometown to attend high school after he injured his knee. On his way to his new dorm, he happens to run into a pretty but surly wheelchair-bound girl on top of a hill. She, Aoi, and his childhood friend eventually join a Soaring Club. Together with the Club President, they aim to build a glider to fulfill the dreams that the previous club members could not achieve.
This is a very straightforward but heartwarming story. While it's lighthearted for the most part, it covers some down-to-earth and relatable themes like dealing with insecurities that are holding you back and finding a purpose in life. All the characters get pretty good character development in their routes and you really end up rooting for them to accomplish their goals.
If My Heart Had Wings has some of my favorite character sprites in visual novels. They're bright and pretty and detailed. The backgrounds are excellent as well and you can tell the artist put a lot of effort to make the art really good. The music is very good as well, having some very emotional and uplifting tracks that really fit the mood.
Steam Base Price: $34.99
Root Double takes place in the year 2030, where a special group of humans called Communicators with psychic communicative powers have suddenly been born into the world. All of them have been placed in a fictional secluded city in Japan called Rokumei.
This visual novel has two protagonists: Watase, an amnesiac rescue squad captain, and Natsuhiko, a quiet Communicator high school boy that isn't very skilled but is noted to have high potential.
Root Double at its core is a mystery thriller story. If you go through the visual novel in the recommended order, the story starts off with 9 people getting trapped in a research facility. It involves the characters having to work together to get out of their terrible situation, which can be difficult with so many clashing personalities and views. As you go through the story, there are some very unpredictable plot twists that will keep you engaged.
Its choice system is unique in that the player does not choose between two or more prewritten options. There is instead a "Senses Sympathy System" where the current protagonist has to adjust their trust in other characters in certain situations. These can change the outcome of various events in the story, determine whether or not you avoid a Bad Ending, and whether you head for a Good Ending or the Normal Ending.
The overall presentation of the visual novel is pretty solid. It has good art, CGs, and music that sets the tone well.
Steam Base Price: Fruit of Grisaia - $39.99, Labyrinth of Grisaia - $29.99, Eden of Grisaia - $29.99
Grisaia centers around Yuuji Kazami, a boy who enrolls into a secluded high school in an attempt to live a normal life away from his current job. The only other classmates he has are five girls, each with a reason for enrolling into the school.
Grisaia is a trilogy, but each visual novel goes in a different story direction than the others. Fruit, the first VN, is mostly a comedy and drama based visual novel. A lot of the comedy is based on Yuuji's very snarky blunt jokes as well as lot of the silly quirks the girls have (one is essentially a dumb blonde, one is an overly detail oriented maid, one likes to make lots of sexual jokes, etc.) The comedy lessens once you get on a route, and each route involves character development for a particular girl you choose, as well as Yuuji helping them out with their problems.
Labyrinth, the second VN, is all about Yuuji's past since you don't really get to learn much about him in Fruit. Prepare for a lot of dark and messed up stuff. Eden, the third VN, is more like a campy action movie with all the characters doing some crazy things. Everyone is still in character and there are entertaining scenes and an interesting conclusive plot but it may be jarring to some considering what the first two visual novels were like.
Grisaia has a lot of great detail put in their character art and backgrounds. The music is fine, and sets the tone of the VNs well.
Don't let the "G-String" part fool you into thinking that this story is about women's underwear. It in fact refers to the G-String on the violin, as that instrument is an important theme to this visual novel.
Kyousuke is the son of an infamous Yakuza. During the day, he is a regular high school student, but at night, he is a ruthless financing tyrant working under his father's underworld business.
Shortly after the story starts, a girl named Haru Usami transfers into Kyosuke's class and an international mafia overlord who calls himself "Maou" also arrives in the city, and is set on crushing Haru and everyone else who is connected to her. In return, Haru is dead set on capturing Maou and is willing to do what she can to accomplish that.
The best way to describe this story is that it's a battle of wits drama thriller. If you've seen the anime Death Note, the themes and execution of the story are fairly similar. The main conflict consists of Haru trying to find out Maou is at any given point. Maou does some criminal act such as kidnapping, terrorism, murder, hostages, etc and Haru has to find a way to get to him through investigation of the hints he left behind. It ends up being a very intense game of cat and mouse, with Maou's constant fleeing at the last minute or Haru getting close to catching him. Kyousuke ends up getting caught in this conflict and helping Haru out.
The presentation of the visual novel is decent. The main thing that sticks out is that a lot of the BGM is inspired by classical music, so expect a lot of violin, string, and other fitting instruments.
Umineko starts off with the rich Ushiromiya family gathering on their private island in order to discuss what will happen to the patriarch Kinzo's inheritance, as he's very ill and close to death. All the parents are the only ones who take part in the discussion, while protagonist Battler is finally back after 6 years of rebellion to meet again with his cousins.
However, while the parents are arguing, a typhoon traps all 18 people currently on the island, including the servants. The family then finds a letter by someone named "Beatrice" who claims she's the actual heir to the inheritance, and that unless any of the family members solves the epitaph listed under her portrait in the mansion, she'll be the one to take the inheritance and everything the family owns. This is only the beginning of the strange and shocking events that will occur, including panic, reasoning, romance, heated confrontations, and battle of wits.
