The best visual novels that'll capture your imagination

(Image credit: Spike Chunsoft)

The best visual novels are the ones that deliver memorable, story-driven experiences  that capture your imagination. The ever-growing library of visual novels take you on all kinds of adventures across many different genres, from romance to horror, there's not shortage of options out there. With varying levels of interactivity, visual novels put storytelling front and center, with fantastic plots, interesting concepts, and a host of memorable characters. 

Not to mention that many feature some beautifully detailed artwork and expressive character designs that make the visual novel practically jump from the screen. With several roles to explore, you can expect to become everything from a detective to an attorney and a journalist as you get stuck into a variety of different settings. So without further ado, read on below to find our pick of the best visual novels you can play right now. 

20. Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc

(Image credit: NIS America)

Available on:  PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch

Mystery, murder, and high school collide in Chunsoft's dark visual novel. You play as a teenage detective who gets trapped in Hope's Peak Academy with your fellow students and the murderous bear, Monokuma. And the only way out? Murder. Yeah, the nefarious little bear tries to turn the students against each other to gain their freedom, but just who is this bear and why are they trying to get the students to murder each other? It's up to you to find out. With deadly trials, gripping storytelling and plenty of memorable characters, Danganronpa has made a name for itself in the visual novel genre with good reason. The voice acting is superb, and chances are you'll be thinking about what transpired long after you've finished it. 

19. Hatoful Boyfriend

(Image credit: Mediatonic)

Developer: Hato Moa / Mediatonic
Platform(s)
: PC

Yes, on the surface it might sound slightly bizarre in that it's essentially a game where you pursue relationships with birds, but it's actually full of absorbing storylines with more depth than you might expect. You attend a highschool where all of the students just happen to have wings and feathers, but the meta, self-aware writing makes it work. Some of the birds stories are actually quite dark and emotionally driven, and each and everyone has their own personalities. Hatoful Boyfriend has lots of humour and heart, and it's hard not to find it's outwardly silly premise utterly charming. If you like birds and visual novels what are you waiting for? Even if you don't have any strong feelings about birds, you likely won't fall afoul of this visual novel.

18. VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

(Image credit: Sukeban Games)

Developer: Sukeban Games
Platform(s):
PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch 

In a cyberpunk world where corporations rule, you play as a bartender who serves up drinks to all kinds of colourful characters in VA-11 Hall-A's dystopian setting. With an appealing pixelated aesthetic, the mechanics of this visual novel is a little bit different. Instead of selecting branching dialogue choices, you have to make drinks for your customers as you listen to their tales and problems. You've got to pay the bills after all, so the more drinks you get the right, the longer you can keep your livelihood and home. There are plenty of interesting storylines throughout with a great soundtrack to boot. If you love a bit of cyberpunk action, you can't go wrong with this one. 

17. Root Letter 

(Image credit: PQube)

Developer: Dragami Games
Platform(s):
PC, PS4

With some of the most detailed and beautiful background art, Root Letter is set in Matsue in the Shimane Prefecture in Japan where the protagonist travels to after receiving a letter that's 15 years late - talk about a slow delivery. The letter informs you that an old pen friend called Aya was involved in a murder. The revelation leads you to set out and follow in Aya's footsteps to uncover the truth behind the words and find out what happened to her. As the title suggests, the letter is at the root of the story, and through questioning people, interacting with the different locations, and experiencing a series of flashbacks from different perspectives, you'll slowly start to unravel an interesting tale that can lead to several different outcomes. While it can be slow in places, if you're a fan of a good mystery, Root Letter is definitely worth a go. 

16. Clannad

(Image credit: Sekai Project)

Available on: PC, PS4

Originally released in Japan back in 2004, Clannad follows the story of a private high school student called Tomoya Okazaki who's distanced himself from his fellow students and keeps tragically loses his mother and struggles to handle his relationship with his alcoholic father. Okazaki meets a young girl called Nagisa Furukawa who's repeating the school year due to illness. Together the pair try to revive the school drama club and get to know lots of other students in the process. As one of the more moving visual novels. The story that unfolds handles some very deep and often sad topics, so it's best to go in expecting to shed a tear or two, but the journey it takes you one is hard to forget. 

