If you’ve followed my articles since I began publishing on VN Game Den, you might have figured that I absolutely love mysteries. Today, I want to dedicate a list to some of the great mystery visual novels out there, and hopefully, you’ll end up trying one of my suggestions.
Note: This list isn’t in any particular order. So if your favorite game is at number 10, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t as good as the game in the number one spot.
10) Umineko When They Cry
How to describe Umineko When They Cry? It’s a lot of things, honestly. It’s a murder mystery with some drama and horror, but there’s also some heart and comedy. You might think that’s way too much for a story to handle. A story can’t be all these things and somehow still end up good. Yet Umineko When They Cry manages to not only juggle these different elements, but is able to become one of the most beloved titles in the visual novel genre.
What’s the story of Umineko When They Cry? Essentially, it follows the wealthy Ushiromiya family. Every year, there’s a family meeting that takes place on an island the head figure, Kinzo, owns. Yes, the family is so rich that they can own an island.
Anyway, it’s revealed that Kinzo is going to kick the bucket soon, and someone has to get that inheritance money! But who? Tensions flare, and soon enough, someone ends up dead! While the rest of the family tries to figure out who the killer is, more questions begin to pop up, like the possibility of a witch being on the island. Honestly, it’s insane.
There are two “sides” to the story: the Question Arc and the Answer Arc. If you’ve played Higurashi When They Cry, you’re familiar with this format of storytelling. The Question Arc is the first half of the story. The player is introduced to the story’s numerous mysteries, the characters, and the world in which the story is set. The Answer Arc is the second half of the story and helps the player get a better understanding of what happened in the Question Arc.
The writing and storytelling here is very good. It can be a little overwhelming at times, however. There are a lot of characters to keep track of. No one in this game is really a side character; they all have their importance to the plot.
I do want to warn that Umineko When They Cry is a kinetic novel. There’s no gameplay or choices. You’re essentially just reading the text and advancing it. This may be a turn off for some visual novel players who are seeking something more interactive.
9) Root Letter
Root Letter is about a young man named Max who discovers a letter he never opened from his high school pen pal, Aya Fumino. In this letter dated fifteen years earlier, Aya wrote that she murdered someone and must atone for her sins. Wondering what had happened to her, Max goes to Matsue, Shimane prefecture, where Aya resided. He searches for Aya’s old classmates in hopes of getting some answers about what happened all those years ago and to discover if the Aya he knew was reality or fiction.
Depending on your choices, the mystery can go in different directions. I won’t say where these decisions will take you, but let’s just say that some of the endings are more absurd than others.
I have a couple of complaints about the game. For example, the way that Max approaches Aya’s old classmates can be considered harassment. Seriously, he goes to their place of work and bugs them to no end about a girl he’s only written letters to. Like, I get it, you want to find her. But if these people don’t want to talk to you, let them be! He also brought up a character’s body issues and constantly talked about food around them. Rather than coming off as funny, it just came off as insensitive.
Another issue I had was with the gameplay element during interrogations. During certain points of an interrogation, a gauge pops up. How full that gauge is will determine Max’s response. I just didn’t really like how it was done and would have preferred something like a dialogue choice or something similar to how Danganronpa does their mini-games during trials.
Despite my gripes about this game, the mystery is intriguing, and you do want to know whether or not Aya is alive and if she killed someone. It is an intense mystery game that kept me on my toes while playing.
You can buy Root Letter on Steam.
As someone who loves escape rooms, it’s not a surprise that I’d take a liking to Blankspace. Blankspace centers around Chris, who wakes up in an unfamiliar room with no memory of how he got there. He notices he’s not alone. With him is a beautiful woman named Beryl. The two have to find a way out by solving a series of puzzles. As the game progresses, the two learn more about one another and the mystery begins to unravel.
The writing in Blankspace is great. I always say that you can have an amazing plot, but if the characters aren’t up to par, then the quality of your game drops down dramatically. I’m happy to report that the game’s characters, Chris and Beryl, are perhaps the best part of the game. Right off the bat, they’re entertaining. There’s never a dull moment in the game thanks to how the writer wrote these two characters and their interactions with one another.
I should warn you, if you’re uncomfortable with any of the topics of blood, alcohol use, abuse, depression, or suicide, then I recommend you look for something else to play. However, if you can handle a game that touches upon dark topics, then check out Blankspace.
7) Scar of the Doll
Originally released in 1999, Scar of the Doll was remastered for Steam in 2017. It’s a short suspense visual novel about a young woman named Asumi arriving in Tokyo to search for her missing sister. However, as she explores Tokyo, she realizes that there’s more to her sister’s disappearance than meets the eye.
