The visual novel and dating sim market for women is somewhat unique in comparison to its "for men" counterparts. Similar to the allure of BioWare games like Dragon Age versus Square Enix's Final Fantasy, the draw is first on being able to explore a rich and compelling storyline -- and also to be able to control which way that storyline leads.
The majority of these types of games don't actually require you to be 'good' at playing other games -- save for a few mini-games here and there, you generally only need to have a decent command of the English language and the ability to make up your mind.
Most otome game plots start out rather formulaic, cheesy, and generic, especially since it requires you to be introduced to a number of eligible 'catchables' as soon as possible. It's only when you decide to stick with it and keep exploring new characters, new interactions, and new storylines that the beauty of storytelling really begins to shine.
(Note for clarification: The above image is for Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ which is getting a western localization, but it doesn't look like it's going to be on Steam.)
It's taken awhile for dating sims and visual novels to really gain ground in the mainstream western gaming market. Previously the loving work of dedicated fansubbers and translators, North America is finally started to get the games localization it deserves, thanks to the efforts of companies like Idea Factory International.
After all, it's hard to deny that the process is time-consuming at best, since it means translating a novel-sized amount of dialogue (sometimes more depending on the number of branched storylines and endings)... and all of that has to happen after a company casts the eye of judgment on the market it's selling to.
Some of the games that made it huge in Japan (e.g. AMNESIA and Diabolik Lovers) have had to take second stage to game series like Hakuoki (which has enjoyed several years of popularity and game appearances on various Western consoles, handhelds, and mobile devices).
But even niche is winning out as these games really start to rake in the user reviews from fans who just can't get enough. And while Steam has gotten more than its fair share of awful-quality dating sims and visual novels (many of which are available for free), here are some of the best of the best!
This entry is actually the 4th game in the extremely popular AMNESIA otome series, but it's also the only one that's managed to make it to a PC port. Considering its fan following in Japan and an enthusiastic Western audience that has begged for a stateside release for years, it's no surprise this game shot to the top of the list.
You play as a college student whose consciousness is inexplicably and accidentally merged with a spirit named Orion while he was traveling between worlds - and in doing so, all your memories, your personality, and entire sense of self is lost.
Orion is your constant invisible companion, staying by your side until you can recover your memories and adapt to the strange world you no longer remember. Oh, and you're also surrounded by a gorgeous yet somewhat problematic bevy of men who happen to be crazy in love with you. Who to pursue, who to win?
You can check it out on Steam here.
It's lucky that Orion is chock-full of personality, because your character is unfortunately something of an empty box of a Bella Swan. Story-wise, it's a side effect of getting her memories and her personality knocked right out of her, but she's incredibly passive in many of her interactions with all the pretty boys... sometimes a little too much so, especially considering how many dark turns this story can take.
This game makes no bones about the fact that it packages up a crazy, controlling, and stalkerish boyfriend into the most perfect romance ever - but heck, as we've learned with Twilight, that's just A-OK with North American audiences these days.
That doesn't make the story any less compelling or interesting to learn about fully by playing through all the different possibilities and endings. It's also what attracts other players aside from its usual target market of women wanting to romance good-looking men who see a strange, occasionally twisted story, and want to learn more about it.
And you never know what can happen - trust this guy and he may kill you. Or lock you in a cage. Because he loves you.
(Remember, it's a story. Not your story.)
The game is fully voice-acted and its production levels are through the roof with gorgeous art and hours of replayability. It also incorporates a set of mini-games (who doesn't want to play rock-paper-scissors with their true love?) and a little more gameplay than is the usual wont in the visual novel experience.
Nameless ~The one thing you must recall~
This entry hails from Korean company Cheritz, whose dating sim style games have been appearing in English for several years now -- and as of last year, have managed to get two of their more popular offerings onto Steam through Greenlight.
The story in Nameless starts off as simply as the others - you play a woman who recently lost her grandfather, with whom she has grown up alone. An avid collector of ball-joint dolls, one night they suddenly come to life -- a group of incredibly good-looking, life-sized men.
