The visual novel genre has amassed quite the appeal. The genre has successfully mixed different styles of gameplay and mechanics to reach and captivate a variety of gamers in the past. For example, RPG’s such as Fire Emblem use visual novel elements when progressing the story outside of combat and building unit relationships. Much like such a hybrid, these mystery visual novels often include interesting and unique aspects of gameplay unlike any other Visual Novel you can get your hands on. To honour the brilliance of these type of games, we’ll be covering a few of the best mystery visual novels as well as more obscure ones. Or will I also leave this list as a mystery as to why I chose these entries, I wonder?
UPDATE: We’ve added an extra game to the list!
Zero Escape series
The Zero Escape series that started on the DS as ‘Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999)’ is a staple of ‘escape room in your very own living room’ goodness. The trilogy of Zero Escape games offers challenging puzzles, interesting characters and dynamics, as well as a healthy dose of increasing intrigue with each game release. The revelations and secrets that are gradually uncovered in each route of ‘999’ keeps players gripped and invested in its characters and story. As a non-linear game, there are multiple endings obtainable, each one as shocking and entertaining as the last.
Each game in the series follows a group of nine individuals who may or may not be connected and forced into a game playing with their very fate. Will they manage to leave? Will they die? And who is their kidnapper and perpetrator of this game called “Zero”? The entries utilise Escape sections that have players search and locate items that they can combine and use in the room players find themselves locked in after selecting the characters they want to proceed with to solve a variety of puzzles. You will experience doubt, mistrust and fear for the characters and at times, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it on the other side of the screen.
If you have never played any of the games, do yourself a favour and pick up the first and second game bundle available on Vita, PS4 or Steam titled ‘Zero Escape: The Nonary Games’. If you enjoyed this package, be sure to grab ‘Zero Time Dilemma’ on the Vita, PS4 or Steam to wrap up the trilogy. Don’t let this one escape you.
In a similar fashion to Zero Escape’s Japanese Jigsaw antagonist of the mysterious “Zero”, Danganronpa’s instigator of its killing game is by the iconic robot bear Monokuma. As reflective of his monochromatic vertical split design, the antagonist provides both laughs and insane chaos in the game. The games feature a vast amount of characters, each completely individual and unique with their own flaws, interests and personalities. Your favourite character will always be different to someone else’s but do be careful when aligning yourself with anyone!
The game has three styles of gameplay in each chapter; School Life allows players to grow their friendship with the other characters of their choosing that unlocks new abilities usable in Class Trials. Before this the player must complete locating all clues in the investigation mode when a body is found to debunk lies in the following mode. The game offers brilliant script and dialogue in its Visual Novel scenes, but the very best of Danganronpa shines brightest in its fast paced and tense Class Trials where players must be on alert to spot lies and refute them correctly with their Truth Bullets. The game’s moments of shocking victim and killer reveals, iconic prosecution animations, and true identities revealed are golden gaming moments best experienced without spoilers.
Outside of its games, Danganronpa offers even more entertainment for fans. Several manga and anime adaptations have been made, the anime series ‘Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School’ being a recommended watch after completing all games that expands upon its characters and lore. The one spin-off game called ‘Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls’ is a first-person shooter where the player is put in the position of the first game’s protagonist’s sister, Komaru Naegi.
This entry offers something new and fresh with its shooter mechanics being a nice break and additional story to play between its three main entries. Its core themes of hope, despair and friendship are evident throughout its game as well. It is suggested that new players play this game after completing the second game as characters from the previous two entries return in this entry. Who in their right mind would pass on a video game all about shooting as many Monokuma’s as you can?
My recommended playthrough of the games is with the ‘Danganronpa Trilogy’, available on both PS4 and Steam.
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Root Letter is the first entry in Kadokawa’s Game Mystery brand, with their next one ‘Root Film’ being released later this year. Players are put in the role of a man in search of his missing childhood pen pal of 15 years, Fumino Aya. Players must search and use environmental and spoken clues to confront and interrogate Aya’s childhood friends to solve the mystery. Depending on players’ choices in their responses to Aya’s past letters, they will encounter one of three possible endings. After reaching all three, two additional ones are unlocked.
The confrontation between protagonist and each childhood friend heightens the tension and bit by bit, players inch closer to the truth, with pieces of the mystery being slowly put together until the end conclusion wraps up one single concept the game has to offer. Root Letter has a ton of surprises that build up within each route and when each character is confronted. The endings can defy expectations in the best ways possible. The game awards players who see the plot’s unravelling until the very last route, as each conclusion offers something different in tone, theme and finale that affects each character differently, for better or for worse. The replay value alone on this entry is worth your time and commitment.
The suggested way to play this game is with ‘Root Letter: Last Answer’ for additional epilogue content and the optional “Drama Mode” with live action visuals. This was released last year on PS4, Steam and Nintendo Switch.
