8 of the Best Visual Novels You Should Play in 2021

I am once again asking you to play more visual novels.

I can see why there’s a temptation for (particularly western) game development studios to create April Fool’s jests out of making a visual novel spin-off of one of their games. I know it’s not always out of malice, either! But I do feel this temptation is tied to a larger failure of the industry to give the genre the respect it deserves more often. It’s ironic because visual novels have clearly influenced so many games famous for their stories.

Games like Hades, Disco Elysium, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and NieR either incorporate visual novel elements or have dedicated visual novel sections. The newly released Fantasian, the first RPG created by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi in over a decade, has distinct visual novel segments. Visual novels have served as the foundation for the presentation of some of the greatest stories in the medium — and they’ve also contained them. As such, here is a list of eight fantastic visual novels you should play — especially if you’re wanting to fill in the gaps between big releases this year with some amazing stories.

The House in Fata Morgana

The universe brought you to this article for a reason. I am begging that reason to be that it makes you play The House in Fata Morgana. I don’t care if it’s today, a year, or several years from now — if that’s the one thing I accomplish from writing this, I’m happy. I’ve read so many books, watched so many movies, played so many video games; experienced so many stories. The House in Fata Morgana is the most exquisite and moving story I have ever known.

It is a tale about You, the Master of a mysterious mansion with numerous doors. The Maid of this mansion invites you to travel through its halls, behold the tragedies of the people who have resided in it throughout history, and remember who you are. A tale that jumps genres as smoothly as it hops between vast periods of time across a millennium. A tale with writing that is melodic and has been painstakingly translated and localized to preserve its magic. A tale with one of the most brilliant and carefully constructed soundtracks you will hear in video games. And, ultimately, a tale that revels in exploring the depths of the human condition in ways that have left me — and all the fans of this cult classic — unable to go long without thinking about it.

(Also, it’s coming to the Switch soon! It’s available for pre-order until April 25 over at Limited Run Games and will come out later this year. Please play The House in Fata Morgana.)

The Zero Escape Series

Each story in the Zero Escape series centers around a Nonary Game, which is conducted by a mysterious person named Zero who inflicts constant suffering and murder among the game’s participants. That’s the cleanest way I can safely summarize this complicated series. While I certainly loved visual novels before 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward ever existed, they marked a new chapter in my love for the genre. They instilled in me the belief that no other genre has as much storytelling potential that is inextricably tied to the medium. There are many games that tell incredible stories despite it. Much rarer are the ones that explicitly use the medium’s defining characteristics — and not just interactivity — to tell those stories elegantly.

There is no detective mystery that comes close to Zero Escape; to its impeccable twists and turns, its ability to make you feel clueless and like a genius in equal measure. Even with Zero Time Dilemma being possibly the most disappointing game I’ve played (for extremely understandable reasons you’ll learn through researching its development circumstances), the first two games are so flawless that they are worth experiencing. That’s how good they are. And I write this as someone who thinks it’s kind of bullshit when we try to sell the idea that an ending doesn’t matter; that it’s all about the journey. Reading these sentences probably seems confusing and full of contradictions, but I think you’ll get it once you play Zero Escape. There’s simply nothing like it.

Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni

Higurashi, and its fantasy counterpart Umineko, are the visual novels that made me love visual novels. For years, I wondered if I fucked up by experiencing Higurashi so early on. Was another game ever going to reach its genius, brutality, heart, and sense of catharsis? I wish someone could’ve told baby visual novel fan me that she wouldn’t be left wanting. Eventually, I learned that while there will be many more joining it, Higurashi will also never lose its place at the top. So many years later, only a few stories match up to the When They Cry series in general.

Higurashi is split between several “Question Arcs” that present hundreds of questions and corresponding “Answer Arcs” that reveal the truth of those mysteries. It’s an incredibly unique format that no other series does so brilliantly. These stories take place in the small countryside village of Hinamizawa, which has a yearly festival that ends in a shocking death. The juxtaposition between its cute characters and gruesome horror is its biggest selling point — one that has succeeded enough to give Higurashi its intense global fame. I’ll never forget how the combination of the writing, music, and atmosphere in one scene in the first episode (which is free on Steam!) is what made me realize that I’m the kind of person who immediately cries when they’re scared.

Butterfly Soup

I don’t need to play every game to know that Butterfly Soup is one of the funniest games in the world. This is just a fact. It’s a hilarious game — and a deeply poignant one, too. You can play it for free at itch.io, but it’s the kind of game that is so wonderful that it deserves all the support it can get — especially as a story about women of color written by a woman of color. It’s gay as hell and full of memes and heart in equal measure.

