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How to get into visual novels

(Image credit: capcom)

Just like JRPGs, visual novels can seem inaccessible at first, and have an unfair reputation for focusing on eroticism or just plain strangeness. Visual novels come in all shapes, and while it helps to like anime tropes, the strength of these games is in the characters and storytelling. Visual novels are an important narrative genre used by developers around the world to explore relationships in depth.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney trilogy

Link: Steam

Fun, family-friendly and stuffed with memorable characters, Ace Attorney is the series that put visual novels on the map for many people. It’s also one of the most interactive. Attorney Phoenix Wright doesn’t give up until he’s cracked the case, even if he has to enlist ghosts and parrots as his witnesses.

Steins;Gate

(Image credit: nitroplus)

Link: Official site

The many branching paths of a visual novel are a great vehicle for time travel, and Steins;Gate is the best example of this. It offers a fairly standard yet surprisingly dark narrative.

Hatoful Boyfriend

(Image credit: devolver digital)

Link: Steam

You’ve likely seen this visual novel which began its life as an April Fool’s spoof on dating sims. In a future in which birds rule over mankind, you’re the only human at an all-bird high school. If you get far enough before the premise loses appeal, you’ll uncover an intricate horror story. You should stick with it, because the end game is delightfully strange. Also, who wouldn’t want to date all the birds?

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

(Image credit: spike)

Link: Steam

Danganronpa tells the story of 15 students trying to escape their school by murdering each other. You expose culprits in Ace Attorney-style classroom trials.

Va-11 Hall-A

(Image credit: surkeban)

Link: Official site

If you just want to relax and have engaging conversations, try bartending sim Va-11 Hall-A. It’s set in a cyberpunk world that features humanoid dogs and androids, but the topics your guests discuss pertain to real issues of today. The dialogue feels natural—your character Jill is a bartender who treats her patrons as her equals, whoever they are. And the drink mixing is a welcome diversion from reading.

Butterfly Soup

(Image credit: brianna lei)

Link: itch.io

Here you’re not a guy trying to wheedle his way in with the ladies. Butterfly Soup focuses on two girls falling in love as they spend their days with their friends. Great writing offers believable relationships and fully realised characters, who you learn a lot about by taking control of different characters throughout.

Clannad

(Image credit: key)

Link: Steam

Clannad is the visual novel that originated many of the genre’s conventions—a painfully average guy meets a number of cute girls and slowly gains their trust while he helps out at his high school’s drama club. Its central romance features multiple branching pathways and doesn’t shy away from bad outcomes. Clannad’s a real tear-jerker for many people, since it focuses on a terminally ill girl who, thanks to you, finds joy in life once more.