Visual Novels are a pretty niche genre, at least for most Western markets. They’re very popular in their native Japan, and though still not a huge market over here, have been picking-up steam in recent years. Speaking of, Steam carries a ton of localized and amateur visual novels. While there have been some issues with censorship of these titles on the platform, it’s still one of the only places to get these kinds of games unless you go right to the publisher.
Lots of visual novels tend to be part interactive story while incorporating some dating sim mechanics as well. While this is a bit of a played out formula, it’s one that’s employed by a lot of classic visual novels. On the other hand, there are some pretty interesting visual novels that either stay away from these tropes entirely or play with them in order to play on the player’s expectations. Here are some of the best visual novels you can get on Steam.
Updated by Madison Lennon on April 5, 2020: Visual novels are extremely popular on Steam for many reasons. The main one is their method of storytelling, which couples gorgeous graphics with compelling writing and an interactive quality that appeals to fans of video games.
The following list is full of some of the best visual novels available on Steam. We went ahead and updated it with a few more options, some are dark, some are more lighthearted, but there should be something that appeals to almost anyone, regardless of what genre you love best.
15 The House In Fata Morgana
The House in Fata Morgana is a very popular visual novel that even won several awards and received a manga adaptation. Players start out as a spirit that awakens inside of a mansion with amnesia.
They then encounter one of the maids, who guides them back in time to separate time periods so that the player can slowly regain their memories and remember what happened during the time before waking up. The hope is that the spirit may recognize themselves as a person from one of the past lives.
14 Analogue: A Hate Story
This is a great visual novel for people who enjoy science fiction and games like Neir Automata. The story revolves around a ship that was sent into space years before the novel begins to start the first interstellar space colony. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan and the crew vanishes.
You’re given the chance to read through the dead crew logs and see what happened to them while accompanied by an A.I. There are also several romantic options and multiple possible endings. It is one of the top-rated visual novels on Steam for its dark story and entrancing characters.
13 Everlasting Summer
Semyon is an ordinary guy with an ordinary life, until one day he falls asleep on a bus in the middle of winter and wakes up in the summer, at a pioneer camp. Everlasting Summer chronicles his journey at the camp as he tries to figure out how he got there and how to get back — or even if she should go back.
In the process, he could even find romance if he’s lucky. But amidst the summer heat, he’ll need to solve the central mystery of the camp and its somewhat strange inhabitants.
12 Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy
If you love solving puzzles or watching crime shows, then you should definitely try playing the Phoenix Wright trilogy. Steam compiled all of the visual novels into one updated complete set and it’s extremely addicting. Each episode gives you a case.
You’ll need to find the clues and figure out what happened before going to court where you embark on a three-day trial and question your witness while trying to contradict their testimony with the evidence you find. It’s fun, and the dialogue is often humorous. It will test your logic skills and keep you busy for hours at a time.
Island is a story rich visual novel that gets very in-depth with multiple endings and different routes to take on each playthrough. The story revolves around Sanzenkai Setsuna, who wakes up on the mysterious island of Urashima.
While there, he begins to explore the island’s many mysteries along with his relationship between three girls named Rinne, Karen, and Sara. It is a picturesque paradise, but the island has a dark secret and hidden past that will need to be uncovered. Learning about each girl will help unlock the key to saving Urashima.
10 Hatoful Boyfriend
First released in 2011, Hatoful Boyfriend got some recognition with western media outlets due to a fan translation of the original game. The game’s strange concept was enough to get people to try it out and many liked what they played.
The game is an “otome” visual novel, meaning that it’s aimed towards female audiences. But the setting and narrative are interesting enough that that really doesn’t matter. In any case, a dating sim where all the romantic interests are Pigeons seems weird enough for anyone to enjoy.
9 Doki Doki Literature Club!
Even if you don’t follow visual novels there’s a pretty decent chance that you’ve heard of Doki Doki Literature Club! The game was first released in 2017 and quickly gained traction due to the exposure it received from let’s plays.