At first, I didn’t think I was going to like Scar of the Doll all that much. The game doesn’t start off in the most interesting way. However, once you get into the meat of the story, it turns into an intriguing mystery that gets pretty crazy once the player reaches the second day. Asumi is constantly questioning what’s going around her, and honestly? If I was her, I’d probably be doing the same thing! As she explores Tokyo, a place she’s never been to before, everyone gives her the silent treatment and people are either dying or disappearing. Like I said, it’s pretty crazy.
The game suffers from its age. In Scar of the Doll, due to it being a remaster rather than a remake, there are design choices that were okay back in 1999 but don’t hold up so much today. A common issue that you’ll see in this and many other games like it is that what you should do isn’t very clear. For example, the player is given a choice of whether or not to open the pendant to see what’s inside. The obvious choice is to open it up. After all, you’re playing a mystery game, and being nosy comes with the territory. However, opening the pendant will result in Asumi getting killed. Again, the game doesn’t make it obvious that you shouldn’t open the pendant. While the game does tell you exactly where you went wrong whenever you get a game over, I still wish there was a bit more direction. I don’t need the game to hold my hand, but just giving the player enough to make an informed decision would have helped.
However, if you can handle a game that shows its age, I think you’ll no doubt enjoy your time with Scar of the Doll.
Scar of the Doll can be bought on Steam.
6) Who Is Mike
Before developer Fervent released the wonderfully crafted horror visual novel CUPID, they released the mystery title Who Is Mike. Because of how short the game is and the fact that it’s very easy to spoil what happens, I’m going to go light on my explanation.
Who Is Mike tells the story of the game’s titular character, Mike, waking up with the world’s worst head pains. If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a man who looks exactly like him standing in front of him. This guy even has his voice, personality, and memories. Who’s real and who’s the fake?
With nine endings to get, the game asks you the question “Who is Mike?” With little information to go off of, you as the player try your best to show that you’re the real Mike and the other one is an imposter. But are you actually playing as the real Mike? Or are you the imposter?
While CUPID is a very good game, Who Is Mike remains my favorite title from the developer. It’s such a simple concept that’s able to really make the player think and question what’s really going on. I highly recommend Who Is Mike to anyone who is looking to have their reality turned upside down.
5) Ace Attorney
It’s hard to make a list of mystery titles without at least mentioning the biggest franchise in the mystery visual novel genre, Ace Attorney. With The Great Ace Attorney finally getting an official English release, I thought it would be a perfect time to recommend this series to anyone who has yet to touch these amazing games.
For most of the games, you play as Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney assigned to a murder case where the innocent client is the primary suspect. It’s your job to collect evidence, interview key witnesses, and ultimately show off your skills in a court of law by objecting to questionable testimonies. That’s the basic gist of the Ace Attorney games. More gameplay elements get added in order to keep the players from getting bored, such as picking up on witnesses’ emotions and seeing why they’re reacting that way with a certain piece of testimony.
What makes these games so great is really the characters and writing. Despite the grim circumstances you’d find yourself in when taking on a murder case, Ace Attorney manages to keep the mood lighthearted for the most part by throwing in puns, ridiculous characters that most definitely came from another planet, and the development of the main cast. I remember hating most of the prosecutors in the game, like Miles Edgeworth. However, he later became one of my favorite characters in the series, and that’s in part due to the game’s fantastic writing. He and most of the game’s prosecutors aren’t villains who are so evil that they want to see an innocent person be put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. There’s a reason why they’re all in the career that they’re in, and you see them grow into three-dimensional characters. The same can be said for the series’ multiple protagonists, be they Phoenix Wright or Apollo Justice. With each case, you see them slowly gain more confidence in themselves or, when they’re faced with an incredible obstacle, you see them react like a normal person would.
My only issue with this series, and it’s a big one, is its leaps in logic. I’m sure many Ace Attorney fans would agree with me here that some things just don’t make any sense. There’s one case in particular in the second game involving a circus that’s incredibly infamous for how mind-boggling it is.
Other than that one case, the Ace Attorney franchise is a solid series of games that I’d recommend anyone with a sense of justice to check out.
Ace Attorney Turnabout Collection, featuring the original trilogy and both The Great Ace Attorney games, can be bought on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Switch.
4) AI: The Somnium Files
I’ve gone on and on about AI: The Somnium Files before, and for good reason: the game is that good.
