The best visual novels on PC

Clichés dominate visual novels, but there’s so much more to this genre than just steamy romance or mundane slices of Japanese students’ lives. Over the past few years, more and more talented developers are creating experimental games, shorter novella-like experiences, and clever subversions of the anime tropes that started it all. Visual novels are finally cool.

Choosing where to start can be intimidating, however. If you’ve missed the boat up until this point and want to catch up, we’ve put together a list of the best visual novels on PC, from the traditional Japanese games that kickstarted the genre to the more ambitious and unique takes on the format. 

It’s by no means a comprehensive list of every visual novel you should play, and we heartily recommend you scour through itch.io for its hidden indie gems under the visual novel tag. But if you’re looking to get started, these are the best visual novels on PC.

Clannad 

Developer: Key
Release date:
November 23, 2015
Link:
Steam page

Only released on PC in the West just a couple of years ago, Clannad is one of the most popular visual novels ever—spawning an anime, a film, manga, and even an audio drama. It tells the story of Tomoya Okazaki, a “delinquent” (Clannad’s words, not mine) struggling with an existential crisis. He meets Nagisa Furukawa, another “delinquent” who he resonates with, and they begin working together to restart the school drama club, enlisting other students along the way. 

Clannad is the place to go if you like the stereotypes of visual novels. It was originally released in 2004, and perfectly shows the merits of the genre even if it feels like familiar territory at this point. Where visual novels shine is in strong writing, interesting characters, and a perspective that can draw you in. Even without the bells and whistles of modern visual novels, Clannad does exactly that.

It’s a story about a young man learning how making his own happiness. Tomoya’s story can be seen as analogous to depression, and yet it doesn’t quite fall into the trap of manic pixie dream girls, but of finding something in a life marked by tragedy. It may seem cliché, but that’s not because it’s unoriginal: it’s because people have been copying Clannad for over a decade.

The Nonary Games/Zero Time Dilemma (the Zero Escape series) 

Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Release date:
March 24, 2017
Link:
Steam page 

If you enjoy getting your hands dirty with puzzles, the Zero Escape series is perhaps your best bet. There are three games in this series: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors; Virtue’s Last Reward; and Zero Time Dilemma. The first two were only ported to PC in 2017 (with remastered visuals and new voice acting), as a pack called The Nonary Games, while Zero Time Dilemma stands on its own.

In each game, nine people are locked in a place by a mysterious figure using the name Zero. They’re each fitted with watches that each display a number, and told that they must escape whatever place they’re in by working through puzzles contained by nine doors. It all gets a bit Saw-like when people start dying in gruesome ways, such as acid showers and bombs inserted into people’s stomachs.

You’re not just reading the whole time, either. Point-and-click segments challenge you to solve puzzles to escape through each door. Some of these puzzles get pretty difficult as you go on, like having to decipher an unknown language made of symbols. They never feel like a cop-out, there’s rarely anything as simple as having to solve a Tower of Hanoi puzzle for the umpteenth time.

Zero Escape is grim, but the story is fascinating and well told. Choices you make result in different endings, and the games play into it in a way no other visual novel really has. The way that you, the player (as opposed to you, the character), can have knowledge that characters don’t, in a form of dramatic irony, is executed brilliantly when you have different timelines and endings to consider.

Ladykiller in a Bind 

Developer: Love Conquers All Games
Release date:
October 10, 2016
Link:
Steam page

The full title of Ladykiller in a Bind is ‘My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress as Him and Now I Have to Deal with a Geeky Stalker and a Domme Beauty Who Want Me in a Bind!!’ But try to forget that. As a somewhat traditionally styled visual novel, Ladykiller in a Bind is about socially manipulating a bunch of lusty teenagers. The setting is what rich kids might call a school trip and the rest of us might call a once-in-a-lifetime holiday on a cruise. You’re The Beast, a lesbian who isn’t shy from flirting or going back to the bedroom. The Beast has been forced by her twin brother, a manipulative asshole, to pretend to be him for mysterious reasons on this cruise where she wants to be sleeping around, but must keep up appearances so as not to arouse suspicion.

Social manipulation is the name of the game, choosing the rights words and phrases in the midst of conversation to maintain your disguise as your twin brother while also trying to get with every woman on the cruise. This mix of social manipulation and playing an asshole (who is, in herself, pretending to be even more of an asshole) is executed brilliantly, and, if you choose to, results in more than a few steamy scenes with other students.

Ladykiller in a Bind is an unquestionably adult game. Although you can turn sex scenes off and hide nudity, you get to know those characters much more intimately in what are genuinely well-written sex scenes—none of the fluff you found knocking about your aunt’s bookcase.

Steins;Gate

Developer: 5pb.
Release date:
September 8, 2016
Link:
Steam page

Steins;Gate is a tale of time travel that explores the complicated web of cause and effect. Rintarō Okabe, a mad scientist who acts as the protagonist, has created a time machine where he can send text messages into the past. Using it, he and others begin to work towards improving the future by influencing past actions.

Twisting, branching paths are a staple of the visual novel genre—the Zero Escape series explores how it can be used to great effect too—but Steins;Gate’s use of time travel gets wild. Cause and effect become tangled, the actions of the future affect the past and plunge characters into totally unforseen situations. All sorts of major things can change depending on if you just answer your phone.

The story never becomes too confusing, thankfully, and Steins;Gate makes every ending count, even the ones where you royally screwed up. Because of that, you see all the characters in a variety of ways, from their best to their worst. Afterwards, they feel fleshed out in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc 

Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Release date:
February 18, 2016
Link:
Steam page

It’s likely that Danganronpa is at least partially responsible for the growing popularity of visual novels outside of Japan. Similarly to Zero Escape, it combines visual novel elements with puzzle solving as a group of students realize that Japan’s most prestigious private school is actually a murderous battle royale of wits. 

