Something that comes up a lot when people get into brief one-off popular visual novels is the question of what they should try out next; it's difficult to wade into the seas of Steam and even more intimidating for new people to crack open Itchio's tag network, which means that a lot of brand new fans don't have anywhere to start after trying out one visual novel they saw a lot of people playing.
As someone who plays a fair few visual novels and would love for people to try more of them out, I decided to throw together a loose list of visual novels that I, personally, thought were enjoyable to try out in 2017! Almost everything on this list is released in at least a partially complete state this year, or is slated for more/the rest of its content in the upcoming year, including the extra recommendations I didn't talk at all about them. (I ran out of time!)
A quick note ahead of time — I know a lot of people have a lot of problems with "Game of the Year" lists as measures of ~objective quality~ or whatever, so I want to make it clear that this list isn't supposed to be that by any stretch of the imagination.
This is just a list of the things I liked this year with some vague categories so people understand why I liked them. I'm not the arbiter of good taste by any means; I'm in the middle of rewatching Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated for the fourth time. Don't take my word as anything except "this was neat, I liked it".
FAVORITE M/M ROMANCE: Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim
Without putting too fine a point on it, I definitely wasn't surprised that I liked Mitch Alexander's Tusks: An Orc Dating Sim. I love orcs written with a modicum of compassion, and I love games where you can be a man who's (to be blunt) just trying to fuck other men, and I really love anything that has both. It's just not a hard sell to pitch me a game by a Scottish developer about gay orcs. Alexander executed this brilliantly on all fronts in a way that makes the game feel complete, even if he's still polishing the last installment to release before (in his own words) December 31st, 2017.
But even if it hadn't been aesthetically right up my alley, I think I would have still found a lot to love about Tusks, because it's extraordinarily genuine. The NPC autonomy, where orcs can govern themselves and aren't totally dependent on your choices, is one of my favorite features of it — for me as a player, it adds to the underlying discussion going on in the story about community and independence if the NPCs aren't just waiting around! It's the little touches like Ror's obviously carefully considered design and that NPC autonomy feature that make visual novels come alive in my eyes, and Tusks definitely fits that bill.
FAVORITE W/W ROMANCE: Love on the Peacock Express
It's an utter tragedy to me that the team behind 2017's YuriJam entry, Love on the Peacock Express, aren't planning on coming together for another visual novel any time soon. The characters in this were fun and lively, the dialogue was hilarious, and visually, it was an absolute treat to look at — the color scheme alone pops in a way that's really appealing to my eye!
The point-and-click elements were minimal, given that it's a relatively short jam game, but the level of engagement they added to the individual puzzle-solving was clever. It brought experiences of playing more classic point-and-click games to mind and gave me an urge to try out more of Peacock Express's predecessors that I'd been putting off, even if those classic games might not have had the exact charm it brought to the table. If any of these developers ever contribute to any games in the future, I'll definitely have to keep an eye out for them!
FAVORITE W/M OR M/W ROMANCE: XOXO Droplets
Just out of personal taste, I don't play a lot of M/W or W/M games focused on romance for all that long; they're usually catered to an audience that isn't me, so I usually turn my attention elsewhere. But XOXO Droplets is hands down one of my favorite things this year, in the same way that a lot of young adult novels about rude teenagers were my favorites when I was growing up; under the cute artwork and tidily-sewn UI, there's a lot of bite to its protagonist.
"Unlikeable" or otherwise blatantly rude main characters are something that I personally would love to see more of in fiction, and even if it's a difficult line to tow, I'd love to see more work from the XOXO Droplets team. The protagonist's snide comments and self-aware selfishness had me bursting out laughing more often than I'd anticipated — and more than anything, it felt realistic about teenagers in a way I remember some of the best young adult novels being, which is always something visual novels as a genre could use more of.
