Alternate title: Five Japanese PC titles with amazing stories you’ve never heard of.
I’ve referred to visual novels more than once and a few of my articles have announced news relating to them, and one of them is named one of my favorite games. As you can tell, I’m a fan of them, but very few people in English-speaking countries think likewise. It’s a niche medium outside of Japan where the industry for them is quite huge. I present a series of ones I have greatly enjoyed to say why I think the medium should not be overlooked. Thought I’d do this since I have written little due to real life that had to be taken care of.Visual novels involve text. Walls of it. Some have a little bit of interaction and some are fairly simple games with walls of text backing it up (Galaxy Angel and Phoenix Wright for example). The reason the medium is popular among the Japanese and the otaku community is because some of them can be among the best stories written in the previous decade.
If you’re an anime fan, you might have seen the anime Lunar Legend: Tsukihime. You might have also heard people denying the fact that it even exists. There’s a reason; Tsukihime is awesome.
Though the art of Tsukihime is lacking, the storyline makes up for it. The protagonist of Tsukihime is Shiki Tohno, who wakes up in hospital at the beginning of the game’s prologue after suffering a serious injury. One so dire he had a near-death experience. Waking up, he began to see lines on anything and everything. By even touching those lines with a knife, the object would be sliced in two along that point with minimal effort.
The story of Tsukihime revolves around five routes, and a single major antagonist. At the start, two routes are open to you, Arcueid and Ciel. They both have a common enemy, the vampire Roa, who reincarnates endlessly every time he is killed. Shiki Tohno’s power however is not a simple one, it’s a rare power called the Mystic Eyes of Death Perception that allows him to permanently kill anything on a conceptual level.
The writer for Tsukihime has vampires and magic in his canon, but he puts out some very interesting twists and expands on them. For instance, his vampires are originated in entities summoned by the concept of the planet itself as a defense mechanism. The VN extensively explains how magic and the supernatural works in the universe, often with multiple “Too long didn’t read” summaries and comparisons of powerlevels.
The writing of the visual novel is very slow paced, but detailed, unorthodox, and an otherwise simple story is made increasingly complex with how Kinoko Nasu’s universe works.
Though all the routes have the same major antagonist, how the story develops in terms of how the main antagonist turns out and his relations with the central focus of the route are all different to an extreme.
Literally translated “A Drug that Makes you Dream”. Yume Miru Kusuri is the usual deal on visual novels set in a high school or university setting. A snarky protagonist and a few girls who stand out. That’s how it starts, shortly after that you find out a buried secret of the girl that caught your eye.
Yume Miru Kusuri has the tagline “Drugs x Bullying X Interpersonal Relationship”, referring to some of the more serious problems that students have to deal with, and it doesn’t portray any of them in a nice light at all. Yume Miru Kusuri has three heroines, one for each of those issues.
The storyline’s sudden change of tone can catch most players by surprise if they were expecting the usual “Get the girl in bed” schticks that these often turn into. The bullying that Aeka suffers isn’t the usual teasing, but includes death threats, scissors being pulled on her, physical violence, and at one point being stripped completely naked as humiliation. Another heroine, Cat Sidhe Nekoko (pictured) comes off as a very bizarre and eccentric girl who claims to be a fairy. Seems reasonable enough as such fantasy elements tend to slip into visual novels, but that all comes crashing down when you find out that she is actually a drug addict. The third girl Mizuki suffers a great fear of her future, and how even though she comes off as confident she is only wearing it as a mask, and is actually unable to accomplish most things by herself.
Very few people who have read it can say bad things about it, and Peter Payne of Jlist has also said that it’s one of his personal favorites on Twitter. In personal terms of myself it ranks high because of how it’s a freakin’ rollercoaster of emotions and does it well.
Saya no Uta
The Song of Saya, a curious mix of Lovecraft, romance, horror, and tragedy. If you come to this expecting a happy tale, you are certainly not going to get it. Saya no Uta is my absolute favorite visual novel.
Written by Gen Urobochi, who also wrote Fate/Zero and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, you can already tell that this visual novel is not going to cause you to smile. The main protagonist is a man named Fuminori, who after a lifesaving operation had his vision completely distorted to seeing the mundane as blood, guts, and gore. The only thing in his vision that remains pleasant to him is the enigmatic girl Saya.
