Last week, the announcement of I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator took the gaming community by storm. To say that a quirky-looking visual novel that lets you date a young, hot version of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders was unexpected is an understatement.
Soon after its announcement, visual novel fans revved up the discourse about what is an underrated genre in the west despite its prominence in Japan. While there are a few exceptions, in the west, it tends to be the funny, meme-y visual novels that get attention. And while those can be fun and amusing, there are many visual novels that have incredible stories, characters and writing. I once spent an entire summer vacation playing as many visual novels as I could, much to the perplexity of my mother, who saw me having so much fun with games where you mostly click through text and read. Although my tastes have expanded over the years, the visual novel genre is still one of my favorites. That’s why I’m here to recommend eight excellent visual novels to play before/instead of/after the upcoming KFC visual novel.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games
The Zero Escape series isn’t just one of the best visual novels; it’s one of the best narratives ever, period. Each game follows a different group of nine people who are specifically kidnapped by someone named “Zero.” They are forced to play a game in which they’re locked inside a facility and have to solve puzzles in order to get out before they are killed. It’s full of mystery, murder, love, friendship, tragedy, science, puzzles, philosophy, existentialism…and so much more. There’s a reason why it gained a cult following in the west, and that relentless fan support is the primary reason the third and final installment, Zero Time Dilemma, was able to get the funding necessary for development. Although that third entry falls flat, primarily due to clear budget constraints, the first two installments, 999: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward, are impeccable. You’re sorely missing out if you don’t get to know this universe and its stories.
If you ask for recommendations for tear-jerking anime, there’s no chance someone won’t mention CLANNAD. The anime adaptation is extremely famous for its capacity to make even the strongest viewers cry. The game’s story is mostly the same: Tomoya Okazaki, a high school boy, meets a girl called Nagisa Furukawa on the way to school one morning. This meeting changes their lives, as these two lonely students become friends, make new friends together and create precious high school memories. While the anime follows Nagisa’s route, you have the chance to get to know several other girls, befriend them and eventually form a relationship with them in the game. It sounds unremarkable, but that might just be the magic of CLANNAD. It extends past the typical setting and safe haven that is high school, delving deeply into the difficult, painful, and sometimes quick transition into adulthood. It touches on abuse, parenthood, death, PTSD, and more. It’s one of the most heartfelt stories I’ve ever known. Just be prepared to spend a lot of time on it, for it’s pretty lengthy, and to have some tissues nearby.
Higurashi—When They Cry
I grew up watching horror movies for fun, so it’s not easy for horror to phase me. And yet, Higurashi is so excellent at establishing its suspenseful, unnerving, and downright scary atmosphere that I once cried from fear. Developed by 07th Expansion, it follows a high school boy named Keiichi Maebara who has recently moved to the small town of Hinamizawa. He befriends several classmates and is quickly adapting to his new life when he learns of the yearly Watanagashi Festival. More importantly, he learns that every year for the past four years, one person is murdered and another goes missing on the night of the festival. Across eight different episodes, Keiichi and his friends become wrapped in murder, conspiracy, paranoia and terror. The story is split into four Question Arcs, which provide the pieces to the grander puzzle of the mystery behind Hinamizawa, and four corresponding Answer Arcs that are similar to the Question Arcs but provide different perspectives and answers to previously established mysteries.
Umineko—When They Cry
Also developed by 07th Expansion, Umineko centers on the wealthy Ushiromiya family. The family head, Kinzo, is dying, so all the family members meet on the private island of Rokkenjima to plan the division of his assets. Battler, an estranged grandson of Kinzo, returns for the event and learns of the legend of the Golden Witch, Beatrice and her rumored ties to the family’s wealth. Not long after arriving, the 18 family members are trapped on the island by a typhoon. Various occult murders start to take place—murders which follow the epitaph next to the large portrait of Beatrice that graces one of the Ushiromiya family estate’s walls. Like Higurashi, it’s split up into several Question Arcs and corresponding Answer Arcs. It’s an intense mystery that centers themes like romance, queerness, grief, and motherhood, and few games have taken over my life like this one did throughout its episodic releases.
Kara no Shoujo
You play as Reiji Tokisaka, a private investigator who looks into a series of recent and particularly grotesque murders. He feels a personal connection to them, for eerily similar murders took place several years earlier—one of which resulted in the death of his fiancee. He eventually meets a girl named Toko Kuchiki, who asks the detective to help her find her true self. Her true self and the truth of the murders are connected in ways that Reiji unravels over the course of the story. Since this takes place in the 1950s, you lack the access to advanced technology, making your investigations harder yet all the more thrilling. While it’s a fascinating story, it’s also a deeply disturbing one. It’s not the kind of game you’ll want to play if things like graphic gore and body mutilation make you uncomfortable. There are also some adult scenes that weren’t patched in the international release, though you can easily skip them and focus on the fantastic mystery.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
This is one of the few visual novel series that have risen to the mainstream in the west. The series follows Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney who seeks to clear his several clients from guilty verdicts. You’ll conduct investigations and work to win courtroom trials, meeting memorable characters and encountering many twists and turns in the plot in the process. Beyond the original trilogy, there are several other side games and spin-offs. It’s a wonderful mix of humor, mystery, emotional drama, and fun that’s bound to captivate a wide range of fans. And it has, for the series is so well-known that it has been credited with largely popularizing the visual novel genre in the west.
Danganronpa is also one of the few visual novel series that have become incredibly popular outside of Japan. While it’s a trilogy made up of games with mostly different casts, the premise among them is the same: a group of high schoolers are put into an isolated environment from which they must try to escape. As they do, there is a killer among them leaving bodies in their wake, and it’s up to you to put your detective hat on and find out who’s behind everything. You’ll gather clues, investigate scenes and get to know your classmates as you prepare for a trial that will expose the crime. Danganronpa is known for its many memorable characters, excellent music and thrilling plot with stakes that only ramp up as the days go by and the body count goes higher.
One of the most popular visual novels, Hatoful Boyfriend sends you to an academy where everyone but you is a pigeon. You can date a pigeon, too—several, actually. I’ve dated a cat/grasshopper/bird/alien hybrid in Mass Effect numerous times, and somehow this concept was still strange and fun for me. This is due to how the game wholeheartedly embraces its quirky nature and humor from the start— something that I Love You, Colonel Sanders! seems to be leaning into. But what’s made Hatoful Boyfriend so enduring is that the tone does a complete shift after a certain point in the story, transforming the occasional dark subtext into full on text for a story about murder and secrets. Even if it isn’t your cup of tea, it’ll surely leave a lasting impression on you. In a saturated market in which visual novels rarely get the time to shine, that’s more than many games can say.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.