15. Dream Daddy

(Image credit: Game Grumps)

Developer: Game Grumps
Platform(s)
: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch 

Published and developed by Game Grumps, Dream Daddy is filled with humour, heart and lots of charming dads looking for love. Every dad has a different route with their own particular storyline that explores a variety of different themes and issues. The character creator has a lot of inclusive options and the style of the art adds so much personality to the dad dating experience. With so many likeable characters, plenty of nods to memes, and some challenging mini-games interspersed throughout the different routes - from golf to a side scrolling platformer where you have to navigate your way through a nightclub - there's a lot to love about Dream Daddy. 

14. Cinders

(Image credit: MoaCube)

Developer: Moacube
Platform(s)
: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch 

Cinders puts in you charge of your very own fairytale that takes the classic tale and turns it on its head with mature themes and a strong protagonist who wants to decide her own fate. Made by indie studio MoaCube, this visual novel has a distinct artstyle that gives it oodles of personality. From the outside it might just seem like a retelling of the classic Cinderella story, but with so many twists and unexpected turns, it will surprise you more than you might expect. With over 300 choices to make and plenty of meaningful decisions that will affect the outcome of the story, you have the power to decide how Cinders story unfolds as well what kind of person she'll be. Essentially you get to decide what her "happily ever after" is, and that can be as unconventional as you'd like it to be. As protagonists go, Cinders is incredibly likeable, and with so many different outcomes to experience, it has a lot of replay value. 

13. Arcade Spirits 

(Image credit: Fiction Factory Games)

Developer: Fiction Factory Games
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

Set in the year "20XX," Fiction Factory Games' visual novel takes place in a world where arcade machines are still the current rage. The protagonist you play has just lost their job and manages to land a position at the Funplex arcade. Filled with a cast of fun characters, plenty of creative nods to arcade games interwoven into its story, and very appealing artwork, there's a lot to love about Arcade Spirits. With a total of seven romanceable characters,  it's entirely up to you to decide how you'll form relationships with them - be it friendships, platonic, or something more intimate. The dialogue choices you make throughout will also determine your character's personality. 

The different personality traits appeal to certain characters, so you play around with how you want your character to be and see who's drawn to you, or tailor your responses to a personality train in order to get to know someone in particular person. The amount of choice and freedom you have to decide how the story unfolds makes Arcade Spirits highly replayable, and the memorable line-up of characters and engaging storyline make it one of the most enjoyable recent additions to the visual novel library. 

12. Doki Doki Literature Club Plus

Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!

(Image credit: Serenity Forge)

Developer: Team Salvato
Available on: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

Every once in a while you'll come across a visual novel that completely surprises you in the most unexpected way, and Doki Doki Literature Club definitely falls into that category. Taking a lot of the tropes of the visual novel genre and putting a decidedly dark, meta twist on the format, the indie visual novel may look sugary sweet, but it's anything but. You might not think it looks like a psychological horror from the outside looking in, but it most certainly is. While it's best to proceed with some caution, it's good to go in not knowing what the precise twist is so you can experience it for yourself unspoiled. As someone who's played a lot of visual novels, it completely caught me off guard, and it'll likely leave its mark on you, too. 

11. Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk

(Image credit: Idea Factory)

Developer: Idea Factory
Platform(s)
: PC  

As part of the Psychedelica series, Ashen Hawk explores a darker story of a young girl with a red eye that has the power to see inside people's hearts. The protagonist hides this eye away as many believe it's the mark of a witch and therefore fears she'll be shunned. In order to disguise her identity, she lives as a boy and hides her eye. She has ties to three other characters, and each has their own different route which leads to varying outcomes. With so many branching paths and choices to make, it features a flowchart system that enables you to keep track of the choices you've made and all of the paths you've explored so far. With an interesting storyline packed full of intrigue and mystery, and a very likeable, strong protagonist, you can easily lose yourself in its dark, fantastical world thanks to its distinctly unique art style and beautifully animated characters. 

10. Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms 

(Image credit: Idea Factory)

Developer: Idea Factory / Design Factory
Platform(s)
: PC 

It's worth noting right from the off that Edo Blossoms is the second entry in the two part series of Haukoki games, with the first being Kyoto Winds. Kyoto Winds essentially establishes the characters and how the protagonist came to be in their company, but the main heart of the story and most of its action takes place in Edo Blossoms, which is why it's the one that finds a place on this list. Originally released on the PSP and Nintendo 3DS, Edo Blossoms is a revamped version of the classic game with a whole host of new routes and characters. Where the original had four routes, the new version has nine. 