AI: The Somnium Files follows Kaname Date, a police officer trying to solve a string of murders where all the victims have their left eye removed. It’s Date’s job to try and figure out who is committing these crimes and why.
The mystery is wonderfully crafted, and that’s not a surprise, since the game is written by Kotaro Uchikoishi, a man who knows how to write his mysteries. I can’t tell you exactly how many times my jaw hit the floor while I played through this game. When I thought I finally figured out who was behind the murders, the game managed to turn the case upside down on me and forced me to rethink.
When the killer finally gets revealed, I’d say I was satisfied. Sometimes in mystery titles, especially in ones where there are a lot of twists, the conclusion is a little underwhelming or doesn’t make any sense at all. Thankfully, that’s not the case with this game.
AI: The Somnium Files is also featured on my “Top 10 Visual Novels That’ll Make You Cry” list. Yes, it did make me cry like a baby. Your mystery is only as good as your characters. While AI: The Somnium Files does feature some characters that I wish I could punch through my screen, Uchikoshi manages to turn them around into somewhat likable and complex characters. The entire cast is incredibly relatable, and seeing them go through the hardships that they do pulled at my heartstrings.
If you haven’t had the chance to play this game, do yourself a favor and play it.
You can buy AI: The Somnium Files on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Switch.
3) Paradise Killer
You play as Lady Love Dies, who was exiled from the island known as Paradise 3 million days ago. She’s only invited to return when a murder takes place on the island and there’s no one else capable of solving it.
I don’t think I’d ever seen an open-world visual novel until Paradise Killer. With games like Ace Attorney, while you have various locations to explore, the game has a linear path that the player has to follow. The game tells you where to go rather than let you explore on your own. Paradise Killer allows the player to fully explore the game’s island setting and take it all in. There’s also other crimes you can solve during your time on the island, which you can ignore if you only want to solve the main case at hand. This game offers a level of freedom you don’t really get in visual novel mystery titles, and it’s a breath of fresh air.
Paradise Killer is a very weird but charming game. You have the inhabitants trying to summon alien gods but instead summoning demons. You have Crimson Acid, a lady with a goat head. There’s a walking red skeleton with shades on. There’s even a guy named Doctor Doom Jazz, which is actually a pretty cool name if you think about it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the zaniness of this game. If you’re a very serious person who doesn’t like to have fun, then you might want to skip out on this title.
2) Remember, Remember
Remember, Remember follows a group of friends: Kris (the game’s protagonist), Rosa, Peter, Xavier, and Lisa. They’re practically friends for life. They all survived high school together and managed to get admitted to the same community college. They go to parties together, do study sleepovers, pretty much things only best friends would do. Their bonds with each other seem inseparable.
Right before their graduation, the group is kidnapped and taken to a remote location where their friendship is put to the test. Kris learns that his supposed friends have been keeping secrets from him, and when he learns about what has happened, it’s up to him whether or not these people make it out of this place alive.
What makes this game intriguing is how it tackles the topic of forgiveness. It’s hard to forgive someone, especially when they’ve done something horrible. However, if you were given the chance to take vengeance in some form, would you do it? Would you exact the same amount of pain they gave you onto them? Now, imagine if that person was your friend of eight long years. Would that change things? Could you forgive them?
While developer Michaela Laws is known for Seduce Me, I actually think Remember, Remember should be the title she’s known for. I think the latter has better writing, and I think the game nails everything that it’s set out to do. For $9.99, you can’t go wrong with purchasing Remember, Remember.
1) The Jisei Series
Since each game has its own story and case, it’s going to be hard to try and explain this one. The best way I can explain the series without spoiling anything is that it follows a group of people who have special powers. There’s the main character, who’s nicknamed Kangai. He can feel when someone has died, and if they touch the recently deceased’s body, he will relieve their final moments. There’s the twins Naoki and Aki. Naoki can remember everything while Aki can telepathically communicate with people. Finally, there’s Li Mei, who can feel people’s emotions. With the help of the very handsome police officer Detective Gurski, they solve cases.
Each game in the series is better than the last. Jisei, while a good game, suffers from being too short and leaving too many questions left up in the air. Kansei not only features better art and an interesting case to solve, but it also answers some questions that the player might have had at the end of Jisei. Yousei, the third installment, really steps it up in the writing department. While there is a case to be solved, Yousei takes its time to focus on the main cast and gives them some much-needed fleshing out. It was this game where I felt like I really started to connect with these characters and care for them deeply. I’d be lying if I said Yousei didn’t make me cry a couple of times.
With the fourth game in development, now’s the perfect time to check out the series.