Last week I introduced visual novel games’ usefulness as a language resource to you. This week I’m going to reveal my top list of visual novel titles, sorted into three different groups of language proficiency: relatively easy, intermediate and hard games (language-wise). With some games, I’ve also considered the game mechanics as well, since, in my opinion, this factor also influences whether the gameplay is hard or not. In this entry, I will also be talking about Japanese CERO rating which can be useful in deciding whether any other game that you want to play will be appropriate for your language level (ergo, if you can play it without throwing the pad, or the console itself, at the wall in frustration).
However, as I was writing this post I realised that this entry turned out to be tremendously long and thus I decided to cut this post into 3 separate posts which will be published later this month. In return, instead of only 3 titles I initially planned to recommend for each language level, I’m going to introduce 5 titles instead. This solution would, in my opinion, be better than cutting down the list that greatly exceeded 3 titles for every tier anyway. Not to mention the fact that I’m in the middle of playing some visual novel games and I wish to include them in the higher tier lists when I have played enough of them to form an opinion.
The first category I came up with covers games that can be tried quite early and the language in which is relatively easy to understand – the recommendations for this category will be covered in today’s post. For example, at this level, some words are written in hiragana instead of their usual kanji writing or the language used mostly contains informal Japanese. I, personally, had started playing games in Japanese very early when it came to my Japanese level – as far as I remember, I imported my first game just when I was out of N5 level and began my N4 studies. That was very early, only about 2 years into learning the Japanese language, with around 200 kanji known to me and many important grammar structures which are introduced on N4 level, still unknown to me.
What’s more, the setting of those „relatively easy” games is often the school/student setting, so basically most interactions the game protagonist has are connected with their family life, school, first love or hobbies. Those topics are usually covered quite early in Japanese studies and if you’re watching anime or dramas OR reading mangas, then you probably know lots of vocabulary from those topics already. As a result, such games would prove easier to play for you.
The second tier is intermediate. Here I placed games that provide more linguistic challenge than the first group OR the game’s gameplay gets more complicated, thus increasing the difficulty of the gaming experience in general. For instance, I included Code Realize, which uses steampunk setting, in this level’s list. It is because some vocabulary appearing in this game might cause trouble when playing (AKA you have to open that dictionary of yours). What’s more, I’d consider this vocabulary quite useless – unless you really need to know how to say „steam engine” or some other technical/mechanical stuff in Japanese.
The final group covers difficult games. That difficulty can origin in various factors of the game: complicated plot, tricky game mechanics, used vocabulary, frequent formal language, vast narration to read, numerous kanji used in sentences and so on. That’s the category where I put most mixed-genre games, especially RPGs or point-and-click games, since the latter usually requires logical thinking and when you don’t understand something, you’re basically quickly on your way to either a dead end or a bad end (because visual novels usually include numerous bad ends which cause instant game over – don’t worry, if you save your game often, you can just load that save and you’re fine. For this reason, I recommend keeping numerous saves though, as some bad ends occur even after a few wrong choices made – and that could be a few hours of play!). In consequence, the amount of time you have to spend with such a game increases dramatically, not to mention the frustration if one misunderstood detail drags you away from making progress in the game.
As for where to purchase video games (as well as books, mangas and other Japanese resources), I plan to write a post on that in the nearest future, so be sure to check it out if you’re eager to import some of those titles I’m going to suggest today! However, if my list does not satisfy you, do not worry, I won’t be mad. Nobody likes everything they’re served and I find it perfectly fine to choose some other game you are looking forward to playing instead. But I’m going to give you a little tip on choosing games for your language level anyway.
Here’s where this CERO rating, which I’ve mentioned above, comes to play.
CERO is Japan’s video game content rating similar to PEGI (Europe) or PG (the US). It ranges from A to Z. Well, technically it ranges from A to D and includes Z as a special, restricted category. The letters represent the recommended minimum age for play. And thus CERO rating corresponds to:
A = up to 12 years old
B = 12+
C = 15+
D = 17+
Z = 18+ (the only one officially restricted, meaning you might have to show your ID when purchasing, as these games usually involve heavy violence, erotic content or any other content that is suitable only for adults)
Why is this important? Because if we apply the Japanese education system onto CERO rating, we’d get:
A = primary school (ages 6-12)
B = middle school (ages 12-15)
C = high school 1st and 2nd grade (ages 15-16)
D = high school 3rd grade (ages 17-18)
If you know a thing or two about the Japanese school system and especially about the tempo of their kanji acquisition, you’ll start connecting the dots at this point. Japanese kids learn around 1000 kanji throughout 6 years they spent in primary school. The second 1000 kanji are learned throughout their secondary education, that is middle school and high school.