Hakuoki sees you play a young woman called Chizuru Yukimura who finds herself fighting alongside a group of warriors in Japan known as the Shinsengumi. In its world, there are demons who have superhuman strength, and some have tried to harness the power of the demons, only to transform into blood-frenzied people known as "Furies." With a lot of romance, action, and fantastic localisation, animation, and artwork, Hakuoki is one of the strongest and most engaging Otome visual novels around. 

9. Butterfly Soup

(Image credit: Brianna Lei)

Developer: Brianna Lei
Platform(s)
: PC (itch.io (opens in new tab)

Brianna Lei's indie visual novel Butterfly soup is a little gem of a game about Asian-American girls who play baseball and fall in love with each other. The premise instantly sold me before I started playing, but I didn't quite expect to be so moved by its story or to fall so hard for its characters. Packed full of humour (with genuine laugh-out-loud moments), heart, and wonderful artwork, the story follows a group of believable teenagers who bond through their shared experiences. Butterfly Soup's relatable characters and beautifully written story is sure to leave its mark on your heart and endlessly charm you. 

8. Heaven Will Be Mine

(Image credit: Pillow Fight Games)

Developer: Pillow Fight / Worst Girls Games
Available on: PC 

Heaven Will be Mine explores some quite sensitive subjects, but that just makes Worst Girls Games and Pillow Fights Games' visual novel all the more noteworthy. Players can assume the role of three different mech pilots - Luna-Terra, Pluto, and Saturn - who each have their own personalities and skills. Through a series of conversations that play out on a UI that's designed to make you feel like you're in the cockpit of a mech, you follow the story of the pilots as they try to navigate their way through an eight-day war against three different factions in a bid to fight for the future of humanity. 

Every pilot is on a different side, which offers a variety of different perspectives and issues. What makes it so notable, though, is how strong its storytelling is. The narrative is one of its strongest points, with so many metaphorical layers to uncover. Set in an alternate version of 1981, Heaven Will Be Mine is one of the most interesting recent visual novel additions to the ever-growing library, wrapped up in a distinctive art style, lots of smooching, and an absorbing exploration of relationships and connections. 

7. Neo Cab

(Image credit: Chance Agency)

Developer: Chance Agency
Platform(s):
PC, Nintendo Switch, iOS

Set in a neon-tinted futuristic world with serious cyberpunk vibes where automation rules, you play as Lina, the last human cab driver who finds herself having to work on the streets of Los Ojos where she's just recently relocated to. At the beginning of the game you reunite with your friend who you clearly have a dicey history with. With unresolved feelings hanging in the air, your friend gives you a feelgrid, which is like a futuristic mood ring in the form of a bracelet that will change colour depending on how Lina is feeling. 

Suddenly, the friend goes missing. As you work to find out what happened, you're forced to pick up passengers to keep the money coming in. You have to be careful what you say to those who get in your cab, though, because you can run the risk of hurting your star rating or affecting your emotional wellbeing. The style has so much appeal, and as a narrative driven adventure where your choices actually have an effect, it frames an engaging story about human connections through the conversations you have with passengers. 

6. Eliza

(Image credit: Zachtronics)

Developer: Zachtronics
Platform(s)
: PC, Nintendo Switch

Zachtronic's visual novel explores the idea of using an AI therapy app called Eliza. The crux is that the AI programme is actually run by proxy workers who read from a script provided to them in real-time by the AI. One such proxy is Evelyn who you assume the role throughout the story. After burning out from her job in tech, Evelyn takes the job working for the app and while she has yet to face her own problems, she tries to help the people of Seattle with theirs. With a variety of different endings and plenty of interesting turns, Eliza is a thought-provoking visual novel that will make you question the power of technology and the dangers surrounding the idea of digital, AI-powered therapy. 

5. Hustle Cat

Hustle Cat

(Image credit: Date Nighto)

Developer: Date Nighto
Platform(s):
PC

What would you do if you landed yourself a job at a cat cafe only to discover all your colleagues transform into cats as soon as they leave at night? Well, that's exactly what you'll have to contend with in Hustle Cat, the delightful visual novel from Date Nighto. As Avery Grey, you start a job at a cat cafe called the Cat's Paw and the story  follows several different routes depending on the choices you make. There are six characters in total, with several different branching stories that will take you on an unexpected journey in the world of being a cat cafe employee. With lovely character filled with personality, you're sure to fall in love with at least one of the cast of characters you meet in the Cat's Paw. 

