Japanese Visual Novels for the computer.
These type of games are analogous to the “choose-your-own-adventure” books I read during my childhood, recreated deftly for the digital era in the format of Visual Novels. A passive experience for the first few minutes, eventually you will be lead to make a game-changing decision that can send the story branching off in several completely different paths. More choices will follow, until the path you choose becomes your own. While multiple, branching story arcs are nothing new in video games they are certainly not a requisite for console games and in fact, most popular recently released AAA games are linear ie: The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Journey, Dead Space and Assassins Creed series
After playing Persona 3 Portable for the PSP and logging over 80+ hours with the addictive RPG, I found myself enjoying playing as a highschool student in contemporary Japanese-influenced locations battling shadows in dark, ambient floors of the tower. It was vastly different than any other RPG I have ever played, and needless to say by the first 6 hours of gameplay I was hooked. The game holds nothing back and even has you boldly place a gun-like object to your head, dubbed an “Evoker“, to release each characters persona’s in battle. Young adults placing “guns” to their heads to help battle evil by night and navigate the social awkwardness of being a teenager by day? Yeah, Persona 3 was definitely bucking the trend of it’s contemporaries.
For those new to the series, I would certainly recommend that Persona is worth your time, even if RPG’s aren’t necessarily your bread and butter. Through it’s cast of highschool characters dealing with modernized problems juxtaposed to the supernatural story of demon slaying and the intuitive persona-crafting system, it does not try to conform to the status quo set by titles like “Final Fantasy”,”Tales Of” and “Dragon Quest” franchises of the RPG lexicon. Until now, RPGs have never been so accessible. Dare I say that with each successive release, the Persona series has even begun to dethrone the “you-know-who” institution of the RPG genre, Final Fantasy. Even non-RPG gamers have reverence for the Persona series, with many of them acknowledging the only reason they bought a PS Vita is for Persona 4 Golden. Not quite a killer app, but very damn close.
They are called Visual Novels, and my hard drive is now filled with them.
Not all VN’s share this M.O., however. As many sexually-themed stories that are available to play out, (or “eroge“, a term dubbed specifically for Japanese erotic games) there are just as many that focus on fantasy/RPG type of adventures, dating-Sims that are more comedic and wholesome and science-fiction VN’s that will indulge you in some awesome, mind-bending story telling (a la Bioshock Infinite). One such example that has garnered critical acclaim for it’s character development, art direction and deeply compelling story is the science-fiction adventure Steins;Gate. Steins;Gate VN was released in 2009 and has since spawned a parade of manga, TV-based anime and a full-feature movie anime. Another immensely popular Japanese VN entitled “School Days”, portrays a highschool relationship drama, has also been serialized into a 12-part TV-run anime along with manga and oh yes, several VN sequels to the original game itself. Due to their overwhelming popularity, Steins;Gate and School Days HQ have been localized and released in the West.
If you want a good place to start with VN’s, “Steins;Gate“ has finished localization for North America by publisher JAST USA and they are currently taking orders for a special physical collectors edition and the digital download. Steins;Gate is not a romance or dating-Sim, but includes all the characteristics that make a VN great while separating itself from most typical VN conventions by including an unusual cast, beautifully drawn imagery that is a unique hybrid of steam punk sci-fi and a concise, awesome story based on sending simple text messages back in time to alter the present and the future. There are also some older VN’s such as “Divi-Dead” that fall into the horror genre, yet still taking place in a school environment with disturbing imagery. For more information on Visual Novels and finding one that may pique your interest check out the following links:
http://www.fuwanovel.org – An assortment of recent fan-translated Visual Novels from all different genres
http://www.vndb.org – VNDB.org strives to be a comprehensive database for information about visual novels. Here, you can look up and research any VN that has been released in Japan and in the States.
https://hiddendefinition.wordpress.com/about/school-days-hq-review-pc/ – My complete review of School Days HQ
Last but not least, for more info or to purchase any of the aforementioned VN’s such as School Days HQ and Steins;Gate plus many other great titles from all genres, check out JAST USA’s online catalog as your one-stop shop for official translated Japanese Visual Novels: http://www.jastusa.com
While VN’s have slowly engulfed my gaming lifestyle, I still am a console gamer at heart. RPGs such as Persona and the recently announced Tales of Xillia 2 and Tales of Zestiria will always dominate my game rotation. The advent of Persona 5 coming next year (to Japan) and the highschool flavor of characters and locations returning, it’s safe to say that Persona’s Social Link system will be making a welcome return, and maybe even play more intricately into the story. I certainly hope so, because I couldn’t imagine a Persona game any other way. And if you still can’t get enough Persona, know that a full-length theatrical anime movie entitled “P3: Spring of Birth” based on the initial first few hours of story from the game was just released in Japan on November 23rd, 2013. Considering the numerous accolades the film has received, I suspect it’s just a matter of time before “Spring of Birth” makes it’s veritable debut to American audiences. To cement just how awesome the P3 movie is, I’ll leave you with the movie’s trailer: