^Bet you clicked here because you wanted to see what was going on up there^
Hello! I’m a dude who reviews video games around here who you may or may not know (and I’ll assume you fall in the latter category). When I say “Video Games” I’m referring to the least video game-y video games available – Visual Novels. If you’re honest-to-goodness unfamiliar with them then I have no idea why you wandered into this section of the website, but I’ll go over the basics.
[IF YOU KNOW THE BASICS, LOOK FOR THE NEXT BRACKETED TEXT]
A visual novel (VN) is a (typically eastern) text-based game that focuses almost exclusively on story. The only mechanical skill you’d need to play a visual novel is the ability to move your mouse and click between a set of options. There are exceptions to this, and some games classified as Visual Novels are primarily a different genre with VN aspects to them. Many visual novels focus on subjects that require more depth, so one could expect the aggregate to have darker tones and a stronger focus on characters.
Visual novels also tend to fixate on the themes of romance and love, thus many of the popular titles are primarily defined by the main character wooing heroines (or heroes, I don’t judge). VNs also market to an older audience (Usually 16 years on up) and they even have games that feature adult content. As an aside, visual novels that contain adult content are usually called “eroge” and games which focus almost exclusively on the adult content are called “nukige”; there’s surprisingly few games that do not have explicit or implied sexual content. There is a different standard than when you’re in the west, so if you are uncomfortable with sexual content I’d recommend either skipping through the offending scenes or clicking the “Disable H-scenes” option in the game options (the existence of said option varies from game to game).
With that cleared up, most of the games focus on one of the love interests in an individual “route”. In a game with multiple valid love interests it becomes the player’s job to read through the story until a branching option comes up where the player then selects one to progress the story. If you select the right options you’ll land yourself on the love interest’s route, but if you choose poorly you could end up on a different person’s route (at best), a Bad End (at worst), or anywhere in between. The rigidity of the route mechanic varies from game to game, and sometimes with more stringency for certain routes within the same game. There is not a lot of gameplay or challenge in this sort of game, so the enjoyment of the genre comes from the story and how invested the player gets in the story.
[IF YOU KNOW WHAT A VISUAL NOVEL IS, LOOK HERE]
Now that everyone is on roughly the same page, I’ll explain a bit about myself and what I hope to accomplish. I’m a dude who has watched DragonBall Z since I was 7 and never really grew out of it. This means I’m a hopeless loser with no prospects in real life, but real life tends to be depressing so I spend a lot of time playing video games as a form of pseudo-escapism. I’m a 20-something middle class white American male who goes to college, spends over half of my day behind a computer, does above average academically, and generally sucks around girls. In short, I’m the perfect dude to tell you which of these Japanese story games are the best and worst. If these characteristics seem to hit too close to home, then I have good news and bad news. Good news is that you qualify for my position! Bad news is that we’re both losers.
Moving on, I hope to spread a bit of insight into which VNs are worth your time and which are not – more importantly I want to explain why they are or aren’t good. I do not want any two of my reviews to stick too close to a formula, but at the same time having some organization can help you as a reader jump to juicy bits. I will be plain and forthcoming about my biases here and now (in this pre-amble that I’m writing before I even start my first review):
- I value gameplay and gimmicks very little.
- I value themes and the overarching quality more than I do the specific sequence. This is also a convenient excuse for me to totally gloss over details.
- I don’t value the art and CG that greatly. If it is distracting or different I’ll focus on it, but otherwise it’s a device that should come standard.
- I tend to gravitate towards more thrilling stories as opposed to heartfelt stories. This one’s important since if thrills don’t do it for you then I’m not your guy.
- There will not be many “bad” or severely poorly rated games in my reviews. If I think it’s bad, I won’t play it.
- I usually play a game until full completion.
That’s about all I can think of, but I’ll now explain what I want to avoid. I do not want to hand out spoilers. However, I do not claim to be perfect; because I play games to completion I can forget what was or was not plot relevant in the early stages. I also do not want to hand you the same info you could find if you were smart enough to click that VNDB link that pops up at the top of the google box when you search, “I want hentai with plot and extra reading”. This means I’ll be typing up the premise with what I recall from the game to the best of my ability. I’ll invoke a “One-hour Rule” where I’ll play the game from the start for a full hour and then write the review and spoil what’s necessary from what happens in the first hour (since most of the premise stuff is given that way). With all that said it’s time to get into the specifics of how I’ll grade the individual game.
This is what should be in the review at minimum. Some games will have more sections, but most will adhere or barely surpass this standard. Exceptions going under the bar will rarely pass.
The categories I’ll always grade on will be:
- Setting and/or Immersion
- Characters and Cast
- Art and Graphics (Music goes here too)
- Writing Quality
Not every category is weighted equally, but each section will get its own individual rating in addition to the final verdict rating. Some of these categories are questionable at first glance so I’ll briefly explain before wrapping this up.
The first one is probably the oddest one, “Setting and/or Immersion”. This is the rough measure of how long it takes me to get in the correct mindset to enjoy the game and understand what’s going on. Some games are slow starters, and other hook you like a boxer. How much did I want to play after putting it down the first time?
“Characters and Cast” should be self-explanatory. Were the characters in the game adequately developed and relatable? Sometimes relatable means “likable”, but other times it means sensible. More nuanced things like the size of the cast can come into play. If the cast of characters is too large and it seems to only serve to confuse the player, then it’d be reasonable to expect a few points docked.
“Themes” is a really, REALLY, broad one. This is the category where I get to put my 12 years of English class to the test to try to identify what the author was wanting to say and how well they said it (after some neckbeard got his hand on the script and translated it). If the themes were pretty basic or generic, then I’d probably dock a few points from this section. I’ll try my best to not totally butcher a theme, but I figure I’ll cover my bases here and apologize when I inevitably get something horribly wrong.
Now, this whole genre is called “Visual Novels”, so half the damn title should mean something. I personally don’t hold too much stock in the art quality, but I know enough to tell good from bad. It’s bad if it’s distracting, and it’s good if it’s different but not in a bad way. That’s a pretty primitive way to look at it, but I only took the minimum 1 year art requirement in middle school. Theoretically I should be better at judging music, but for the most part I’ll rarely dock points for music. It’s just there to enhance the story for me, so unless it’s amazing or iconic I won’t notice.
Finally, you have the big one, “Writing Quality”. This is different from themes because you can tell a familiar story in an amazing way. If you want a rough divider between the two, then themes are the uniqueness of the story while quality is the amount the story resonated with me. I will tend to award bonus points if game did manage to tie in an odd theme with good writing since that provides a spectacular reading experience.
One last caveat – I might add in rules specific to a game at any time and add points for whatever arbitrary reason I feel like. Sometimes it’s easy (and fun) to lay into the flaws of a game from hindsight, but if I had a good time playing it and was not majorly disappointed I’ll throw it a bone. The global rule currently in effect is…
YOUR WAIFU IS SHIT: My least favorite route will be expressly stated and cease to influence any of my ratings. If the route was really THAT bad I might have two separate final verdict ratings.
Hope you enjoy looking at the reviews and maybe pick up a few along the way!