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Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa
As a gamer who has spent an embarrassing number of hours on Steam’s ‘HuniePop’, ‘Kotodama: The Seven Mysteries of Fujisawa’ fills my personal void for more fun and mindless tile-matching gameplay. Each of its seven chapters addresses one of its seven mysteries of Fujisawa. Set in a fictional Japanese Academy, you are the new transfer student who is quickly rushed into and forced to join the Occult Research Club. The group consists of only two girls. Their mission is to uncover the truths behind their academy’s rumours. At the same time, your side kick of a talking fox spirit the player forms a contract with to obtain the power to determine if someone is telling a truth or a lie is the catalyst for the game’s main gameplay mechanic. Expect the unexpected with this game after that sentence! The puzzle solving does, of course, involve the removal of the student’s clothes to uncover the “layers” of their deception.
These truths are at times absolutely bonkers to downright depressing. The game has many moments of comedy followed by a whiplash of outrageous and horrifying secrets being revealed. It’s eccentric to say the least but makes for an entertaining and engaging playthrough. Its many hours of challenging puzzle solving, and multiple endings will keep players coming back for more.
‘Kotodama: The Seven Mysteries of Fujisawa’ is available on Steam, Switch and PS4.
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World End Syndrome
Our protagonist arrives at a small seaside town after accepting a school transfer. After joining the school’s clubs, a dead body is found in the river and our main mystery is set in motion to solve. Does the year of the yomibito, the living dead coming back to life after 100 years, have anything to do with this murder mystery?
‘World End Syndrome’s steady start takes such an unexpected and sudden turn in its prologue that it will have you hooked and on the edge of your seat as soon as this moment hits you like a ton of bricks. World End Syndrome offers so much more than you would expect with not only a gripping introduction, but also with its main characters. On the surface, the five potential love interests may appear one-dimensional, but with enough time and investment in each of their stories and backgrounds the game awards players with wonderful character development in every playthrough. Do not take the game or its characters for face value. Even our main character’s past is mysterious until it is later revealed. As for gameplay, players must solve incidents in town to obtain key items and clues in each route until all five good endings have been obtained and the true path is unlocked. The sound design, atmosphere and setting are worth mentions as the game manages to make you feel truly horrified and uncomfortable with ease.
‘World End Syndrome’ is available on Vita, PS4 and Switch.
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What you could call the otome counterpart to World End Syndrome, 7’scarlet follows Ichiko Hanamaki as she travels to the remote town of Okunezato in search of her missing brother. Her childhood friend, Hino Kagutsuchi accompanies her after suggesting a group that they can meet for questioning about her brother’s whereabouts that go by the name of “Okunezato Supernatural Club”. The club discusses their town’s mysterious happenings, from disappearances to hushed murders. Ichiko and Hino begin to attend the group’s meet ups at Fuurinkan Hotel, where the love interests other than Hino are introduced; the cool and collected student Sosuke Tatehira, the flirty chef Isora Amari, introvert and cat lover Toa Kushinada, and the mysterious and cold hotel owner Yuzuki Murakumo.
So many emotions can be felt with a single playthrough with this game. The bittersweet endings can tug at the heart strings for those who are as much of a hopeless romantic as myself. But most importantly, for the mystery side of 7’scarlet, a few clues as well as reveals show themselves throughout each route, with cliff hangers and unanswered questions being addressed in the game’s true ending. Much like other entries on this list like Danganronpa, the ‘Whodunit’ aspect of this game kept me hooked until its reveal. But for those who may have keener detective skills, you can enjoy figuring out the hidden and subtle hints in each route that suggest of something much more paranormal happening.
To best avoid early revelations, I suggest this route order:
Hino / Isora / Toa / Sosuke / Yuzuki
‘7’scarlet’ is available on both Vita and Steam.
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Hotel Dusk is one of my favourite titles on the DS. One reason as to why this is can be seen with how the game uses the unique functions of the DS to its benefit in its storytelling. The microphone can be used to solve the various puzzles the game challenges you with, and the journal Kyle keeps on him can be used for writing and erasing our written notes. The game even has you hold the DS on its side, mimicking how we would read a written, intriguing mystery novel. Players’ main goal is to speak with the various characters in the hotel to progress the story with vital information for future reference. They must be conscious of the choices they make when asking the questions, accusing or providing “evidence” with items, or getting caught investigating in the ‘out of bounds’ hotel rooms. And you do not want to upset any of its guests or employees as we could end up with Kyle having to leave the hotel with no mystery solved! The animation and style of the game are also key to its appeal. The game uses rotoscoping to create its brushwork style and makes it a breath of fresh air in the system’s game library and individualises it.
The game is set in 1979, Los Angeles. Our character, Kyle Hyde, a former New York detective turned salesman visits the fictional motel Hotel Dusk in search of his missing former partner, Brian Bradley. There are so many mysteries that the player has a choice in delving into first or save for later. Where is Kyle’s missing friend? How true is the rumour around Room 215 making wishes a reality? What connects Kyle’s past to this hotel?
