Saya no Uta
Saya no Uta features a mindbending dilemma where the protagonist's perception is shifted so that, bizarrely, he only sees grotesque imagery in everyday situations, the novel is disturbing beyond reason in so many aspects. Beautiful women are now foul beasts with meaty appendages reeking of offensive stenches. Delicious food is now rancid and disgusting. Most of all he's no longer able to communicate effectively with the outside world as their words now sound foreign and unwelcoming. He's alone, locked in his own mind in this new world, except for a lone girl who still appears as nubile and human as can be. Equal parts sexual thriller and grotesque imagery, Saya no Uta seeks to crawl directly underneath your skin and make its home there.
Higurashi: When They Cry
Visual novel veterans and otaku alike share praise with Higurashi: When They Cry, a deceptively demure mystery/horror adventure with chills and thrills aplenty. It begins innocently enough, with a gaggle of adorable, wide-eyed heroines who actually seem quite docile. Things only progress downhill from there in an all-out creepfest complete with adorable little girls stabbing themselves and other, more decidedly adult sequences that involve freakishly long nails, creepily-drawn eyes, and more unsettling motivations than you can shake a stick at.
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
The handheld visual novel struck a chord with players, enough so that a sequel was planned for a US release later in October of this year. The cult hit follows Junpei, a college student who comes home to find his window open and a mysterious figure wearing a gas mask reflected in his now-closed window. He passes out and upon waking can remember only that he was "chosen" to play something known only as the Nonary Game, which ends up quickly conjuring Saw and other familiar horror films, as the Nonary Game finds a group of eight other individuals kidnapped and forced to participate in a mysterious game--if they don't play ball, the bombs inside their bodies will detonate.
This hidden DS gem didn't reach the cult status it should have deservedly received, but it was a solid supernatural adventure that relied on eerie visuals, aural cues, and creepy dialogue to weave a horrific tale. As Atsuki Saijo, a member of the FORT organization, you're tasked with tracking down victims of the mental parasite SILENT, which is born in the negative feelings of human beings and can eventually drive them to suicide. Isolating and destroying a SILENT (or lesser WORM) is a disturbing process in itself, but the accompanying narrative and incidents surroundings that seem a little out of place for an ordinary high school. We dare you to curl up in bed under your blankets to play in the dark. If the typos fail to scare you, the first time you use Sigma will.
To be fair, most of the time you're actually playing School Days is spent shaking your head at main character Makoto's boneheaded decisions. Where the game can absolutely lead to compassionate and warm endings in which all characters are treated respectfully and given a chance to live happily ever after, School Days also plays host to a menagerie of much darker endings, depicting bloody suicides, murders, and other equally disturbing occurrences that will no doubt jar players originally on board for the drama and H-scenes originally advertised. In a nutshell, when School Days goes south, it goes south--we're talking people get killed, and plenty of them. Play it, and you'll see what I mean.
Steins;Gate is an engaging and exciting exercise in time travel that approaches the subject in a different manner than you may be used to. Join the team of one Hououin Kyouma and send "D-mail" to the past as you unlock the mysteries of this time travel thriller. Fittingly, that's short for "DeLorean mail." You'll also be engaged in face-to-face discussion, which could be interrupted by voice calls as well. These events are where you begin traveling down branching paths, hurtling toward one of the multiple endings. It's an exemplary visual novel with a thrilling premise, memorable characters and a fantastic "true" ending that may very well move you to tears.
Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom
Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, a PSP release, is a pretty big deal. Its play style reflects that of a "choose your own adventure" story and packs in plenty of bishounen for its intended female audience, plus an engaging narrative that sticks with you long after the journey comes to an end.Gorgeous anime portraits and still frames accompany mood-fitting music as you step into the role of young Chizuru, searching for her father in Kyoto. He's gone missing, and the only alternative to waiting around fretting and hoping he returns safely, is to leave the safety of home, dress up as a male to avoid conflicts, and seek him out herself. Of course, what should have been a simple personal search-and-rescue mission for the brave Chizuru quickly morphs into something more complicated. Don't be surprised if you end up falling for one of the Shinsengumi yourself along the way.
While many dating sims are perfectly capable of creating the illusion that the ladies in the game are falling in love with you, Katawa Shoujo demonstrates the ability to near-perfectly mimic the conventional Japanese-made dating sim with demure, polite Mary Sues, tsundere sweethearts, and even the tomboys. Games such as Kana: Little Sister perfected the art of demonstrating passion and true heartrending emotion with dire consequences. There was much more at stake there. It's a criminally overlooked topic, disability in games, and Katawa Shoujo is an appropriate conduit for the complexities of love.
If My Heart Had Wings
If My Heart Had Wings is an excellent tale buoyed by great editing and a competent translation that truly runs the gamut of emotion. The well-rounded cast includes a healthy mix of familiar tropes such as the childhood friend (Ageha in this case), Asa the adorable freshman, Asa's sister Yoru, and Amane the "crazy genius girl" type. It's a harem you've likely seen time and time again if this genre is one that you routinely explore, but the heroine and protagonist are where the narrative path truly shines. If My Heart Had Wings is an emotional roller coaster that's worth the entry price, even if it is watered down.
Shouichi used to be on top of the world as a revered violinist, renowned all over the globe as a fantastic musician until a certain disastrous incident involving the paparazzi forced him from his throne. Unable to deal with the constant stream of issues, Shouichi stepped down from the fame and moved home to the town he grew up in. Of course, like in any good eroge, his old childhood friend was there waiting for him. After coming home to the familiar, he's introduced to the wild world of rock and roll. From there, he's introduced to several other talented musicians who share Shouichi's passion for music. All together, Gondo, Kanade, Yayoi, Rimu and Riho embark on an adventure that finds them starting a brand new band: Deardrops. Deardrops is a perfectly serviceable story in its own right, and a great choice if you're into lighter fare.