FAVORITE CHARACTER DESIGNS: Butterfly Soup
If you've followed any press coverage of visual novels in the second half of this year, you've probably seen Butterfly Soup, and you probably at least have a vague idea of what its cast looks like — it's hard not to remember Brianna Lei's distinctive character designs for the cast of her visual novel about "gay Asian girls playing baseball and falling in love"! (And if you don't play baseball, don't worry; main character and baseball rookie Noelle understands probably as much about it as you and I do!)
Part of what makes it succeed for me is the way the characters all seem to balance out one another, which is a visual build on their individual personalities and dynamics; Akarsha's colors are bright and eye catching, perfectly balancing the neutral color palette Noelle wears, Min-seo's stark black and white, and Diya's gentle pastels. Even the side characters — especially Chryssa, Liz, Ester, and the rest of the baseball players, so essentially all of them — are distinct enough yet complimentary in their silhouettes that every scene's change from one sprite to the next flows well.
(Also, seeing a shitpost I made immortalized as a meme in a visual novel was cool as hell.)
FAVORITE ART STYLE: The Heart of Tales
If nothing else, it's easy to see from a single screencap that Katy133's work on The Heart of Tales is so visually distinct that you could pick it out of a lineup of a hundred other visual novels. This isn't unusual for Katy133 — her work is always unique in both presentation and execution, most markedly with last year's [redacted] Life — and with The Heart of Tales, she hit exactly on a visual style that brought the story up another level on its own.
As a brief examination of the psychological trauma of war on a soldier through the lens of a knight who'd killed so many people she "lost count" after four hundred and forty seven, The Heart of Tales' framing as what almost looks like a classic adventure game draws upon a pretty storied legacy of hack-n-slash games from past eras and is stronger for it. Katy133's renderings of the Knight, Mithamoore, and Cole fit here perfectly. The world is never so pixellated that it loses detail or focus, but is just enough — in presentation and framing — that playing through it feels like a natural progression on having played those text-based adventure games for years prior.
FAVORITE SOUNDTRACK: Brittle Blue
It's hard to quantify what exactly I love about Matthew Wisniewski's soundtrack for Brittle Blue without calling attention back to the art, because so much of what Brittle Blue's music succeeds in is emulating the cold, barren landscape the backgrounds depict — there's almost a hollowness to the audio itself, even in the most upbeat of tracks, that drives home the setting all the more. Particularly when the art has hints of horror, because Wisniewski's soundtrack is extremely deft at enhancing that terror!
When you divorce it from the art, however, it still manages to build ultimately the same feeling and call back to mind the visuals and experience of reading through Brittle Blue's story. Listening to the soundtrack on the Itchio page itself, where it's listed as an embedded Bandcamp OST, made me feel like I was still on the page or in the program itself, still looking at the same art assets as I had been when I heard it for the first time. That's the hallmark of an excellent soundtrack in any medium, and Brittle Blue succeeds at it handily.
FAVORITE PLOT OR NARRATIVE: Pinewood Island
As someone who watches as much pulpy horror as I can get my hands on, especially bad B-movies or television spin-offs like Scream, it's not a huge surprise to me that I ended up loving Scribble Games' Pinewood Island. The basic premise — college students' professor is killed while on a trip and the students are stranded on an island — is well-worn territory, and the characters are all familiar enough with a comfortable level of individual flavor and personal attention that I enjoyed seeing again.
What ended up being the biggest draw of Pinewood Island for me, though, was that I finished my first playthrough more interested than ever in getting a good end. I put the pieces together on different routes or outside of the game entirely, and at the point of writing this, I still haven't gotten an ending where I managed to get everything to work out. There's some things you actively can't make work together on one playthrough, because some aspects of the story are set up in such a way that they're both equally enticing but never able to meet — you can save lives, or you can find the killer, but you can't always do both. For me as a player, that balance is struck remarkably well here, because the overarching narrative is strong enough to support everything else and keep me coming back.
FAVORITE JAM PROJECT: My Magical Divorce Bureau!!
When I think about standout jam projects from this past year, I always inevitably think of My Magical Divorce Bureau!!, a submission for NaNoRenO 2017 with a thoughtful execution of its relatively straightforward plot. In a magical society where impromptu hijacked marriages have become exceedingly common, divorces are just as popular, and that's where your enthusiastic protagonist comes in — to help all the couples part on good terms!
