Boys Love (BL) has seen a slow and steady rise in attention outside of Japan, in both the States and Europe. This could be due in part to the growing appeal of ‘shipping’ in anime between males (looking at you, Yuri on Ice and Haikyuu) and the widespread manga genres of shounen-ai and Yaoi, the latter being more sexually explicit compared to its fluffy counterpart.
Whatever the case, BL in video games provides some of the best visual novel stories that are now accessible to Western audiences. Because underneath the focus on BL being not only greatly appreciated representation for many, there are plots concerning deeper themes and meanings every gamer can enjoy and learn from. Today we venture into this criminally underrated sub-genre of BL visual novels.
A little bit of history
BL in video games may not have even occurred unless its first creation in the form of a subgenre of manga to surface in the 1970s. Female artists created the subgenre of girls manga (shoujo) for female readers, with one of the first notable works created by Keiko Takemiya, famed for her Kaze to Ki no Uta as the influence for other series to follow in its footsteps for its combination of homosexual romance and sexual content. Considering that the majority of BL media consumers are aimed and purchased by young girls, localized options now available by means of Steam are censored, allowing these stories to be experienced without the issue of sometimes extremely explicit R18+ material.
After the success of the manga subgenres concerning such relationships, this focus on developing romantic relationships would become a implemented in video games, specifically dating sims (eg. Love Plus), a genre of gaming which is already a selling point in another category aimed at female gamers called otomes.
For European audiences, our first exposure to this was as late as in 2006. Enzai -Falsely Accused- and Absolute Obediance for PC were localised that year by JAST USA, with fans criticising the choice as the first ever localised title of Enzai specifically being too harsh and gritty in tone and setting. In fact I draw parallels of Enzai to the infamously disturbing and distasteful Hadaka Butler, the censored version being purchasable from Steam but not a personal recommendation of mine.
In today’s climate, the genre has amassed a following from LGBTQ+ audiences. These games are becoming increasingly sought after, and becoming better with every release. After stating my more disliked entries of the genre, I will suggest 5 of my favourites for your viewing pleasure and hopeful nudge to any gamers who have yet to experience one of these masterpieces.
Where to start?
With how niche this sub-genre is for Western fans, beloved titles such as nitrochiral’s Dramatical Murder and Lamento, and even the stunning, mafia themed LuckyDog1 are unfortunately only available through fan translations. But there are still plenty to enjoy with this genre, from hidden gems on Steam, to independent projects, and the few localised heavy hitters. So, what can I recommend?
After saying what I said about the exceptionally despair filled Enzai, sweet pool is just as dark and depressing (just see my other favourite visual novel, Song of Saya, I have particular tastes!). This is especially evident in the company’s staple of grotesque and depressing bad endings, something sweet pool does not shy away from. However, what it does have is an appropriately themed bittersweet factor throughout its story. Not only will it have you drowning in your own tears, but its finale offers a glimmer of hope that feels deserved after hours of players feeling the same excruciating pain and sadness its protagonist feels throughout the game. It also is one of my favourite final endings in any visual novel ever, providing one of the most tragic romances in any media I have consumed.
From its 3 very unique love interests with each route playing out in very different, horrifying conclusions, to the truly bizarre plot, body horror element and overarching mystery, sweet pool is filled with plenty of twists those who are familiar with nitro+’s other works can expect from them. It’s body horror done the best I’ve ever seen, with its brutally horrifying writing layered with metaphorical puberty and fertility themes. Additionally, you have gorgeous character designs and CG’s, alongside one of the best OST’s to come out of a visual novel. This game continues to haunt me after years of completing it, and its soundtrack will come back to me late most nights to terrorize me in my dreams.
sweet pool is available on Steam, censored.
Togainu no Chi
Even though sweet pool runs away with the title of my favourite BL game ever, Togainu no Chi takes second place. If you have yet to experience a nitrochiral title, I cannot encourage this enough, and as Togainu no Chi is the more action orientated title, I would suggest this first for newcomers over sweet pool if I had to admit it. nitrochiral never fails to deliver incredible BL titles, expected from the most prolific company for this niche genre. For those who love thriller stories such as Battle Royale, Togainu no Chi has a similar premise which shapes a plot where your choices are truly important and the stakes are as high as they can be for a visual novel.