I cannot emphasize it enough: it is relentlessly funny in the most endearing ways. But when it delves into subjects like parental emotional and physical abuse, mental health, and marginalization, the change is never jarring. It’s an expertly crafted story with vibrant characters that manage to be completely different from each other yet equally lovable. The writing in Butterfly Soup — with all its little quirks and details — accomplishes more in four hours than many large games do in dozens. It’s an unabashed celebration of what it means to be a queer girl in a world that is sometimes hostile and sometimes welcoming to people like us; of friendships and relationships between women; of love in all its forms.

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CLANNAD

The CLANNAD anime, which is a pretty faithful adaptation of this visual novel, is my favorite anime of all time. I’m always eager to recommend it! I hesitate a little more when recommending the visual novel because it’s so long. This is a significant time investment — but it’s a worthwhile one. There is a reason why CLANNAD will never stop being as famous as it is. After his mother’s death, a delinquent high school student named Tomoya Okazaki struggles to navigate his abusive relationship with his alcoholic father. One day, he meets a fellow student who helps him realize there is meaning in life — and, specifically, in his own.

Playing CLANNAD helped me find meaning in mine. I find much of my healing occurs when I get to know a story and characters that touch me deeply and allow me to cry. That’s a therapeutic experience for me. But CLANNAD is a rare exception — experiencing it genuinely hurt. Thinking about it as I write this sparks hurt. But it’s stories like this that make me thankful to be alive and able to experience them. I know I’m far from alone.

Umineko No Naku Koro Ni

As a fellow entry in the When They Cry series, Umineko is structured like Higurashi. But it’s a lot more fantastical, involving witches, magic, the occult, and many closed room murder mysteries. You follow the large Ushiromiya family, which travels to the island of Rokkenjima every year for a family conference. But the family’s patriarch is dying, and his children are eager to fight for his inheritance and power. Brutal murders begin to occur, and the presence of a 19th person when there should only be 18 is discovered. What happens unfolds across several “Question Arcs” and “Answer Arcs” that never stop shocking you.

I don’t find Umineko as scary as Higurashi, but I find it to be more mature. It’s as beautiful as it is unpredictable thanks to Ryukishi07’s talent in capturing humanity’s joys and tragedies. Its characters of marginalized genders particularly shine in their complexity and vulnerability. I’d say Umineko was the first story I deeply loved like no other. It was my first proper fandom, my introduction to visual novels, and for many years the game I loved most. It’s impossible to imagine my life without its influence. Its impact on me has been immeasurable, and even today it’s representative of some of the best storytelling feats the whole medium can accomplish.

Across the Grooves

As a part-time writer and college student, the thing I most lack is time. There are so many incredible games I don’t have the time to play, sure. But I especially regret the ones I play, fall in love with but don’t have the time to write about. Across the Grooves is perhaps my number one example of this as a games journalist. I had the most wonderful time with this gorgeous visual novel, which is as visually stunning as it is fascinating in its constantly unraveling mystery.

In Across the Grooves you play Alice, whose life irrevocably changes after she listens to a mysterious record she receives in the mail. It sends her on a hunt across Europe, following the tracks of an ex-lover and the origins of a record that has the power to transform reality. I don’t much care for replaying games, but Across the Grooves is one of the few I immediately replayed to see the many subtle but different and intensely creative ways in which my choices were honored. We talk a lot about choice and replayability when analyzing games these days. It’s games like this one that show how visual novels mastered that art long before other genres.

Necrobarista

Necrobarista is the story of a group of friends who run a cafe that exists between the realm of the living and dead. This cafe serves as a stop for the deceased, giving them the space to come to terms with their circumstances before they move on to the afterlife. You’ll learn about these friends, why they practice necromancy, and how they come to terms with death as people who navigate it every day.

Few games feel so perfectly named — I wrote about this in my review and still feel that way now. It easily moves between the dark and the light; the inexplicable and the ordinary; the witty and the heartfelt. It is masterful in the range and ever-present vulnerability of its characters. Like our lives, it is short and filled with equal amounts of heartbreak and beauty worth experiencing. If you didn’t get around to Necrobarista last year, then you should fix that. Similar to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, it’s a reflection of the exciting ways in which new visual novels are evolving in their presentation.

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Natalie Flores

Natalie is Fanbyte's Featured Contributor, with bylines at places like VICE, Polygon, PC Gamer, Paste Magazine, and more.

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