As a result, games with A or B CERO rating are easier to read and understand than higher-rated games. That’s because during their secondary education, apart from more kanji, the Japanese also learn more advanced vocabulary (as you probably did during your mother tongue classes at school, too), while games targeted at primary school kids would be easier to read (less kanji and simpler vocabulary) and comprehend since these kids have just started learning to write in their mother tongue, just like the beginners in Japanese have.
I figured out this relevance when playing games in Japanese. I noticed that B rated games usually use simpler language and some words are swapped with their hiragana spelling (instead of using the kanji the word is usually spelt with). The plot is usually simpler, too. In contrast, C or D rated games usually include a more complex story with multiple subplots (and also the game itself is vast and rich in details, taking longer time to beat it). The language used (especially the kanji load) is obviously more difficult, too.
This relationship can be clearly seen in the list of games I prepared for you. So, if you want to play any other game which is not included in this list – check out its CERO rating first. This will give you a rough idea on its language level. Taking a peek at the gameplay itself can also give you a clue whether the game would be tricky for you or not. Youtube is a very good source for this one, even if the game hasn’t been released yet, the producers usually upload promotion videos (プロモーションムービー) or so-called „play movies” (プレイムービー) with sample gameplay. I often check those out before deciding on a purchase. Of course, watching sample gameplays comes AFTER I decide if a game picks up my interest at all! 😉
As for the price range of visual novels, the cost really depends on the platform. I mostly play on Playstation consoles so I’m most familiar with them. The average cost of a game starts at around 5800 (for a Playstation Vita/PSP game) to over 20000 yen for a limited edition of the title. However, regular editions (that means only the game software itself, without any additional bonuses) cost between 5800 and 7000 yen. That price does not include the shipping if you’re importing the game. You can, of course, also buy them cheaper, especially if they’re on sale or you’re buying used copies. It really depends on where you’re buying them from. But I’m going to cover my game shops in the future post (about the shops I purchase my Japanese resources at), not here.
HOW TO READ THE RECOMMENDED SECTION
Platform: what gaming platforms this game was released on,
Genre: what game genres, apart from visual novel, it includes,
No. of games: how many games (e.g. prequels, sequels, side stories, spin-offs) were released in the series,
Limited edition: whether a special box with the game’s software as well as a few bonuses, such as CDs, booklets, artbooks, postcards, files, plushies etc. was released,
CERO: official CERO rating of the game (visible on its box),
Anime: whether anime based on the game was released (this might be helpful if you’re not sure you understood the plot well or if you want more fun since often the anime and the game’s plots vary at some points),
Drama CDs: whether drama CDs were recorded for this title (apart from drama CDs available in the limited edition of the game),
English version: whether the game’s been translated to English and released to the western market (it can also be useful to check if you understood the game, especially if anime hadn’t been made; there’s such a case with game titled „7’s Scarlet”, which got English release but no anime or manga),
Synopsis: Short summary of the plot,
My comment: my additional remarks, info or warnings about the plot, the gameplay and so on.
