If you are looking for a school-life tale combined with romance, friendship and more than a few supernatural elements, then you cannot go past any of the visual novel titles from KEY. Spawned by a successful crowdfunding campaign for CLANNAD managed by the team at Sekai Project, Japanese publisher VisualArts have taken further steps to ensure English localisations have been made available. Although challenging to recommend just one game to start off, I would recommend you consider picking up Little Busters! first.
Based on the game’s Japanese ‘Perfect Edition’, the complete version sans any adult content. You will experience an emotional journey as you step into the shoes of protagonist Riki Naoe, whose days at boarding school with his long-time group of friends (the “Little Busters”) change as their social group expands. Why this over other KEY visual novels? Although they are not tremendously in-depth, it features several fun mini-games such as a combat system and baseball system – both optional but are great time wasters and have many quirks to them.
There is quite a lot of back-tracking as you strive to complete each route, but the ending is one worth holding out for. If you are not interested in reading this visual novel, you can also pick up the two-season + OVAs anime which is officially licensed in North America by Sentai Filmworks and in Australia by Hanabee Entertainment.
The Story of Little Busters!
Riki Naoe lost his parents as a child, and fell deep into despair. He was saved by a group of kids who called themselves the Little Busters: Kyousuke Natsume, Masato Inohara, Kengo Miyazawa, and Rin Natsume.
They took him and played at being heroes who fought tireless evil around them.
Riki discovered endless joy in spending time with his new friends, even though the group was silly and their missions tended to end in failure.
Over time, it washed away his loneliness and suffering. Years later, the whole gang was attending the same school, and Riki became a second-year. They were still as silly as ever and spent their youth following Kyousuke’s silly ideas.
2When They Cry Series
Although not offering a lot in the graphical department compared to titles nowadays, 07th Expansion’s long-running When They Cry visual novel series makes up for this shortfall (if you would consider it one) with a fantastic soundtrack and impressive murder-mystery storytelling. Spanning over two visual novel series each with eight main arcs, When they Cry has been adapted into many media formats including anime, manga, fighting game spin-offs and more. That said, enjoying it the way you were originally mean’t to is the best way.
Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni (Higurashi When They Cry in the west) is the original eight arcs, following a group of school children in the countryside Japanese town of Hinamizawa. While a picturesque setting where nothing should go wrong, a mystery occurs on a specific day every year – someone dies, and someone goes missing. Keiichi Maebara is a newcomer to the town and quickly gets along with the community. However, he soon is dragged into these mysterious events, which seem to revolve around his group of friends.
Higurashi When They Cry is currently being re-released on Steam with improved localisation, brand new modern character portraits and all the original music. The first seven chapters are now live, with the eighth due to be available for purchase next month.
Umineko no Naku Koro ni (Umineko When They Cry in the west) is the eight-arc successor to Higurashi. This takes place on the island of Rokkenjima in October 1986, when the proud Ushiromiya family arrive for the annual family conference. While discussions turn to inheritance and the mystery behind a hidden 10 tons of gold purportedly hidden on the island; six members of the family turn up dead in a grotesque, occultist fashion. The question which plagues the survivors… was this caused by one of them… or perhaps the Golden Witch Beatrice?
Umineko When They Cry takes a different approach to its murders. The narrative quickly becomes one focused on whether a murder took place due to human intervention or magical intervention. To make things harder to deduce and much more epic, many of the deaths are presented to readers, albeit only through the viewpoint of supernatural powers being involved.
All eight arcs of Umineko When They Cry have been released onto Steam by MangaGamer, split into either Question/Answer arc compilations or a complete collection. There is also a localised version of the fighting spin-off game Umineko: Golden Fantasia.
One of the biggest success stories when it comes to visual novels being released in the English-speaking market is Steins;Gate. Part of the ongoing Science Adventure franchise from the development teams at 5pb, NitroPlus and Chiyomaru Studio, virtually every title in the Steins;Gate line-up of works whether original, sequel or spin-off has received a localised release on both PC and home console through either original regional publisher JAST USA or later on Spike Chunsoft.
