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I stared into the visual novel abyss and it stared back

The results… weren’t terrible?

Re:zero visual novel
Screenshot: KnowTechie

I play a lot of games, but there are a few genres out there that I either rarely check out or don’t bother with at all.

First, we have sports games. I do enjoy sports but the games based on the sports I enjoy rarely capture the excitement of the real thing. The second is 4x games. I’m not a big board game guy, sims are boring, and 4x is a genre that just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve at least dabbled in the genres though.

One genre I’ve never messed with, however, is visual novels. If you haven’t heard of visual novel games, let me take a moment to break it down for you.

If you are a millennial or older, you may recall Choose Your Own Adventure books. Yes, those books that had you read a passage and then jump to page 64 to find out if crawling into the incinerator chute was a good idea. Visual novels are the spiritual successor to them, but usually with a massive anime-styled flair.

See, I got a code for Re: ZERO The Prophecy of the Throne, and while the anime Re: ZERO is one of my favorites, I can’t fathom how to approach a visual novel game. They seem slower-paced and less gamey. I reached out to some people I know that prefer this type of game and they gave me some suggestions before jumping into the more serious content.

Doki Doki Literature Club

Doki doki literature club game
Screenshot: KnowTechie

There are some rules to this game that you have to play by. As this was my first attempt at playing a visual novel, I don’t know this was the best suggestion to start with. Is it the most interesting, probably, but it probably sets the worst expectations going forward?

In Doki Doki Literature Club you are a high school student that joins the literature club at the behest of your friend. There, you meet three other girls that seem to all have an interest in you while you write poems with a mad-lib style mechanic. Then shit goes way off the rails.

Doki Doki Literature Club goes from wholesome dating sim to Twin Peaks fairly quickly. At one point I hit a roadblock and looked to see what I needed to do and found out that I needed to modify the game files. Insane and pretty cool for a free game.

I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator

Kfc visual novel
Screenshot: KnowTechie

Another free game on Steam, I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator is a cutesy game that is a bit more serious than Doki Doki Literature Club. The main goal seems to be to woo KFC’s Colonel Sanders while developing relationships with your friends.

I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator sets a reasonable expectation of what a visual novel is. For the most part, it’s a bunch of reading, answering questions that take me down a path, and reaching the finale of my story. The art was cute and wooing The Colonel is certainly something.

Murder By Numbers

Murder by numbers gameplay
Screenshot: KnowTechie

A friend of mine gifted me Murder By Numbers when I was talking about playing visual novels on Discord. Unlike the first two games, Murder By Numbers is a serious attempt at a detective game and uses anime-styled art to tell a story instead of mess with your head or convince you to buy fried chicken.

Murder By Numbers is a detective game where you try to solve crimes while also clearing a grid that will give you clues and items you need to crack the case. It’s not so much a game I’d go out of my way to buy or play, but it isn’t horrible overall.

Re: ZERO The Prophecy of the Throne

It is time to tackle the real deal here. If you don’t know Re: ZERO, here are the basics. Subaru Natsuki is a shut-in with some major personality issues. One night after visiting a convenience store, he gets teleported to a fantasy world, which is a major anime trope.

Thinking he’s the hero of this story, he involves himself in events that cause him to be killed. He wakes back up at the point of entering the world. Turns out, Subaru has a curse that gives him a Groundhog Day experience. This causes him to go back to a checkpoint in the story. Unfortunately for him, death isn’t a simple wake-up and start over as the pain and sensation of dying stays with him. The stress of this compiles over time.

Re: ZERO The Prophecy of the Throne tells a story that takes place in the middle of the first season of the anime. Subaru is still dealing with some of his personality issues. If you are familiar with the story, it’s a lot to take in. All of my favorite characters are in the game and they even got the voice actors to reprise their roles. It’s neat, but let’s talk about the game.

This game has a LOT of reading. I found your options to diverge the story on the first attempt are limited. Of course, there are elements to the game that make going back and replaying the story an actual gameplay mechanic. The game presents you with a story flowchart that lets you know you won’t be making too many changes on your first playthrough.

Re:zero visual novel
Screenshot: KnowTechie

The core gameplay mechanics are a chibi-like 3D exploration mode, collecting items and info and talking to characters. Collecting the right info and speaking to the right people while doing and saying the right stuff is how you progress. If you fail, you get treated to Subaru making a bigger ass of himself and/or usually getting killed. Ever want to read a detailed account of being burned alive? Re: ZERO The Prophecy of the Throne has you covered.

I found myself creating a policy of watching dialogue once and then hitting skip any time I went through the same conversations. Is that the way to play? Probably not. Do I actually have the patience otherwise? No. Did I have a decent time with the game? I think I actually did.

Visual Novels are for people with a lot of time

After cramming four visual novel games under my belt in two weeks, I found one thing consistent in my adventure. Every single game had some sort of hook overall. I know that four games (two of which are free offerings) don’t speak for an entire genre but it wasn’t the worst experience. I also learned, while writing this, that there’s apparently a whole subgenre of adult-oriented visual novel games as well. Of course there is.

I started this all by asking myself “who plays visual novels” and I think I have a loose idea of the type of person that does. People that have a lot of time and want to lean heavier on storytelling instead of actual gameplay mechanics. It probably doesn’t hurt to have a predisposition to anime girls either. I may dabble in another game or two but I don’t think visual novels will replace my average faire.

In the meantime, try Doki Doki Literature Club. It’s certainly an experience that you need to experience, at least once.

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Longtime games journalist and Florida resident. I'm a Guinness World Record holder, wordsmith extraordinaire, MOBA fan, devoted dad and husband. I'm here to spread the gospel of video games.

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