It hasn’t taken that long for visual novels to go from one of the most niche genres of all to being something that has a genuine and growing audience behind it. Where once we might get one or two efforts to localise one in a year, now dozens of these games get released every year, and the profile of the developers, publishers, and localisers is growing ever larger.
For anyone looking for a good narrative that is not complicated by “gameplay”, visual novels are an excellent option for the way they combine the presentation and aesthetics of video games with more traditional storytelling techniques. When done well – and, increasingly, they are! – these games have a real literary quality and it’s only a matter of time before they achieve mainstream recognition for this.
2022 has been a good year for the genre. Here are just ten of the best examples you should play.
Chaos;Head Noah got embroiled in a controversy that it didn’t deserve when Valve banned it from Steam for a while, but putting that aside, this is one of the very finest horror visual novels ever written. It brings the same incredible writing of the likes of Steins;Gate or Robotics;Notes and then goes to far darker places. With the key theme being delusions and being unable to be sure of reality, the story really goes places, but does so while maintaining a rhythm that makes it impossible to put down.
As we wrote in our review: Being willing to depict some pretty extreme scenarios that are designed to make the player uncomfortable is, equally, a risk in a world that has decided that all entertainment should be uplifting and positive. Chaos;Head is probably more transgressive now, in 2022, than it would have been back in 2008, and that only makes it more potent, and essential, as a work of art.
From the horrific to the surreal, Raptor Boyfriend does indeed let you date a raptor. Yes, it’s a silly concept, and it’s played for maximum value, but there’s a sweetness to Raptor Boyfriend that helps to elevate it beyond other, similarly silly concept VNs. Throw in some lovely art (by indie VN standards), and this is one of those very niche games that you’ll be glad you took a chance with.
As we wrote in our review: The part of me fascinated by the supernatural and cryptozoology loves this game. The part of me that still has those high school-type emotions loves this game. The part of me that reads romance novels loves this game. The part of me that enjoys visual novels loves this game. Put all those parts together, and it’s safe to say that I love this game. I’ve felt feelings that I haven’t felt since high school, since my first love 20 years ago. It’s quite the wild ride.
Otomate and publishing partner, Aksys, had a bit of a hit-and-miss year this year, but Lover Pretend was an absolute hit. Telling the story of a young screenwriter that needs to pretend that she’s in a relationship with one of a range of super-cute guys in order to figure out who her father is, Lover Pretend distinguishes itself from many of Otomate’s other titles by having a downright mundane setting and set of characters. But with a warm sense of humour and some excellent, twisting romance hooks, the game is quite impossible to put down.
As we wrote in our review: While the first impression is that this one is going to make incest a core theme and that’s going to be simply plain unpleasant for (almost) anyone, the good news is that it soon settles down into a rather comfortable reflection on celebrity, the filmmaking process, and, of course, romance.
Witch On The Holy Night
I haven’t had a chance to actually write a review for this one yet – it came out right at the end of the year and I had a lot to clear out first. When I do review it, however, it’s going to be glowing. Witch On The Holy Night is a remake of a 2012 title, written by Kinoko Nasu (the same guy that would later write Fate/Stay Night), and it is exactly the kind of literary experience that I mentioned in the intro. Aided by an exceptional localisation, the words of Witch On The Holy Night dance off the screen like the best books, with detailed, fascinating characters, an intriguing plot line from the opening moments, and some really gorgeous art to help set the scene. A masterpiece in the genre.
This one does push the boundaries of “visual novel,” but it’s such a warming, heartfelt experience that it’s sat there at the back of our minds as a game that we really want to recommend to people since first playing it. It’s a romance story, about two musicians from different sides of the tracks that find themselves – and each other – in the thick of the 90s. Putting aside the fact that the 90s are now nostalgic (how are we getting this old?!?), this game is a wonderful reflection on everything from class and love to art and celebrity, and it offers a layered, nuanced, and always interesting story to follow.
As we wrote in our review: An incredible amount of work went into this game. I mean, there’s the original songs, plus diary entries, notes, voicemails, interviews, quizzes… The overall quality of the game is excellent. Yes, I have my qualms with it, mainly with the difficulty and lack of song lyrics. But I can see past the difficulty, at least, to understand the narrative puzzle game that’s in front of me.