But it wasn’t the cutesy anime setting that made this stand out. Though that certainly seemed like the case at first, the more you progress through Doki Doki’s story, the darker it gets. What on the surface seems like a standard school life dating sim turns into a shocking psychological horror title. For those looking for something different and well thought out, this is a must try.
8 Higurashi: When They Cry
Initially released in 2002 as an independent (dōjin soft) game, Higurashi: When They Cry is yet another example of a visual novel that’s different from what it presents itself as. Unlike most of the visual novels on this list, Higurashi has little to no player interaction and instead presents them with a narrative to read through. Kind of like a book with pictures, music, and voice acting.
The game was released in various arcs, the first half being question arcs while the latter half served as answer arcs. Though the art style and character interactions make it seem innocent enough, Higurashi is really mystery/horror experience at its core, with a really interesting narrative that draws you in with each chapter.
7 VA-11 HALL-A
While visual novels were conceived in Japan, developers outside the country have been able to add their own spin on the genre. VA-11 HALL-A is best described as a sort of cyberpunk bartending simulator with visual novel aspects.
The game was developed by a Venezuelan studio called Sukeban Games and after its initially release on PC in 2016, was ported to the PS4, Vita and the Switch. Not only is VA-11 HALL-A a fun game, but it also looks fantastic and is a must play for gamers looking for something a little different.
6 Umineko: When They Cry
From the same mind behind Higurashi, Umineko is a much grander narrative effort than its predecessor. The story is presented as a standard murder-mystery, taking place on a private island and follows the Ushiromiya family.
The narrative is ambitious and the cast of characters much larger than Higurashi. There’s question and answer arcs similar to Higurashi, but Umineko’s narrative is harder to anticipate. It leaves you guessing throughout and will always surprise you with its various twists.
In the world of visual novels, Key is one of the most well-known developers and well-respected developers. Their most popular and acclaimed work by far is 2004’s Clannad. What seems like a standard slice-of-life story at first, Clannad is notorious for its emotional narrative and sudden changes.
It lulls you into a false sense of security over the course of many hours and once you’re comfortable, completely turns things upside-down. It’s a very long visual novel with tons to do and various routes to explore.
4 The Silver Case
Though Grasshopper Manufacture may be known for their more action oriented titles, the developer got their start the 1999 visual novel The Silver Case. Originally released for the PlayStation in Japan, the game would not make its way west until the 2016 PC port.
The Silver Case has the player follow two different scenarios that both revolve around a serial murder mystery. It’s incredible atmosphere and outstanding narrative make it an absolute must play, especially for fans of Goichi Suda’s work.
3 Danganronpa Trilogy
It’s hard to decide which of the mainline Danganronpa games deserves this spot because they’re all so great. The games each follow a different group of students that are forced to participate in a killing game. One student serves as the killer while the others must figure out who the culprit is or meet a grim end themselves.
The games are primarily presented in a visual novel style with point and click mechanics and various other mini games sprinkled in as well. Each game does a great job of establishing its cast of characters, drawing the player in with an intriguing mystery and capping it all off with a satisfying conclusion even the most astute players won’t manage to see coming.
Often regarded as one of the best visual novels of all-time, Steins;Gate is a cut above many of the other visual novels in the English market. The game follows the “Future Gadget Laboratory” based in Tokyo’s Akihabara district.
Steins;Gate’s narrative relies heavily on time travel, with causality being a prevalent theme. The game has multiple routes to follow aside from its true ending and can easily eat up 30 plus hours of your time.
1 Zero Escape Trilogy
Unlike most of the visual novels on this list, the Zero Escape Trilogy has way more to offer in terms of gameplay. Though still heavily narrative-driven games, they feature a ton of puzzles that genuinely challenge you – and it makes advancing the narrative all the more enjoyable.
The story told in the Zero Escape games is probably one of the best narrative experiences you can get in gaming. With branching plotlines and different endings, there are plenty of ways to experience each game.
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