Well, without further ado, here are my recommendations:
RECOMMENDED VISUAL NOVEL GAMES
RELATIVELY EASY LANGUAGE LEVEL
(can be tried on early/mid-N4 level)
PRINCE OF STRIDE
Japanese title: プリンス・オフ・ストライド
Platform: Playstation Vita
Genre: visual novel, romance (otome – targeted at women)
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: Yes
Anime: Yes (1 season, 12 eps)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No
Game’s website: http://posweb.jp/
Synopsis: The series Prince of Stride: Alternative revolves around the extreme sport “Stride”, a sport where a team of 5 plus a relationer runs relay races in towns. The story takes place at Hōnan Academy where first-year high school students Takeru Fujiwara and Nana Sakurai try to re-establish the school’s “Stride” team by recruiting 6 members. Their goal is to join other schools to compete and win Eastern Japan’s top Stride competition, called the “End of Summer”. Takeru asked Nana to become a relationer as well as a manager. They asked Riku Yagami to join the team, but he turns them down stating that “Stride” is something that he does not want to do, but has to after finishing in a dead-heat against the upperclassmen. (source: wikipedia.org)
My comment: Prince of Stride started as a special joint project by Dengeki Girls’ Style (a popular otome game magazine) and Reject (a well- know otome game and other otome-themed media producer). As a result, everything is just different about this game. First of all, there is rarely a sports otome game created. And a GOOD game, too! This title has AMAZING plot, it glues you to the screen. As I mentioned in the previous post – I couldn’t put this game down for a few weeks in a row, until I played all the routes! The main stride team is a fun bunch and the relationer, that is you, is a very well-written protagonist. Which is a valid point, because otome games protagonists tend to be quite irritating to western players, especially women. We’re just different from Japanese women in terms of behaviour and shyness. This is why I find Nana, Prince of Stride’s main character, a great advantage to the game. She also has her own special skills – she’s an integral part of the stride team and does her job very well. Speaking of her job – as she’s a relationer, so she doesn’t exactly run in the relay. Other members do. But as stride is run throughout the city, the runners don’t see the upcoming runner and thus a third person is needed to time and tell the next runner to set and go. That third person is a relationer, who observes the track and the runners on a map displayed on monitors and is in contact with the team via wireless technology (just like, for example, F1 racers are with their team). This part, the race, is my favourite part of the game, As for a visual novel, it was done very well and the races are exciting and engaging. Your job, as the player, is simple – you have to time the relay correctly to get the best score possible for the race. Other elements of the race, like choosing the team’s order or cheering on your team members are also taken into consideration. Basically, the more points you have, the more likely you are to win the race. If you don’t meet the minimum requirement – it’s an immediate game over, but you can reload the race of course. The producers also thought of replays and put an option to skip the race if you’d beaten it before. It’s a plus since the race takes around 20-30 minutes of play to finish it!Another important thing is that for most of the game, I didn’t feel that I was playing an otome game at all. In fact, the first signals of a romance appear in the second HALF of the game! So that’s a big chunk of the story you first read before you get into your guy’s route. Still, the love growing between the protagonist and one of the guys was entertaining and well incorporated into a very sports-themed game. Actually, there were lovey-dovey scenes I almost wanted to skip (like when they go on a date just before the last relay) because I was more interested in the competition itself rather than characters’ romantic relationship developing. But the ending, oh, the ending made me scream, it was so GOOD and satisfying!
Also, I’ll be mentioning soundtracks a lot in this list, as I find BGM important in the gaming experience, but Prince of Stride’s soundtrack is just un-be-lie- va-ble! One of the best visual novel game soundtrack I’ve ever encountered for sure. The only disadvantage of it is that it was NEVER released as a CD or something!So the only choice you’re left with is to listen to the songs in the extras section in the title menu (it’s a standard for otome games to have a soundtrack player included in the menu). It’s no wonder this project was a huge success which resulted in anime production launching right after the game was released! Yet, because of that popularity, it’s a bit difficult to get a hold of a copy of the game now. I still regret that I hadn’t ordered the limited edition when I was considering it. Unfortunately, I completely underestimated this game’s potential and went for the regular edition when preordering. Damn!
Japanese title: ブラザーズ コンフリクト
Platform: Playstation Vita, PSP, Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, otome
No. of games: 3 (actually 2, as Precious Baby is a remake which includes first 2 games)
Limited Edition: No
Anime: Yes (1 season, 13 eps)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/bc/pb/
Synopsis: Ema Hinata (or later known as Ema Asahina) is the daughter of the famous expat, Rintaro Hinata. One day, Ema finds out that her dad is going to remarry a successful clothing maker named Miwa Asahina. Rather than bothering them, she decides to move into the Sunrise Residence complex that is owned by Miwa. From there, she discovers that she has 13 stepbrothers. As time moves on, her stepbrothers develop feelings for her and compete in ways to win her heart when all Ema wants to have is a loving family. Can she make all of her 13 stepbrothers happy or will she only pick one of them? Ema has a pet that helps her when times are tough and only her and her new brother can understand. She is faced with many challenges like finding out she adopted and having to apply for college. (source: wikipedia.org)
My comment: A very simple but enjoyable game with a very good soundtrack and fantastic cast – you’ll find real male seiyuu (Japanese voice actor) stars here! The scenes in the game usually involve daily life and everyday activities so we will find the characters preparing food together, going shopping together, celebrating birthdays together, going to the beach together etc. The great advantage of this game, especially of Precious Baby for Playstation Vita and Nintendo Switch is that it incorporates two games in one. The first two games in the series were released as separate titles, each including 6-7 romantic routes with different brothers (1 route per brother) plus 1 secret route for somebody else. As a result, if you purchase Precious Baby, you’ll get two games (and all possible boyfriend material) for the price of one. And because there are many brothers to choose from, you’d definitely find your type. Each brother also has their own, iconic BGM track. The gameplay can be a bit tricky, especially during the first playthrough, as you have to choose your activities in a calendar. What you choose to do influences the gameplay – meaning, if you choose to interact with a particular brother on a specific day, you can get a special chapter with him. The more those chapters you find and experience, the closer you get to the happy ending with your chosen one. However, it’s difficult to predict WHEN someone will have that extra scene with the protagonist so honestly, I used a walkthrough with this one. IN JAPANESE, so I forgive myself for doing this. You should too.
