The visual novel is the chilli marmite of the gaming sphere. It’s an incredibly acquired taste, and it often faces the ire of novel and game-lovers alike. But, if you’re here then you’re likely partial to the taste, and there’s certainly been enough of them arrive on Xbox in the past twelve months to keep you fed.
We’ve had the pleasure of playing the vast majority, and the end of year reminiscing has given us an ample opportunity to prune out the duffers and present to you, in a wonderful listicle format, the very best Xbox visual novels of 2021. So, don your reading specs one more time, and find out which visual novels made it onto our top ten.
10. A Year of Springs
The least visually lavish of all the games here, A Year of Springs makes up for it with heart. Less one game and more a compendium of three, this is a Ratalaika visual novel that intends to tackle some serious topics. Gender and sexual dysphoria, as well as what it is like to be transgender in modern-day buttoned-up Japan are all fully explored, and sensitively. There’s not one awkward mis-step in the entirety of A Year of Springs.
It could have felt more like an essay than a game, but A Year of Springs also finds room to add character nuance and warmth, and you will emerge at the end wanting the absolute best for all three of its main characters. Oh, and there’s a fair amount of choice and divergence, too.
9. The Letter – Horror Visual Novel
The best-looking visual novel of the year, The Letter – Horror Visual Novel is sumptuous. From the hundreds of detailed locations to the fantastic character animations (hair blowing in the breeze, subtle blinks and – yes – boob jiggles), this is about as AAA as a visual novel can get.
It might not quite nail its aim of being an unsettling horror game, on top of being a visual novel (the scares are slightly too repeated, and their associated QTEs are a pain in the proverbial), but it gets everything else right. There is a huge amount of content here, the writing’s strong, and the characters are mostly believable. Well, believable outside of some dodgy accents. It’s a terrific yarn, a pulpy horror novel, and plenty of readers will be hankering for exactly that.
8. C14 Dating
It took us a while to realise what the title was doing. C14 Dating is… carbon dating! That’s right, this is simultaneously a dating visual novel and an archaeology sim. Now, if that hasn’t qualified C14 Dating as an insta-purchase, then you should probably move on to the next entry.
C14 Dating is a relatively conventional dating sim, as you choose to spend time with your favourite characters and make the right dialogue choices to worm your way into their hearts. Where it takes a couple of left-turns is in its timetable mechanic, as you manage the activities that you do in a given week, which puts you in proximity to your amores; and the way it dives wholly into archaeology. By the end of C14 Dating, you will have some rudimentary archaeology practical knowledge, which is not something you can say about many other games.
7. SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair
The pulpiest of games on this list, SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair is also great fun. It’s a whodunnit, effectively, with some slasher movie tropes thrown in for good measure. You’re all students attending a Halloween party in an empty hotel retreat, which was going swimmingly well until one of you dies. And then another. And then another. The lights keep going off, and it’s down to you – as a budding investigator – to determine which of you is the culprit.
What we liked most about SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair is that it makes overtures to being a dumb mystery game, but underneath is a fierce intelligence. The solution to the mystery is far from simple, and it puts a lot of the deduction in your hands. It’s well worth a go if you’re feeling some Murder She Wrote coming on.
6. One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party
Part visual novel, part graphic adventure, One-Eyed Lee and the Dinner Party is nonetheless well worth playing.
You play an adventuring duo called Beracus and Lee, out to find a cure for a plague that is ravaging their world. Gossip has taken you to a bunker, deep below the surface, but instead of finding something of use, you’re locked in. It turns out to be the bunker of a family who have been here since the plague began, but now they are animated skeletons. They don’t know that they’re animated skeletons, which makes the conversations awkward.
You have full reign of the bunker, giving it a graphic novel outline, but everything else is coloured in to resemble a visual novel. You talk, you pit characters against each other, and you find your way out. It’s a fun, colourful little novella, and well worth the asking fee.
5. Boyfriend Dungeon
Now we’re properly cheating. Boyfriend Dungeon is only one-half visual novel, as the other half is a Hades-like dungeon crawler. But there’s no dumbing down of that visual novel, no concessions to make more action-oriented players at home: this is very much a dating visual novel, warts and all.