Crazy, right? She thinks so too. Good writing and a relatable protagonist makes this story shine.
Nameless ~The one thing you must recall~
Nameless follows a more straight-forward visual novel style compared to Cheritz's other game Dandelion (which includes a stat system that can be a little awkward to get a hang of right away), but still bucks the blank slate heroine trend of most VNs by offering a character that is at once likable and someone you can relate to, with dialogue options and decision-making choices that you would really probably make.
This isn't to say that Nameless is free of all the dark twistiness that is almost a staple at this point of visual novels. Nothing quite tugs the feels like horrible psychological trauma sometimes, and Nameless knows how to dish in spades. Be aware that this is paced a lot slower (as is most Korean story-telling in my experience) than the usual western or Japanese counterparts.
You wouldn't think to expect a great deal of quality from a weird eclectic genre mix that's "a gameplay first approach that’s part dating sim, part puzzle game, with light RPG elements, a visual novel style of presentation, an abrasive western writing style and plenty of “plot”."
And yet, it still manages to squeak onto this list for pure LOL-worthy play. This is one of those dating sims that doesn't particularly care whether or not your character is male or female - it happily caters the same way to both, by throwing as many pretty girls in your path as possible.
Originally a Kickstarter darling (one that actually managed to pan out properly), HuniePop opens with a simple premise - you are awful at picking up women, and Kyu the invisible love fairy is determined to make you the greatest gift to womenkind the world has ever seen.
And boy, once you get into it, an entire world of shameless pickup lines and unlockable sexy outfits is yours to discover.
This isn't to say that HuniePop is all standard fare and cringe-worthy dialogue. (Well it is, but it's done so well you'll actually probably like it!)
Fully voice-acted, this game gears its dialogue decently whether you've decided to play as a guy or a girl (although its admittedly better if you play through as a guy -- yuri mode was an add-on tier to the original concept). And it's all pretty well-done too, boasting a strong cast of female voice actresses (extra impressive since a large number of them were in answer to an open casting call through Kickstarter).
With a strangely compelling combination of casual match 3 gameplay and hardcore information management (there is lot to know about each of these girls!), the stereotypical ladyfriend options in HuniePop are grounded by the game's extremely self-aware sense of humor. The dialogue is written and presented in such a slyly tongue-in-cheek way, you can enjoy the gameplay, the girls, and the "plot" while still laughing good-naturedly at yourself and your bumbling character all the way through.
This is a good-natured, fun, and incredibly westernized parody of the entire genre, and it's surprising how enjoyable it can actually be.
(Plus, who can say no to match 3 games? Even Totalbiscuit learned to like it.)
Did you wonder whether or not this would make the cut? HAVE NO FEAR!
Half parody, half shockingly in-depth story, your character is the only human student at the prestigious St. PigeoNation’s Institute for talented birds. As a sophomore, you go to class and you find romance among the birds at the greatest pigeon high school.
Simple, crazy, and stupid, right?
If you stick with it, you couldn't be more wrong. Though it starts out looking like a few hours worth of silly romancing (with pigeons!), you slowly begin to realize that something about the world around you is very, very off.
And it's not just the pigeons. Nothing is really what it appears to be, and the tone of the game can turn from hilarity to horror on a dime. Screw your expectations, you aren't just going to laugh at this game... especially not when you reset and decide to "fulfill the promise" to discover what the real experience really is.
The dating sim section really only feels like an extended prologue at this point, to introduce you to all these characters that you slowly become attached to -- and then it proceeds to tear apart everything you have ever loved.
If you didn't expect effective storytelling, you'll find it anyway. And then you'll probably never look at a pigeon again without crying under a table.
You can find it on Steam here.
There are a bunch of other games available on Steam (the above included; it's from Hustle Cat, where you play as the newest employee at the popular cat cafe A Cat's Paw) that just didn't manage to make it onto this list... though they probably deserve to be. (I can't play everything!)
What else do you think should get a mention? Let us know!