Umineko prides itself as an episodic mystery thriller visual novel. It has no routes and very little choices. While sometimes the beginning of an episode may be slow, there's always a point where something crazy happens and the episode stays consistently eventful afterward. There is a slight genre shift starting on episode 2 but the major mystery thriller themes are still there. There are 4 episodes each in both Question Arc and Answer Arc. Make sure to read them in order.
Umineko has some of the best music I've heard in visual novels, and in all of media. Throughout all 8 episodes, there are hundreds of songs and there's an incredible variety of quality songs. You have songs like the heartwarming hope, the adrenaline pumping worldenddominator, and atmospheric mysterious songs like core. The presentation is good but it's worth reading this visual novel just for the music.
#3: Clannad (PC)
Steam Base Price: $49.99
Clannad is one of the most popular romance stories in visual novels and anime.
Tomoya Okazaki is a high school senior that hates his life and the town he lives in, and barely has a real friend. After a chance meeting with a shy girl on a hill asking if he loves the school they attend, he finds himself slowly connecting with several other female schoolmates. Although he doesn't care much about them at first, he gradually opens his heart to them as they get to know each other better.
One of the big themes of this visual novel is family and it shows itself in every route in some way. Before any route starts, the visual novel is very comedy based, with a lot of the jokes revolving around Tomoya teasing his best friend or the other girls. However, once he starts actively pursuing a girl there is a nice mix of sweet romance and some heart wrenching drama.
One thing that sticks out about this VN is that unlike many romance stories that end with the couple getting together, one particular heroine gets an "After Story" unlocked which shows the life of the couple past their high school sweetheart life. It's a very welcome addition and has some of the most memorable drama in a romance story because of how surprisingly grounded and relatable it is.
The art style is a bit dated but decent enough to get the job done. The music is very good, with some of its atmospheric and emotional songs being some of my favorites in visual novels.
Rintarou Okabe is someone who loves to tinker with different gadgets and inventions. He's gone as far as calling himself a Mad Scientist who goes by the alias "Hououin Kyouma" and imagines himself fighting all manner of evil government conspiracies. He also has a private laboratory to where he does research and experiments.
One day he and his childhood friend Mayuri visit a public lecture, and happen upon a dead body of a scientist called Kurisu Makise. He texts his fellow lab member Daru about this incident, when suddenly everyone around Okabe blinks out of existence then reappears a moment later, including the previously dead Kurisu.
The biggest theme of the visual novel is time travel. The direction the story takes is really interesting since it heavily emphasizes the consequences of messing with time. The story starts off fairly lighthearted with Okabe slowly recruiting more lab members with a good amount of comedy and character development. Eventually the VN gets fairly heavy and that's where the VN slowly becomes the classic that it is.
The art style is a bit unique and grainy and may be take getting used to. The music is pretty nice and atmospheric.
Steam Base Price: Muv-Luv - $29.99, Muv-Luv Alternative - $39.99
This might easily be the most universally liked visual novel series in the community.
Which might seem odd as the first VN in the series, Muv-Luv, starts off as a very cliche harem romantic comedy with a lot of wacky anime tropes. This mode is called "Muv-Luv Extra". However, this is intentional, and as you read a few major routes, you'll unlock a new mode called "Muv-Luv Unlimited". I won't spoil what happens but the setting and genre shift are quite different despite having a lot of the same characters.
Muv-Luv Alternative takes place after Unlimited and has to be read after the original visual novel to get the most enjoyment out of it. Alternative is considered by far the best part of the series, and the 15 or so hours you spent reading the original Muv-Luv will all make sense. Without saying much, there is a much higher emphasis on drama and emotional moments as well as multiple important themes like determination and growing up.
In terms of art-style, Muv-Luv is a bit on the dated side since it was originally created in Japan around the early 2000s. However, there are some cool character designs that show up, especially in Alternative. The soundtrack is quite good, which includes a good variety, quality, and quantity of songs. Some of the more emotional songs can still hit me hard on relistens and some of the faster paced songs are memorable and fitting for the action.
As someone who's been in the visual novel community for quite a while, it's been a joy to see how much it's grown.
The fact that it's difficult to choose which visual novels to include is a great problem to have. Some visual novels I considered that either barely missed the list or I haven't read yet include: Wonderful Everyday, Little Busters, Planetarian, Himawari, Island, Symphonic Rain, etc.
Visual Novels may not seem appealing if you're used to games that...well, actually have gameplay. But you may be surprised at how much you like the story if you give one of these a chance! I'm hoping the different variety of genres provided means that there's at least one visual novel that you'll be able to enjoy.
Just keep in mind while Steam is the most accessible place to buy digital games, it isn't the only place to get visual novels. There is MangaGamer, JAST USA, Denpasoft, Sol Press, and NekoNyan. Just make sure you're at least 18 years old before going to one of those sites.
If you have any questions or comments about this list, feel me to @ or PM me anytime. My username is "NowItsAngeTime".
List by NowItsAngeTime (10/22/2018)
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