It’s hard to pin down why we like the visual novel elements so much. It certainly hits the right diversity and inclusion notes, as you can happily woo any of the boyfriends (plus one girlfriend and one cat) regardless of gender or sexual orientation. But it’s probably down to the characters themselves, who are about as wildly different from each other as you can imagine. Trying to understand what makes them tick before you wield them as a sword in your dungeon (oh, didn’t we tell you? The ‘boyfriends’ can all transmogrify into weapons for you to swing about) is a fun puzzle, and they each have their own story for you unpick. It’s an unusual hybrid, but it gets the mix right.
4. Sable’s Grimoire
Sable’s Grimoire has the most cliched of settings. You are one of the few humans being invited to a magic school, where everyone looks down their nose at you. But as the lessons progress, it’s clear that you’re extremely talented, and you begin to gain the respect of your peers. It’s Hermione Granger: The Game.
But yet. Sable’s Grimoire is one of the best-written visual novels of the year, one of the most visually arresting, and also the most divergent in terms of choice. Sable’s Grimoire employs a spider diagram to visualise your various choices in the game, and we wish that every visual novel did the same. It backs this up with dozens of choices that can lead to death, banishment and fairy sex. You know, if you fancy it.
It may not be the most original of visual novels, but Sable’s Grimoire does an awful lot with it. And we were all in for a Harry Potter visual novel anyway.
3. Werewolf: The Apocalypse – The Heart of the Forest
Hot on the tails of Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood, an action-stealth game released in the first months of 2021, came Werewolf: The Apocalypse – The Heart of the Forest. It was intended to coincide with that, largely shoddy, but bigger budget game. In the end, it managed to both surpass it and feel nothing like it.
It’s a modern parable about ecological activism, as you travel back to the town of your birth, only to find it embroiled in a battle to save a local forest. Activists are chaining themselves to trees, while labourers are frustrated at the lack of progress.
Where do the werewolves come in? That would be ruining it a touch, but – safe to say – you and your family are not what they originally seemed. Werewolf: The Apocalypse – The Heart of the Forest has so much going for it: it’s got a very modern, pertinent story to tell. But it’s also steeped in Eastern European folklore, as well as some strong writing and mixed media artwork. It’s extraordinarily assured, and one of the best visual novels of the year.
2. Cross the Moon
From werewolves to vampires. Cross the Moon is the best original visual novel of the year (our number 1 is cheating by being a reissue), and it’s a mature delight. The tendency with visual novels is for them to be pulpy and throwaway, often inferior to printed novels. But Cross the Moon is one of the few that stands on its own, and could easily have been rewritten to be a novel or graphic novel.
Cross the Moon imagines an alternate France where the Moon cracked and, almost immediately afterwards, people began to turn into vampires. This is a setting that opens the door for some lightweight social commentary, as the vampires are looked down upon. To stoke the fires further, a spate of murders has the community in uproar, as the victims all have bite marks on their necks.
What elevates Cross the Moon is its artfulness. The music, artwork and general timbre of the visual novel are all superb, and there’s a languid, doomy pace to everything. You can sense that we are building to something terrible, but you are unsure of what. Top notch stuff.
1. Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!
Doki Doki Literature Club was our personal gateway into visual novels when it launched in 2017 as a freeware video game. In hindsight, it’s an unusual choice for a first experience: this is a visual novel that aims to subvert visual novel tropes, as well as those of dating sims and Japanese media in general. It’s like getting into westerns because you watched Blazing Saddles: you’re starting with the parody.
But Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is more than that. It has fantastic things to say in that area, but it’s got other topics in its sights. Mental health is a biggie, as well as their support structures. But there’s horror here too, as the story derails into terrifying psychological territory. And even the act of game playing, and what it is to play a game of this type, is given a roasting.
What a game Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is. It’s a classic of the genre, and 2021 gave us the opportunity to play it all over again. While the rollercoaster turns weren’t as savage as before, it was still quite the ride.
With a visual novel releasing almost every week, it’s been a good year for lovers of the genre. But few people can afford to play them all, so hopefully we’ve given you a roadmap of the best ones to experience. So, wrap your hands around a hot chocolate, pull one of the games from our list, and treat yourself to a long evening of gaming.
Do you agree with our rankings? Let us know! Tell us where we got it wrong in the comments or on our social media channels. You can pick up all of these games on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S from the Xbox Store too.