UTA NO PRINCE SAMA
Japanese title: うたの☆プリンスさまっ♪
Platform: PSP, Playstation Vita, Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, rhythm game, otome
No. of games: 10 (6 main games and 4 spin-offs)
Limited edition: Yes
Anime: Yes (4 seasons, 53 eps + 1 movie)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No (but there’s an English version of a spin-off mobile game)
Game’s website: https://www.utapri.com/
Synopsis: With dreams of becoming a composer and someday writing a song for her favourite idol, Haruka Nanami enters the Saotome Academy, a prestigious performing arts school. Surrounded by potential idols and producers, Haruka gets to know six of her classmates, who are all competing to become idols. For her project, she must team up with another student as an idol-producer team, and if they are successful, they will join Shining Agency after graduation. Besides, romance is strictly prohibited at their school. (source: wikipedia.org)
My comment: Uta no Prince sama (or UtaPri for short) is the only game in this set that involves another game genre – a rhythm game. That’s kind of understandable, since UtaPri is set in a music school for idols and music composers and the objective of the game is to get paired with one of the main guys and do a song together (him – singing, you, the protagonist – writing the music and the lyrics). Consequently, there are several occasions in the game when you’ll encounter a rhythm game where you have to push specific buttons when they appear on the screen – just like you’d do in Dance Dance Revolution (though this one involves a special dance mat and you dance for real). I loved this mini game! The songs created for these games and just awesome and they quickly went to my playlist. Also, the game lets you choose the difficulty of the mini game – which is a great move by Broccoli, the producing company, because if you’re not very musical or have no experience with such games – you can choose the easy mode (the other’s hard). However, the difficulty of the mini game increases over the play anyway – it still is considered “easy”, but with time you get more buttons to push with the song. It’s as if each mode had level 1, level 2, level 3 – each time this mini game appears, you need to get more skillful. But don’t worry, you can practice the mini game, choosing it in the game’s title menu. At one point I was so into it, I stopped my progress with the plot and kept on playing the rhythm game… As I said, the songs are SO GOOD.
As for the plot, since you get paired with your guy as a part of your school assignment, you’re obviously gonna fall in love. I really liked the “no love allowed” rule imposed by the school here, since you and your guy are trying so hard at first NOT to let those feelings grow and later you decide to fight the system! Will you succeed? Check it out yourself, but I got to admit, that this plot point added this extra spice to the story.
Japanese title: ディアボリックラヴァーズ
Platform: PSP, Playstation Vita, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4
Genre: visual novel, otome, dark fantasy (vampires)
No. of games: 7
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: C or D (depends on the title in the series)
Anime: Yes (2 seasons, 25 episodes)
Drama CDs: Yes, TONS
English version: No
Game’s website: http://dialover.net/
Synopsis: The main heroine, Yui Komori, was just a normal teenage girl until high school when her father, a priest, has to go overseas for work. As a result, Yui is sent to a new town and arrives alone at the mansion she was told will be her new home. At the mansion, no-one greets her however the door swings open on its own accord. Yui enters the mansion to find herself alone, as she explores she finds a handsome young man sleeping with no heartbeat on a couch. To her shock, he awakens and five other young men gradually appear. Yui soon notices something different about all of them, she discovers that all six of them are brothers but by three different mothers, and they all turn out to be sadistic vampires. (source: wikipedia.org)
My comment: I personally didn’t like this game too much and for this reason, I stopped collecting it after the 2nd game (which I bought only to play the route of my favourite character). The plot is silly and repetitive, as the protagonist usually gets cornered in every chapter by one of the brothers to be abused, bad-mouthed and have her blood forcefully sucked. If you’re sick of males trashing women and treating them as if they were his possession – don’t play this, because the main „hot” guys are sadistic (and sexist) garbage beings and they DON’T CHANGE over the course of the plot, unfortunately (I was very disappointed when I ran the 2nd game and expected the continuation of the budding romance that began in the 1st game only to discover than the whole progress of the main protagonist and the guy of your choice made went down the drain because they have a kind of AMNESIA). What’s good about this game, then? It’s very easy language-wise! Because of the repetitive plot and scenes as well as reused vocabulary, this game is very easy to adapt to and play. There aren’t any unusual game mechanics, either (there are only the standard questions with choices to make once or twice per chapter). The art is just GORGEOUS, not only the special CGs, but the sprites themselves as well as the art used in e.g. the opening and ending videos. This game also has fantastic songs sung by the voice actors (and the game’s cast includes the best male Japanese voice actors!) – you can just play those songs on constant repeat, great music! Plus the job those male voice actors did is just marvellous: the sucking noises, the moans or the sighs of the vampires are just ecstatic poetry to your ear – and exactly everything you’d want from an otome game. No wonder this entire series sells like hotcakes – I’d really recommend playing it on headphones and while you’re alone unless you want to get hot while other people are around.