Steins;Gate is part science fiction, part modern-day drama and part conspiracy theory fuel with a smidgen of all-ages friendly fanservice added to the mix. It offers an in-depth narrative with multiple routes, well-developed characters and a richly developed universe with options to expand once you finish the story either through localised anime adaptations OR ongoing localisation work by Spike Chunsoft.
Want to give this series a shot? Either on the PC or console, you should pick yourself up either the original Steins;Gate or Steins;Gate Elite. The difference between the two versions is the art style, the former featuring the iconic static character portraits and backdrops by Huke and the latter being entirely animated by the animation studio White Fox (also behind the TV anime). If you enjoy what you read, you can then move on to either Steins;Gate 0 or other titles in the Science Adventure franchise.
The Story of Steins;Gate
STEINS;GATE follows a rag-tag band of tech-savvy young students who discover the means of changing the past via mail, using a modified microwave. Their experiments into how far they can go with their discovery begin to spiral out of control as they become entangled in a conspiracy surrounding SERN, the organisation behind the Large Hadron Collider, and John Titor who claims to be from a dystopian future.
4Girlish Grimoire Littlewitch Romanesque
Wish for an element of cuteness to complement your time enjoying a narrative? Many visual novels on the market cater to this. However, the one that even today still stands out in my mind is the 2014/2015 English-localised release of Girlish Grimoire Littlewitch Romanesque (Shoujo Mahou Gaku Little Witch Romanesque | 少女魔法学 リトルウィッチロマネスク).
This visual novel was developed by LittleWitch, with artwork and character designs by the ever-talented Ashito Ooyari. Jast USA served as publisher of the English release, offering an adult version via their website and the all-ages friendly “Editio Regia” edition via Steam.
More than half a decade later I still believe this is a hidden gem well worth being localised despite many (arguably more mainstream) titles still waiting for their chance to shine. In this story, you stand in the shoes of a young archmage who is tasked with training two magical apprentices in return for being able to explore the mysterious Dark Tower. Through your actions, you will guide each apprentice down many different routes, improving their proficiency in magic through the use of a simple yet addictive dice game. Another great element worth noting is that a lot of narrative is delivered in a comic book style rather than just reading text at the bottom of the screen. It is a simple, but welcome touch not usually seen in visual novels.
The Story of Girlish Grimoire Littlewitch Romanesque
Welcome to Stella Mundo, a magical world still recovering from the devastation of the Mage War that ended the Age of Towers. Domino, the youngest wizard ever to earn the rank of Archmage, has just begun his study of the ancient Dark Tower, a treasure trove of lost magical knowledge.
But there’s a catch.
As its price for allowing him access to the tower, the corrupt Council of Archmagi has assigned Domino two gifted but troublesome students – Aria, the daughter of a noble family, and Kaya, an orphan with an unusual heritage – and given him just three years to complete their training, a process that normally takes decades.
Last but not least is Spike Chunsoft’s murder-mystery visual novel series Danganronpa, which unlike all other games on this list, was initially developed first and foremost for console (the PlayStation Portable to be precise) and is more “game-like” than others. The success of this one title has seen it branch out over the years into two sequels, multiple spin-off games, three anime seasons, a range of light novels and manga offerings and more.
Publishing of the series is managed by Nippon Ichi Software America (typically the console releases) and Spike Chunsoft (PC releases). Following much demand from audiences, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was first unleashed upon western audiences in early-2014, with sequels Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair and Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony released in the following years. All three are readily available to play on the PC (via Steam) or the PlayStation 4.
The premise of all three games starts pretty much the same. You take on the role of a high school student who along with their cohort, is trapped in a location (either a school or island) with no idea how they got there. Goaded with the prospect of freedom by self-proclaimed headmaster Monokuma (a black and white teddy bear), students begin killing each other off, with the only way to escape being to pull off a successful murder without being caught in a “Class Trial” by their peers. It may be a simple premise, but the combination of the clever scenarios, fantastic music and creative spins on visual novel mechanics through the “Class Trial” system all make this an enticing play over and over again.
The best way to enjoy the visual novels would be to play them in order of release (and numbering) – Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair then Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony. You can nab yourself all three, along with spin-off game Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls via Steam or the PlayStation Store.