On a rainy night, some people enjoy getting comfy, grabbing their beverage of choice, and curling up with a good book. Some others like doing the same exact thing, but with a game. I say, “why not both?” Visual novels are the perfect genre of game to curl up with. Here’s our collection for the ten best visual novels.
Best visual novels
I’m not here to give a broad definition of what a visual novel is. I’m just here to point you to some outstanding games you should check out if you’re ever in the mood for some reading.
As always, you might find that your favourite visual novel is not present below. Fret not, for the comment section awaits you. Rather than curse us for the exclusion, spend your energies to champion your love. You might find you make a few converts.
10. Umineko (When They Cry) Questions Arc
Let’s start this list off with one of the most visual noveliest of visual novels. While all games in the When They Cry series are popular, I find that Umineko is a good place to start because it's less dated when compared to its predecessor, Higurashi.
You are the oddly named Battler Ushiromiya. After living estranged from your father’s side of the family for six years, you reunite with them during a family conference on October 4, 1980, on your dying grandfather’s private and isolated island. The conference seems to be going well, but as tensions about the family fortune bubble to the surface, a mysterious witch appears who threatens the lives and livelihoods of the Ushiromiya family. This game is 90% superb writing and 10% insane melodrama. It’s amazing. Though, be warned, this visual novel is long, so it will take time to get into the game proper. It’s well worth the wait, though.
Umineko (When They Cry) Questions Arc is not a game you necessarily participate in, but rather a game where you immerse yourself in the ambience. The kind of game where you’re trying to guess what’s going to happen next rather than react in the present. It takes a while to reach the meaty heart of it all, but the slow burn of getting to know and becoming attached to the characters makes any unfortunate tragedies that happen later all the more devastating. I think the game is worth it just for the hilarious cultural festival section alone. So, if you’re looking for a lengthy murder mystery visual novel, get ready to spin some chessboards around and check this game out.
9. Emily Is Away Too
I only vaguely remember people talking about AIM chatrooms when I was a kid, but I still know what they looked like. Emily is Away Too recreates that look to deliver its story. You follow a young man in his senior year of high school, from 2006-2007, who talks online with two girls in his class – Emily and Evelyn. Through a series of chat sessions, the two slowly open up to your character and grow closer to him, with different endings depending on your choices throughout the chats.
There’s something truly endearing about the care put into recreating the mid-2000s internet, from the instant messenger look, to the “youtoob” and “facenook” pages that Emily and Evelyn send you (and that you can open up on an actual web browser). The writing is excellent as well; Emily and Evelyn truly feel like complex teenage girls who have gone through some stuff. It's worth taking a look the first game too - Emily Is Away Too is a great successor to the original Emily Is Away, and if you enjoy one you'll enjoy the other.
8. Long Live The Queen
A glance at Long Live The Queen's screenshots can set false expectations. It stars a cutesy anime princess and looks like dozens of other visual novels. But it's absolutely brutal. There are shades of Princess Maker to be found here.
Long Live The Queen’s premise is this: Elodie, a 14 year old girl, is sent home from school after the death of her mother, the Queen of the country of Nova. Elodie must quickly learn how to survive in court both figuratively and literally, with enemies plotting to destroy her reputation or kill her off at every turn. The game, while seemingly easy-going at first, becomes darker the farther you play into it, with higher likelihoods of death following each decision you make. Elodie’s survival is derived from whether you’ve taught her one of the 18 skills she can level up throughout the game, which makes it almost certain your first playthrough - first dozen playthroughs, really - will end in a swift death.
The game has a wide variety of ways to go about winning, leaving no “true way” to finish the game. The story branches substantially based on the decisions you make and the skills you level, meaning that a single successful game may take around four hours, but not show you nearly everything that can happen within the story. I highly recommend this if you’re looking for a fun fantasy visual novel with some heavy doses of strategy.
7. Heaven Will Be Mine
In an alternate reality, in the 1950s, the entire Earth started a war against what was known as the Existential Threat. They expanded the human race out into the stars, training people to pilot mechs which fought in the language of humanity rather than with weapons of mass destruction. But as the years went on, and the Existential Threat was revealed to be the ghost of an idea, a mere trick of the light that we assumed was an attack on our reality, the people of Earth cared less about the stars. Eventually the space program was decommissioned altogether, but not everyone wanted to go back home and leave behind their mechs for normal lives. That's where Heaven Will Be Mine's story starts: with three factions in the 1980s, leading towards a fight for the source of tidal power of all of the mechs.
What follows revolves around the best pilots of each of the three factions. It’s a story about isolationism, what it means to be human, queer romance, and mech battles where you fight and flirt at the same time. The lore’s fascinating, the multiple endings are great, and despite the branching decisions, it's not taxing to get through a completed playthrough under your belt. If you’re looking for a visual novel overflowing with ideas, this is the one you should play.
6. Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki Literature Club starts with a warning: "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed." It's the game's first, hint that not all is as it seems, but it won't be the last.
Essentially, you play as the main character of a harem love sim. Your childhood friend invites you to join the school literature club. You reluctantly agree to join and meet the other members of the club, all of whom are girls, and each day you make decisions about who to spend time with. This is a typical dating game set-up... until it isn't. To say anything more would be a spoiler, but Doki Doki spins off in interesting directions, both in terms of its story and the ways in which you're able to interact with it.