As we’ve said before, nitrochiral’s staple bad endings deliver dramatic and tragic punches, with Togainu no Chi being the best representation for this, topped off with different credit songs to further unsettle you with it fitting each tone of its bleak and grim endings. With entertaining fight sequences delivered masterfully with a brilliant translation despite thinking it would be a limitation of its visual novel format, its fast paced story and revelations make for a memorable story and visual novel experience.
Togainu no Chi is available on Steam, censored.
Nekojishi is the only free BL game on my list, so for starters you can’t go wrong with this one. It may fall into even more of a niche market not just being a BL title but also one featuring a love interest pool of feline-beast men, but it offers a humorous setup with plenty of comedic dialogue and situations. What starts out as a fun and cheeky adventure has plenty of turns into more meaningful, heartfelt and tear-jerking moments, making Nekojishi an all-round emotional investment. Developed by Studio Klondike and Team Nekojishi to celebrate Taiwanese culture, the game has been lovingly made as a realistic take on its many themes.
From religion, to school pressures, and knowing what one wants in life and their future, Nekojishi is a relatable, sometimes reassuring and sometimes hard story which can hit close to home. As a visual novel, its all important choices are truly felt and meaningful, where once you decide on one of its options it can either be for the better or for the worse. Whatever the case may be, you will suffer the consequences.
The love interests are stupidly endearing and cute. I’m sure that’s to be expected considering they’re felines I want to cozy up to. But for those who want to do more than just hugging a cute leopard boy, there is the previously freely handed out R-18 expansion floating about on the internet for your viewing pleasure for Steam application. To end on, the opening is an absolute bop, and a great showcase for how stunning the art is!
The game is free to play on Steam and Switch.
Chess of Blades
Chess of Blades is one of the best looking indie visual novels I’ve ever laid eyes on. Its production is notable for being an indie title that has a fully voice acted English cast, and over 30 wonderfully illustrated CGs to treat your eyes to. Furthermore, the amount of illustrations created to portray each character’s reactions and feelings is especially notable. The time and effort its developer, Argent Games, sunk into their second BL title is deserving of more attention, especially as they provide hidden gem after hidden gem with their always intriguing, original creations for BL consumers.
Chess of Blades is nothing short of that, offering four very different LI’s which also all offer varied outcomes and differing takes on the original premise you may not see coming in its latter moments of each playthrough. It has many wonderful features; its protagonist is notably brilliant for a BL visual novel, it has witty and clever dialogue, and its mystery takes the forefront, with its romance routes being short but realistic and well developed romantic relationships with our protagonist. It even offers a 13+ or an 18+ version on immediate playthrough, something I am extremely appreciative of as such an option will always cater to many different gamers.
Across five days of intended celebration for the King’s birthday, Rivian Varrison is encouraged by his well off nobleman father to attend this massive, grand ball. On the second day, a sudden tragedy befalls the celebration. As Rivian, deduce who is suspicious, and discover the truth behind the crime before it’s too late.
Chess of Blades is available on Steam, with a censored and uncensored version.
Camp Buddy is a delightful, lengthy BL game that graced our PC’s in 2017. The game has continuous updates from its developer, BLits, with an expansion set to release some time this year. BLits may have Camp Buddy as their only work for now, but the same team were behind the works of the now defunct group BlackMonkey-Pro. They provided titles such as Bacchikoi!, Sleepover and Offscreen Scandal, all shorter but just as lighthearted games. Camp Buddy showed how much potential the team had, and they have only grown from there.
With incredibly crisp and professional presentation, art and voice work, alongside heartfelt and fleshed out characters, Camp Buddy proves to be an underrated title deserving of way more attention. The game will take up to 50 hours to fully complete all routes, and with even more material to release, its price of $50 may be steep but it’s definitely worthwhile. If you are able to support the company, I highly encourage you to do so, as their promise is to deliver the best BL content for the new generation, and they are certainly doing so.
Camp Buddy is available for purchase through BLits’ site here.
What are your favourite BL titles? Let me know in the comments!
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