Japanese title: 熱血異能部活譚 Trigger Kiss
Platform: Playstation Vita
Genre: visual novel, otome
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: Yes
Drama CDs: No
English version: No
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/tk/
Synopsis: In the future, some people are born with superpowers. Akizuki High School won the national championship in superpowers club fights but was banned from the tournament for 2 years due to heavy violence of the members during the championship finals. Two years later, the club’s captain, Azuma, is told by the principal that the club will be disbanded if they do not win the national tournament. At the same time, a second-grader named Futaba Sendou, who also has superpowers, is transferred to Akizuki High School. Even though Futaba hates her abilities, she is tricked into joining the club and competing in 3-on-3 battles with different schools.
My comment: This actually was my very first otome game and also first pure visual novel game in Japanese I manged to finish (after the fiasco with Norn9 which is DEFINITELY a higher difficulty tier game – you’ll see this title in future posts). I still hold it dear and enjoy it. There are several factors which make this highly underrated game quite attractive for language learners. First of all, the graphics. Instead of a typical text box in the lower parts of the screen, the characters’ lines appear in typical comic bubbles all over the screen. This makes the game appear to be a kind of interactive manga than a visual novel. Secondly, the language used by the members is quite simple and repetitive – after you get used to some vocabulary used to describe the superpowers and battle, it gets pretty easy. Thirdly, the female protagonist is one of the best if not THE BEST protagonist I’ve met in any otome game. She’s strong, she’s independent and she’s not shy. She doesn’t have a problem to tell the boys that they’re acting wrong. She also takes the initiative herself, rather than waiting for a knight in shining armour to save her ass – which is something most otome game protagonists lack. Also, she throws great punchlines – she’s so sarcastic and playful! As a result, Futaba is one of the reasons why Trigger Kiss is so fun to play. The game mechanics don’t add anything special, too – the only new thing is touching the screen when the protagonist chooses to use her superpowers (and it feels quite awesome to do that!). The game doesn’t require any special skills to play, really. I mean, I played it when I’d just began my N4 course and I was a total newbie in visual novel games department at that time, too, and I had no problem enjoying this game. The plot is interesting, the interaction between the members of the club is quite… standard (I mean, you’d definitely seen such club members’ interaction scenes in anime or manga before, so you’d have no trouble understanding what’s going on even if you can’t grasp what the characters are saying word-for-word). The soundtrack is also good – I have several tracks from this game on my motivational tracks playlist. The only tricky part is the lengthy narration during the battles, but as I’ve said before, after a few opponents you more or less start to recognise and remember the vocabulary used for describing them.
The titles above are all, as you’ve probably noticed, otome games, that is games targeted at women which usually concerns a single female protagonist surrounded by hot men who, obviously, start to have feelings for the protagonist. However, since easy games usually score A or B in CERO rating, that means that the romance itself is slightly subdued and in some titles very shallow, especially if the title focuses on something else other than just romance. And that’s actually the case with Prince of Stride and Trigger Kiss which follow adventures of two school clubs participating in national championships and that competition is what the plot strongly revolves around. The romance involved is very minimal but is still present. What’s more, B rating means that the game involves nothing more than a love confession and the usual kiss after a confession. So if romance is not your thing, but you’d like to play some game with relatively easy language – give these two titles a try, the plot, apart from its romance component, is definitely worth it and very entertaining.
Other story genres than romance will be included further in the list – it’s just that romance is very easy to read and follow while more sophisticated and complex stories require higher level of language proficiency. So if you’re up to the challenge, read my upcoming entry for other types of stories and more game genres mixed in!