Hotel Dusk is a wonderful, little gem and deserves more attention not just for its excellent storytelling and gameplay, but especially for the remembrance of its very unfortunate bankrupt developer Cing. If you enjoy this title do follow it up with the game’s sequel ‘Last Window: The Secret of Cape West’ on the DS. Both are perfect for those who may be newer to Visual Novel games that can comfortably take their time with following the stories and becoming accustomed to the heavy reading format.
Get it on Amazon here!
428: Shibuya Scramble
428: Shibuya Scramble is a game I would have conceptualised in my own mind years ago if I was such a genius. It is the perfect non-linear mystery game I have seen been compared to the film Pulp Fiction for its complex storytelling. Its five main characters are controlled by the player individually until their character is stopped by a dead end that must be unlocked by following the story of another character until the right action is taken in theirs that affects the blocked character. The game is so quirky and wacky with laugh-out-loud moments like the story of the character Tama, who is stuck in her cat suit for comical slapstick throughout the whole game. The game spans across just 10 hours where all five characters must solve the overarching mystery of a ransom kidnap case with deeper implications characters can be unaware of. With 95 attainable endings ‘428: Shibuya Scramble’ offers hours of engaging and thrilling content.
The game received a perfect score in Japan’s well-known video game magazine Famitsu Weekly, and until its localisation, was a highly wished and requested release for the West. As a Visual Novel staple, I cannot recommend this enough. Get involved in the mystery on either Steam or PS4!
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AI: The Somnium Files
As my personal favourite game from last year, ‘AI: The Somnium Files’ is a roller coaster of an experience that I never wanted to end. From the brilliant mind of the previously mentioned ‘999’ director Kotaro Uchikoshi follows detective Kaname Date as he investigates a murder that he can only solve by entering character’s minds and memories for evidence. The game is a wonderfully
engaging mix of wacky comedy, ludicrous action, and thought-provoking plot. The game will make you question characters’ intentions, and keep you guessing what the final outcome will be.
The relationships between Date and the supporting cast are exceptionally fleshed out. Date and his partnership with his side kick Aiba, the artificial intelligence who often occupies his empty, left eye socket, and his progression as initial distant parental guardian to troubled, youngster Mizuki are wonderfully developed. The many twists and turns in the multiple endings will keep you invested for the result, even if a few attainable ‘bad’ endings are played for a joke. For example, the case can close and the game ends when the player selects “Let’s go to Atami together!” five times towards the receptionist at the Talent Agency Lemniscate. Date picks up a new job as a carnival worker in Atami and lives happily forever after with the minor character. I suggest you do not leave the game at a standstill here!
The gameplay is split between this real-world investigation and the unconscious dream world Aiba snoops around in called “Somnia”. As Date you explore locations in Tokyo in search of clues, grilling both witnesses and suspects. You can select objects as proof in later confrontations, and use Aiba’s functions for further investigating, such as with X-ray to see through objects, and Thermo, to assess if a person is lying or telling the truth. As Aiba when in other character’s minds, players must complete bizarre and complex dream sequences within 6 minutes that alter the story’s progression.
Keep your eyes peeled for this game on Steam, Switch and PS4.
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Collar X Malice
Collar × Malice is an otome game that follows player character Ichika Hoshino. As she patrols Shinjuku one night she is attacked and wakes up to find a poisonous collar attached around her neck. Prior events leading to this moment has Shinjuku in lockdown as a terrorist organisation named “Adonis” have instigated a murder every month. The only lead? The same coin has been left at each crime scene. These are speculated to be indicators to the day they have named “X-Day” where they will carry out their most extreme and violent attack yet. But when will this dreaded day happen?
As a possible lead in figuring out the overarching situation scaring Shibuya’s district, Hoshino joins the five potential love interests, all former police officers, in investigating “X-Day Incident”. There is the smart and coy Kageyuki Shiraishi, the loud but loveable Mineo Enomoto (best boy), the aloof, sharp tongued Takeru Sasazuka, the mysterious, outcasted Kei Okazaki, and the main partner, Aiji Yanagi. The latter is the locked, true end route until the other four routes have been completed beforehand.
Each route offers a different case Ichika and the chosen route partner investigates, keeping each playthrough fresh while also steadily progressing the mysterious “Adonis” revelations and final wrap up in Aiji’s route. The game has many dark and serious moments, a memorable factor being that when Ichika is in a dangerous situation, she can be killed if the player is not careful with their decisions, or not fast enough on the trigger – quite literally. Trigger Mode has Ichika needing to successfully fire her gun at a target or if she misses it, it is an instant bad end. There are so many interesting characters and sub plots to enjoy in this entry that it is worth noting that the best route progression to avoid early spoilers to take is:
Mineo / Kei / Takeru / Kageyuki / Aiji
Look forward to the Switch port of the original, and fan disc ‘Collar x Malice -Unlimited-‘!
Get it on Amazon here!
Another growing sub-genre is Otome! If you want to get started with Otome, have a read of our guide!
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