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The best visual novels that'll capture your imagination

(Image credit: Spike Chunsoft)

If you love narrative-driven experiences that let you decide how the story unfolds, there's nothing quite like a great visual novel to scratch that particular itch. The world of the best visual novels is like going on a choose your adventure type of journey with lots of subgenres to explore and experience. Mystery, crime, romance, action, a cat cafe. You name it. The genre is practically bursting with fantastic plots, interesting concepts, and memorable characters. Not to mention some feature impressively detailed artwork and expressive character designs. From being a detective, to an attorney, or filling the shoes of someone who works in an Arcade, you can experience all kinds of different roles in visual novels. And if you're after a bit of romance, the genre has plenty of touching and well-written offerings in that department.

So take a leaf from my book and settle down as we take you on a journey through the wonderful world of the best visual novels you can play right now.

20. Hatoful Boyfriend

(Image credit: Mediatonic)

Available on: PC, PS4, iOS, Android

Yes, on the surface it might sound slightly bizarre 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… okay sure, it sounds weird, but the meta, self-aware writing makes it work. Some of the birds stories are actually kind 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.

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

(Image credit: Sukeban Games)

Available on: 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. Every drink has a particular taste, from sour to bitter and sweet, and a lot of the time, the customer will say what they're in the mood for and it's up to you to decide which drink would suit their tastes best and make it correctly. 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 your home. There are plenty of interesting storylines throughout, with a great soundtrack. If you love a bit of cyberpunk action, you can't go wrong with this one. 

18. Root Letter 

(Image credit: PQube)

Available on: 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 for its beautiful art style and interesting storyline. 

17. Dream Daddy

(Image credit: Game Grumps)

Available on: 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. 

16. Cinders

(Image credit: MoaCube)

Available on: PC, 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. 

15. Hustle Cat

(Image credit: Date Nighto)

Available on: 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 can unfold following several different routes depending on the choices you make and which character you bond with. 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. From adorable cats to lovely character designs 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. 

14. Arcade Spirits 

(Image credit: Fiction Factory Games)

Available on: PC (coming to PS4, Xbox One and Switch in 2020) 

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. 

13. Doki Doki Literature Club

(Image credit: Team Salvato)

Available on: PC 

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. 

12. Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk

(Image credit: Idea Factory)

Available on: PC, PSVita 

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. 

11. Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms 

(Image credit: Idea Factory)

Available on: PC, PSVita 

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. 

While I was still trying to cut my teeth in the journalism world, I worked at Game before ditching retail to do an MA in magazine journalism at Cardiff University. I then landed a job as the content editor for Stuff Magazine writing about all things game and tech related. Eventually I fell into the world of freelancing, and after contributing to Gamesradar+ for a few months, I somehow bagged myself my dream job. Now I get to do what I truly love alongside a talented team of writers full time. Yeah, I can’t believe it either!