4. Bustafellows

Bustafellows

(Image credit: PQube)

Developer: Nippon Cultural Broadcasting Extend Inc
Platform(s):
PC, Nintendo Switch

Bustafellows sees you take on the role of a journalist in the fictional setting of New Sieg. With several routes to explore alongside a memorable cast of characters, the protagonist has a rather unique ability that allows you go back in time to see how events unfold in different scenarios. After trying to stop a murder, you'll soon find yourself wrapped up in a series of engrossing mysteries as you get to know the cast of fellows who all have their own story to tell. With some fantastic localization and storytelling, Bustafellows takes you on a memorable adventure with romance, intrigue, and surprises in store. 

3. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy

(Image credit: Capcom)

Developer: Capcom
Platform(s):
PS4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch 

Objection! If you haven't played any of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games, starting at the beginning is the best way to go. And rather helpfully, the original trilogy got a shiny remastered re-release for all of your court room needs. With some of the best localization around, the Ace Attorney series is bursting with interesting storylines, endlessly expressive animations, creative character designs, and generous helpings of humor and heart. 

Every case is filled with unexpected twists and turns, and as Phoenix Wright, your logic and reasoning will truly be put to the test to solve each case and make sure you get the verdict you want in the final courtroom showdown. By finding clues, piecing together evidence, and selecting the right answers, you'll be putting away criminals left, right and center. But the answers are never obvious, and it will put forward some challenging cases that take some thought to solve. Being a lawyer was never so fun or challenging.

2. Zero Escape: The Nonary Games

(Image credit: Spike Chunsoft Co. )

Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Platform(s)
: PC, PS4, Xbox One

Part of the fun of making choices in visual novels is seeing the different outcomes of the decisions you've made, good or bad. In Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, which bundles together remastered versions of two fantastic visual novels from developer Chunsoft, every choice puts the fate of the characters in your hands. The first game, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) was originally released in 2009 on the Nintendo DS and puts you in the shoes of college student Junpei. The story follows nine main characters who are unwilling participants in the Nonary games run by a mysterious figure known as Zero. 

Each character is locked in a different room, and it's up to you to correctly work out how to get out of every room. The tagline "a million ways to die" should be enough to convince you that your choices really do matter. With text-based segments and challenging first-person puzzle solving, there are plenty of twists and turns throughout, and the sequel Virtue's Last Reward (which originally released on 3DS and PSVita) is just as engaging. When it comes to the Nonary games, the less you know going in, the better. 

1. Stein; Gate Elite

(Image credit: Spike Chunsoft)

Developer: Mages Inc
Platform(s)
: PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch 

A remake of the original Steins; Gate visual novel that released back in 2009, Steins; Gate Elite takes the already stellar original version and polishes it up with fully animated sequences from the anime series, as well as some tweaked features. As one of the most compelling stories that revolves around time travel, you follow the story of a group of students who uncover the means to travel through time using tech. If you're after a visual novel where choices matter, then look no further. As protagonist Ritaro Okabe who's a scientist of sorts, you journey through a mind-bending story in a bid to try and change the future by travelling through time reliving past days and carrying out different actions in a bid to alter its outcome. As a tale that explores how decisions can set us on different paths through life and affect the future, the intensely atmospheric visual novel offers one of the most engaging experiences in the genre to date. 


A fan of great storytelling? Why not check out our pick of the best game stories

Heather Wald
Senior staff writer

I started out writing for the games section of a student-run website as an undergrad, and continued to write about games in my free time during retail and temp jobs for a number of years. Eventually, I earned an MA in magazine journalism at Cardiff University, and soon after got my first official role in the industry as a content editor for Stuff magazine. After writing about all things tech and games-related, I then did a brief stint as a freelancer before I landed my role as a staff writer here at GamesRadar+. Now I get to write features, previews, and reviews, and when I'm not doing that, you can usually find me lost in any one of the Dragon Age or Mass Effect games, tucking into another delightful indie, or drinking far too much tea for my own good.