My Magical Divorce Bureau!! ultimately pulls through on the strength of each individual dynamic between the divorcing parties, which all feel unique and all seemed — at least in my playthroughs — to have "good" endings to their divorce that felt suited to the characters' personalities without brushing past the reason they'd clashed in the first place. I actually ended up walking away from it with a fair amount of respect for what this team had gotten done in the month-long jam constraints of NaNoRenO; months later, it still stands out as my the most enjoyable entry into the jam that I personally got to play, and I look back on it fondly.
FAVORITE PORT OR RE-RELEASE: LongStory
LongStory, a visual novel originally developed for mobile platforms by Bloom Digital Media, is one of the first mobile games I personally got into, way back three distant years ago in 2014. It was sweet, a little off-beat, and honestly felt like something I could visibly see people putting work into back when I was starting to think about developing my own work. The stories within the overall narrative of LongStory haven't changed — I still get the distinct sensation that they'd be even better suited for teenagers poking into visual novels than they are for me — and everything about playing through it now feels a little nostalgic in the best possible way.
Parts of the story still feel a little bit bumpy, courtesy of the visual novel's previously-mobile state — the dialogue doesn't always line up on the lined paper, or pieces of text conversations with other students can be a little bit glitchy — but a lot of the things that made LongStory charming on mobile carried over. The artwork is crisper and the overall layout of the screen seems much better suited to desktop gaming, and getting the chance to revisit this story in a little bit higher-definition feels like revisiting any old classic. I definitely didn't regret revisiting it, and more than anything, it made me want to redownload it on my phone and try its story out there one more time.
FAVORITE EPISODIC STORY: Magical Warrior Diamond Heart
One thing I always look for in an episodic story — whether it's The Walking Dead's game adaptation, a webcomic, or any TV show — is a cast of characters that makes me want to keep coming back to learn more about them. And although Magical Warrior Diamond Heart, Pyonkotchi's magical girl visual novel, is still only in early demo versions of the initial episodes? I can easily say that what exists already is some of most fun, heartwarming visual novel content I've had the pleasure of playing all year.
There's a lot of familiar charm to Magical Warrior Diamond Heart that makes me remember some pretty fond memories of watching magical girl shows as a kid who was utterly in love with everything that sparkled, but MWDH never banks too hard on nostalgia for nostalgia's sake; it's its own unique entry into the larger magical girl canon, with characters that are dynamic and engaging in the same way some of my favorite Princess Tutu, W.I.T.C.H., or Sailor Moon characters always were. This is one of the visual novels I'm most looking forward to seeing more episodes out of, because I'm really fond of what we've already got and have high hopes for what Valerie and her friends are gonna get up to next!
FAVORITE NON-EPISODIC WORK IN PROGRESS: Eldet
Visually, Marccus' Eldet has one of the most ambitious visual novel demos I've seen in a long time — waterfalls roar, torchlight gleams against rocks as a lamp is held aloft, and the other characters visibly interact with the background, all in the span of what was roughly half an hour's playtime for me. And that's not even touching on the fact that it's absolutely gorgeous to look at, right down to the immersive backgrounds and wonderfully designed characters.
It'd be one thing if Eldet's art was the strongest thing about it, but I also found its story setup extremely compelling in a way that makes me excited for the full version's eventual release; Marccus picked a smart handful of characters to guide you through the opening setup of what promises to be an engaging story about mages and reincarnation, all framed around the titular Eldet, a character that protagonist Kunal has only just begun to discover his connections to. Eldet has the early foundations of a broad-strokes, intimate fantasy story that more than paid off my anticipation from just seeing the artwork, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the full visual novel unfolds!