Though stories of living with aliens or monsters is not hard to find in Japanese media, a relationship with someone who is a space-dwelling lovecraftian DNA-altering man-eating tentacled monstrosity is unique. The story details Fuminori’s slow descent into evil and madness as he tries to help Saya find her origins, having lost all reason to even consider the feelings of the human race.
The art of Saya is vile, with everything looking fleshy and gory (though thankfully for sensitive readers, these CGs can be toned down) except for Saya. The voices of the cast when heard from Fuminori’s viewpoint sounds like someone drowning in a sink of gore. Behind this art is a short but very well-written and tragic storyline.
True to its Cthulhu Mythos inspirations, the game relies heavily on atmosphere and description while describing the terror of those unlucky enough to encounter the titular Saya. However, Saya inverts the horror idea, and this time the hideous monstrosity is on the side of the protagonist.
Sharnoth of the Deepest Black, a lovecraftian horror like Saya, but much more bizarre and freakish elements. Set in an alternate-history 1905 London where steampunk has allowed advancements in technology to be over a century ahead of schedule. The setting of London chosen because the writer, Hikaru Sakurai, felt that London is a very important city in the Steampunk genre, and she also wanted to have a completely different approach to the What a Beautiful series.
Sharnoth stands out among visual novels not simply because of its art and setting, but for its cast. Any media can have an epic cast, but Sharnoth is unusual in that it reinterprets some of the most prominent figures of British lore and history of that era, anachronism be damned (this is a steampunk horror after all). Charlotte Bronte, James Moriarty, Winston Churchill, even Sherlock Holmes. Established canon of various tales such as The Hound of the Baskerville smacked around and changed for the setting, and some changed completely, such as Sebastian Moran being a robotic woman.
Sharnoth’s plot is a complicated one, with many organizations, characters, and alliances, all of them focusing on some goal involving an alien land called Sharnoth. A distorted land you enter by taking a single step away from reality. The main character Mary Clarissa Christie possesses a golden eye that several indescribable monsters of the What a Beautiful universe want to tear out of her head. An eye that sees things not meant to be seen at all.
The writing of Sharnoth is unusual, with the introductions of scenes spanning several lines at once, such as the introductions of The Baron, Sherlock, Sharnoth itself, or the Engine Corridor being repeated in full every time the scene focuses on them. Odd use of formatting and descriptions of fear make this a very unusual and alien read that shifts between reality and Sharnoth as easily as most written works shift between chapters.
Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni
Yes, the surreal horror anime started out as a visual novel (as have many works), or rather as 07th Expansion puts it, a “Sound Novel”. And it’s drawn like shit. No seriously. The art is that bad. The PS2 and DS versions greatly improve on them however.
But the writing is superb.
Higurashi takes place in a quiet Japanese town that has traditions, myths, and legends. It’s also one of the greatest horror games written in years. Higurashi takes place in a time loop that has had people trapped in the same few days for centuries, with insanity, murder, and the supernatural all coming together to form a genius piece of work.
The town of Hinamizawa has one relevant lore to it, once every year for the past four years, one person was murdered, and another was vanished. Every time it happened was on the day of the Watanagashi Festival that pays respects to the local God. (The Shinto religion of Japan has a ridiculous number of Gods)
There are many arcs to Higurashi, and in each one, a crime spirals out of control and ends in a very violent death of another, and after a time, everything goes back to the moments before the festival. The story involves investigating the supernatural aspect. Though its art is awful, it wont take much time for it to become something you ignore and start to realize that you are focusing purely on the writing.
And that’s five reasons.
I have read multiple visual novels, and I picked out some of the best (and most popular) ones that I’ve read while avoiding duplicate writers or sequels. If I was to include other works by the same writers, this list would easily reach fifteen.
I greatly feel that as a storytelling medium, this is heavily ignored outside of Japan, but as I said in the recent release of the freeware title Katawa Shoujo, this might change for the better in the near future due to it getting a fair degree of press across multiple sites in the gaming community.
Each of the visual novels I’ve listed here have had either an official release or have gotten a translation patch if you ever feel like reading them.