Top Five Visual Novels to Play (if You've Never Played One Before)

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While visual novels have never quite caught on in the West, plenty of the genre's classics have been localized and are playable on a surprising number of devices.  If you've ever had an interest in playing these text-driven games, now is probably the best time to start.  

Whether you've never played one before or you've played so many visual novels you see text boxes in your sleep, here's five of the greatest, most accessible games in the genre.

(Image courtesy of Capcom)

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy

One of the best gateway series' to visual novels, the Ace Attorney franchise is one of the most well-known visual novels in the West because of it's unique hybrid gameplay. Rather than just scroll through text, the series makes you an active participant -- putting you in the shoes of a heroic defense attorney defending his client.  To do this, you need to listen to witness testimonies, find contradictions with the evidence, and present them with a loud "Objection!"  Along the way, you'll encounter not only engaging mysteries in need of solving, but a huge, colorful cast of characters with different schemes of their own.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy collects the original three games, and is available on the Nintendo eShop and iOS.  Outside of the original trilogy, there are two more games in the series, available on the DS and 3DS, with a sixth game arriving on the eShop later this year. So you won't have to worry about running out of crimes to solve anytime soon.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

If you liked Ace Attorney, but thought it felt a little too...sane... than Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is exactly your sort of game. Leaving the courtroom, the setting is instead a private high school of the incredibly talented, which has been taken over by a sadistic talking teddy bear.  The only way to escape is to commit the perfect murder, than successfully pin the blame on someone else in a class trial.  Succeed, and you go free, lose, and you'll be creatively (and messily) executed.

Danganronpa takes the trial gameplay of Ace Attorney and puts it on steroids, imposing harsh time limits and minigames that range from simple games of hangman to fast-paced rhythm battles. The entire game is complete madness, with great writing that jumps from comedy to mystery to horror at a moment's notice -- and that's what makes it so special.  

Add in a dwindling cast of memorable characters and you have a great game for fans of the genre and newbs alike. This game (and it's even better sequel) are both available on the PlayStation Vita and on Steam, and you should definitely check it out.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

One of the best examples of "great games no one played," 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is the first game in the cult classic Zero Escape series, a hybrid of visual novel and those "escape the room" flash games you probably played in middle school.  

You play as a college student who finds himself in a Saw-like game of death on board a sinking ship, where the only way out is to cooperate with the eight other passengers and seek the door marked with a nine.  While simple enough, every character has their own secrets and mysterious agendas, and nothing is as simple as it seems.

 The gameplay is divided in two parts; escaping from the rooms by finding and combining object and solving puzzles, and visual novel sections.  Along the way, you'll have to make decisions that will determine which of the game's six endings you get.  

Unfortunately, this game is one of the harder ones to get your hands on, as it only received a limited release, but you can generally find used copies online or at your local game store.  In the meantime, there's a great demo online that you can play.  The sequel, Virtue's Last Reward is available on the 3DS and Vita, and the end of the trilogy comes out the end of this month on 3DS, Vita, and Steam.

Steins;Gate

One of the true classics of the genre, Steins;Gate is a sci-fi adventure where you play as a self-proclaimed mad scientist who accidentally creates time travel.  This results in unwanted government attention, and soon he has to use his invention to change both his past and future and save his friends' lives.  Using a unique "phone trigger" system, you determine what happens by sending text messages through your phone, which influence the course of the story and what ending you get.

Steins;Gate features a long, emotional story, one that will stick with you for a long time after you finish playing.  Originally available on PC, the game received a re-release on the PlayStation 3 and Vita last year, an incredibly polished port that I would recommend to anyone who hasn't played it yet.

Higurashi When They Cry

Higurashi, the first in the popular When They Cry series, is an episodic visual novel set in the peaceful village of Hinamizawa.  While each episode starts off as a slice-of-life comedy, they slowly descend into madness for reasons unknown -- eventually ending in violent death for the town's inhabitants, as ancient curses and the townspeople's own selfish goals come to a boiling point.  Exactly how much is real and how much is madness is unknown, but what is known is that Higurashi is a melancholy game of mystery and extreme violence.  Seriously, you have been warned.

Higurashi, which started as a visual novel series and has expanded to include a manga, anime, and live action movie as well, is currently being re-released on Steam with updated art and sprites.  The first two episodes are already up, so if you can stomach the horrors that await you, give it a try.

What's your favorite visual novel?  Did we miss one?  Let us know in the comments!

Published Jun. 8th 2016

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