You do need to have played the original Piofiore to be able to follow this one, but it is an exceptional follow-up to one of the most high-impact and powerful otome visual novels ever written. A mafia story, set against a backdrop of rising fascism in Italy, Piofiore is a historical fiction novel with teeth, giving you a very different look at a period of history that too few know about. This “sequel” picks up where the harrowing events of the predecessor end, and it wastes no time in sticking you right back into the thick of it.
As we wrote in our review: If you had asked me if I thought Piofiore: Fated Memories needed a sequel, I would have responded with a very firm “no.” That game is right up there with the likes of Steins;Gate and The House In Fata Morgana as a visual novel with literary merit, and arguably the masterpiece of the otome genre. But then I played Piofiore: Episodio 1926 and realised that the writers weren’t out of ideas from their first outing. This game is every bit as dark and majestic as its predecessor, and assuming you can stomach its harder edges, it’s essential.
I would have never guessed that the most subversive, intelligent visual novel of the year would have been written by Australians, but that’s Corpse Factory for you. This game tells a story of taboos and eroticism. It’s in the vision of Marquis de Sade (though nowhere near as explicit, naturally), and the kind of thing that Bataille and Foucault wrote about in their analysis of subversive art. It’s not going to be for everyone, as it’s frequently a less-than-pleasant experience – but if you enjoy challenging narratives that will pull you right out of your comfort zone, then don’t overlook this one.
As we wrote in our review: Corpse Factory isn’t about the presentation, though. This is a visual novel with a transgressive and provocative story to weave, and it does so with some of the deftest writing we’ve seen in the genre. We really do need to see more visual novels come out of Australia and, more generally speaking, games that are genuinely willing to break taboo subjects and really challenge the player.
One of the things that I love about the visual novel genre is how accessible it is for creatively-minded people. You don’t need to program in action… or even have coding skills at all. Instead, as an artist, you can focus on bringing a personal story to fruition, and that’s what Perfect Gold does. This brief little visual novel (at around 30,000 words it will only take a few hours to read) isn’t perfect, but it is sweet and sentimental and represents what a “micro-indie” can achieve with the genre.
As we wrote in our review: The game doesn’t have anything particularly profound to say, but the combination of coming-of-age and romance does come across as sweet and wholesome. This might not be a game that you exactly remember, but the earnestness of it is charming and you’ll have a big smile on your face as you play.
From the most humble of 2022’s visual novels to one of the most epic. Birushana is historical fiction, taking place during the Genpei wars – a time of conflict in Japan that doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention. It gives you the chance to hang out with one of Japan’s all-time most legendary heroes, Benkei, and while it is a fantastic take of events of the era, it’s a good basis that will hopefully encourage readers to go and look more into it. On top of that, it’s hands-down the most beautiful visual novel of 2022. The art in this game is truly incredible.
As we write in our review: Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei is a truly wonderful example of the visual novel genre, and I’m glad it got localised. It’s aesthetically beautiful (and not just because Shanao and Benkei can get hot-and-sweaty together). It’s also written with a deft touch and genuinely works as a piece of historical fiction. As someone who has actually asked Koei Tecmo about a Nioh or Samurai Warriors set during this conflict, just to give us a break from all the Sengoku era games, I’m over the moon that Idea Factory decided to weave their magic during this vibrant and exciting period of Japan’s history.
I must admit I wasn’t sure if we needed a sequel to the original AI: The Somnium Files, but it did not take me long at all to be glad that it happened. AI was a real hidden gem, launching with very little fanfare only to become a big deal thanks to word of mouth. People came to realise just how well it was really written, and the sequel continues that in style. A near-perfect blend of noirish detective fiction and surrealist humour, AI is a page-turner of eclectic, memorable characters and a nuanced, consistently surprising narrative.
As we wrote in our review: AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is an exceptional game that hits the same beats as the original, while introducing plenty of fun new characters and a winding, complex plot that is going to keep you second-guessing right to the end. If only we had more games that respected the intelligence of their players like this one does.