(BONUS) FAVORITE ONE BY SOMEONE I KNOW: Disaster Log C
Listen, I didn't want this list to pass me by without getting the chance to recommend Sofdelux Studio's Disaster Log C, a Yuri Game Jam 2017 project that I had the chance to test out — but I also didn't want to occupy a space on a list essentially entirely filled with creators I don't actually know all that well whose work I have a little bit more distance from.
Disaster Log C is an interesting story to me, though, because I think there's an incredible amount of value in stories about the apocalypse that still manage to tackle it with some level of optimism. Captain Issa, lovable pirate extraordinaire, and Mell, reclusive meteorologist, set out to face what seems to be the end of their world — one way or another — and have to learn to rely on one another if they're going to live through it.
One of the things I think Disaster Log C does particularly well is never show its hand too early, either about the characters or about the world as a whole, and I was fascinated to watch the story unfold. DCS and Nami definitely brought their story to life with clear amounts of love for both Mell and Captain Issa, and clear hope for the duo's future — and the future of the world these characters inhabit even as it's crashing down around them — so ultimately, it resonates off of the whole experience.
(BONUS) FAVORITE ONE I BACKED ON KICKSTARTER: Four Horsemen
I couldn't let a list pass without recommending this, either, but — like the situation with Disaster Log C — I wasn't exactly sure where to put it. While I back some of the other creators' Patreons (specifically Pyonkotchi of Magical Warrior Diamond Heart and Mitch Alexander of Tusks), I never quite know where people are at with the whole Kickstarter thing, and I'd rather frame this in its own category than anything else. I pitch in to enough visual novels on Kickstarter that it's kind of a crowded category as-is!
When Nuclear Fishin's Four Horsemen finally came out early this year, I was absolutely blown away at the genuine levels of care that went into its experience, from the language systems on up to the character designs. I'd missed the Hibernian nation in my initial go-arounds while playing the demo, so I didn't get the fully immersive experience of seeing a lot of too-familiar names and specific language reflected back at me. Then it came out in full, and I picked Hibernia, and oh, boy.
I could talk at pretty great lengths about the many, many ways I think Four Horsemen including us in its lot of immigrant groups is a better, fairer treatment than a lot of us deserve at this point in time — especially given how many ugly politics and deliberate distancing from non-white immigrant groups I've seen seep off the edges of other Irish people, especially other Irish-Americans. But I think for me, it was also hugely moving to see these experiences my family had in Britain and the larger European Union during the Troubles and everything that came before it reflected back again; that's not an experience I've gotten very often outside of strictly-Irish media.
Four Horsemen is the visual novel that easily had the biggest impact on me this year for a thousand compounded reasons that it'd take me just as many words to unpack, so I'm going to leave it at "damn, try this, it's worth it and the team behind it did incredible work, just trust me".
...And with that, there's the whole list! In case you missed one or just want a refresher:
M/M Romance - Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim (and Nekojishi, and Inverness Nights)
W/W Romance - Love on the Peacock Express (and why is this dragon so fucking cute??, and Miss Bullard’s School for Former Ladies)
W/M or M/W Romance - XOXO Droplets (and a(t)rium, and String of Fates)
Character Designs - Butterfly Soup (and Bar Story, and The Duenkhy)
Art Style - The Heart of Tales (and Where the Sun Always Shines, and The Hacklist)
Soundtrack - Brittle Blue (and Chook & Sosig, and Doki Doki Literature Club)
Plot or Narrative - Pinewood Island (and The Letter, and SRRT!)
Jam Project - My Magical Divorce Bureau!! (and Daisy Chain, and The Subtweet Game)
Port or Rerelease - LongStory (and Coming Out On Top, and Blind Men)
Episodic Story - Magical Warrior Diamond Heart (and Willy Bear Beach, and Who We Are Now)
Work In Progress - Eldet (and Bugs and Kisses, and To Weave A Thread)
By Someone I Know - Disaster Log C
Backed on Kickstarter - Four Horsemen
Thanks for reading! I had a blast re-downloading and retrying a lot of these visual novels over the past week, so I hope you can find at least one you like out of this list of 35 (!) visual novels!
Ivan Katz ❤