Have I said too much? If you're curious, you can dive in easily right now, since the game is free. But heed that warning.
5. Hatoful Boyfriend
Also known as Let’s Date Birds simulator. If that doesn’t pull you in, I don’t know what will.
Hatoful Boyfriend is set in a world where most humans have been killed by bird flu, and sentient birds now rule. You, a random human girl who lives in a cave, acquire a scholarship to attend a local high school – St. PigeonNation’s Institute. There, you meet a variety of birds that you can woo, from the pudding-obsessed hyperactive all-star athlete San Oko, to the definitely not a murderer creepy chukar partridge Shuu Iwamine, who happens to be the school doctor.
Look, Hatoful Boyfriend is many things. It’s a well-crafted and fantastically written parody of a Japanese dōjin soft otome visual novel. It’s a weirdly lore-heavy tale about a post-dystopian bird society. It’s a game about a human girl walking around a high school and possibly dating a variety of romantic interest archetypes, but they are birds. There’s a lot you can take from the game, but it’s also the kind of game that you shouldn’t take too seriously. And, much like Doki Doki Literature Club, it can go to some weird places.
4. Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator
I remember the first time I played DDADDS. I was visiting some friends in Seattle and we were huddled around my computer. I think I fell in love with it the moment I heard the main menu theme song, with its dreamy vocals crooning “dreeeaaaaaaaam daddy”, while the faces of several choice dads appeared. I knew in that instant that Dream Daddy was going to be spectacular.
In Dream Daddy, you create your own main character, a single dad with a rad teen daughter who moves to a new neighbourhood. In this neighbourhood, you meet a variety of other dads – most of them single, some not as single as you thought. These are the dads you will romance throughout the game, each of whom have their own storyline, bringing you to different places and presenting you with different mini games depending on the dad you pursue.
There are very few games where you can create an old Miami P.I. Goku looking character, and pretend he’s the same age as the super ripped man with young twins next door. There’s just one, in fact, and it's Dream Daddy. There writing is hilarious and heartwarming throughout, the art is beautiful to look at, and the character creator has uncommonly inclusive options.
3. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Ah. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. Or, as my friends and I like to call it: murder high school. All the Danganronpa games are great, but the first one, Trigger Happy Havoc, is where you should start
The game tells the story of Makoto Naegi, an extremely average high school boy who learns that he’s won a lottery and is enrolled in an infamous and elite academy that only accepts “Ultimate” people. People like Kiyotaka Ishimaru, "the Ultimate Moral Compass", or Celestia Ludenberg, the “Ultimate Gambler”. Makoto is “the Ultimate Lucky Student”. However, he and his fellow students find out quickly that a sadistic robot bear runs the school, and that the only way out of the academy alive is to kill another student and not get caught.
The game plays a lot like an Ace Attorney game, with each sections revolving around a murder. There’s a lot of goofy anime hair, a lot of interesting murder cases to piece together, and a lot of tension and drama that comes from the high stakes scenario. Plus, murder teddy bear Monokuma is a hammy ride.
Where can I buy this?: Steam
2. VA-11 HALL-A
VA-11 HALL-A is the kind of game in which you look an '80s-derived, late capitalist, cyberpunk future in the face and think, "Whelp. That looks a little too close to reality for comfort."
The game revolves around Jill, the bartender to a local megacorp certified divebar VA-11 HALL-A, more popularly known as Valhalla. It lies deep in the grimier part of Glitch City, a city essentially used as a guinea pig for the oligopolies of the world. Jill provides her services to a variety of patrons, from pop singing sensations to polite assassins to robot sex workers. But Jill is tested when her past catches up to her, and she must face the biggest regret of her life head on.
A lot of VA-11 HALL-A is about bartending. You progress and have better endings when you mix drinks properly, and make the correct ones for the right people. It's also about dealing with your past rather than avoiding it. It’s about depression, loss, and seeing whether one person can keep from drowning long enough to see a way to the surface. It also has stunning music with a mechanical feel, all of it robotic yet unpolished, setting a tone that matches the grungy neon aesthetic of the art.
I will say that there are some controversial anime tropes that appear in this game – read up on it first if you want to make sure you’re comfortable with the content.
1. Butterfly Soup
I have never laughed so much during a game as I did when playing Butterfly Soup. I expected it to be heartwarming and a little painful, but I did not expect how well its jokes would land, and I would recommend it on comedy alone.
Butterfly Soup follows the lives of four Asian teenage girls living in Oakland, CA in 2008 during the vote for Proposition 8. All of them end up joining the baseball team at their high school. Each of the girls – Diya, Noelle, Akarsha, and Min-Seo – get their own chapters, mostly following the love story between Diya and Min.
It’s hard to find a game that has as much personality as you’d find in Butterfly Soup. Each character is wonderful - just completely gawky teen girls who get into absurd shenanigans, with layered story arcs that intertwine with one another. As the game puts it: “It’s okay to be a flaming dumpster fire. If you want to be a butterfly, you have to be butterfly soup first.” All of the characters are finding themselves, and are figuring out ways to express themselves as they awkwardly grow into adults. Everyone should play Butterfly Soup. It’s pay-what-you-want on Itch.io, so there’s no excuse not to. And we've even included it in our round-up of our favourite free PC games.
Where can I buy this?: Itch.io