To escape, a student must murder another and then survive a courtroom trial held by their peers. Once other students begin murdering each other, as protagonist Makoto Naegi it’s your job to gather clues, question suspects, present your case, and find the culprit. 

The court cases aren’t just a series of dialogue choices but literal shootouts. Armed with truth bullets, each of which represent a bit of evidence you’ve found, you can back up or refute claims from other students. If you find the murder weapon, for example, you can refute a student who says there’s no weapon by shooting the text as it crosses the screen. You’ve got to pay attention, watching for gaps in logic and working out which piece of evidence proves you’re right.

All of the writing and character designs are funny, a contrast to the grim atmosphere of a game about students murdering each other in fits of desperation, with the mysterious and antagonistic Monobear egging them on in crueler and crueler ways. It’s an utterly absurd cast, but sitting them next to such a dark setting highlights how well they’re all written.

Simulacra 

Developer: Kaigan Games
Release date:
October 26, 2017
Link:
Steam page 

The visual novel genre isn’t quite as limiting as it may seem, and Simulacra is one of the best examples of how it doesn’t quite have to fit the style you might expect. It’s described as a “found phone” game, a genre that has recently become somewhat popular with games like Bury Me, My Love and A Normal Lost Phone. 

You find a phone on your doorstep, which you soon discover was owned by a woman called Anna, who has gone missing. A short video which she filmed shortly before her disappearance implies something evil is afoot, with glitches and jumpcuts in the video designed to unsettle you. All of the videos and images have these subtle touches. From interface to the selfie perspective videos, the attention to detail is amazing.

Over time, you get to text her friends, go through her social media profiles, even speak to the people she was flirting with on a dating app. It’s all incredibly upsetting. Simulacra will constantly push you further into the realm of voyeurism, asking how far you’re willing to go into this woman’s life to maybe, just maybe, save her life. 

The story is only a few hours long, and there’s multiple endings depending on if you succeed in your goals. You can pretend to be Anna, questioning her friends while trying to emulate what personality you can gleam from her texts, or be open, an honest voice in trying to search for Anna. Turn down the lights, turn off your phone, and settle in for a night of amateur voyeuristic detective work for this one, because it’s worth that added atmosphere. 

Long Live The Queen 

Developer: Hanako Games
Release date:
November 8, 2013
Link:
Steam page

While this slot could have been taken by a number of games from Hanako, Long Live The Queen is by far their most successful in every sense of the word. It puts you in control of a princess soon to be coronated and become the queen. Oh, and she's just a kid. 

It sounds cute, but other people want that throne for themselves, and are willing to do anything to obtain it—including murder a 14-year-old girl. With her coronation 40 weeks away, it's your job to guide her through day-to-day life and make sure she survives.

Through the game, you’ll pick her studies and control aspects of her life, molding this princess into a queen, giving her the skills to rule both with grace and bravery. Like Crusader Kings 2 or Dwarf Fortress, Love Live the Queen is a wonderful game for creating anecdotes as your run will almost certainly come to an end with a grisly but funny fate. It's not necessarily about surviving the 40 weeks as much as it is filling in the pockets of subtext with your own imagination. There’s plenty of depth to it, too. As whether your live or die is not quite as simple as a random roll of the dice, and there’s all sorts of stats to manage and micromanage as the weeks pass.

VA-11 Hall-A

Developer: Sukeban Games
Release date:
June 21, 2016
Link:
Steam page

VA-11 Hall-A takes the perspective of a bartender in a dystopian future, giving you a unique view on life as you see people at both their best and their worst, their highs and lows.

There’s a lot to the world of VA-11 Hall-A (which is further revealed in 2064: Read Only Memories, a phenomenal point-and-click game from a different developer but in the same world), but VA-11 Hall-A focuses purely on the stories of your various patrons. In Glitch City, corporations and the White Knights impose law through nanomachines and violence, a constant surveillance state where the mythologized independence of a virtual future left a long time ago.

Of course, as the bartender, you’re hearing the voices of the people when they’re not under surveillance. The gossip, the personal stories, the fears and dreams and desires of the people. Where Simulacra is voyeuristic, VA-11 Hall-A makes you feel privileged that these people are opening up to you over a cocktail you’ve made from cyberpunk alcohol.

Because of this quite candid approach to storytelling, VA-11 Hall-A isn't a singular narrative rather than a series of vignettes into the lives of dystopian dwellers. That window is impermanent, however, as each visit will always be overshadowed by the real possibility that they might never return.

The Yawhg

Developer: Damian Sommer, Emily Carroll
Release date:
May 30, 2013
Link:
Steam page

Sometimes a game half fits a genre and half doesn’t. The Yawhg is one such game. It's a choose-your-own-adventure for up to four local players, each of which plays a character in a town that, in six weeks, will be destroyed by the Yawhg. 

The townsfolk and your characters don’t know that the Yawhg is coming, but you, the player, do. Will you go about your day to day life normally? Or will you ring the bell, calling for the people of this town to flee as a prophet? Each decision can have dramatically different consequences.

The Yawhg bends the conventions of visual novels but still shares the same heart for storytelling, which is why it's on this list. You’re offered scenes that act more as prompts for you and friends than paragraphs of text, with both gorgeous art and a fantastic soundtrack to act as your backdrop.

That makes The Yawhg unique here, as all of the other games push you into a persona that’s already been made while The Yawhg calls you to create your own. There’s 50 endings in total, and none of them are the ‘true’ ending, just one of many options depending on the choices you and your friends make. The situations created by the game are interesting, surprising, and leave the perfect amount of room for players to add their own spin on things. The Yawhg is a prime example of how a visual novel can do wild things, and perhaps also the place to go for a tabletop RPG-like experience.