By Diego Hernandez / January 28th, 2020
My first year on the job is a special one thanks to visual novels. The introductions to many developers and publishers never gets old. Furthermore, interviewing them about their works and reviewing them is quite the thrill. Few things bring me greater joy than what I’m doing right now for Operation Rainfall. I’ve written dozens of visual novel reviews over the past year and I think it’s time to choose the best. It’s taken me so long to write this because I can’t say I had a genuinely bad experience last year. All the projects that came across my desk were memorable with the best being breathtaking. It’s astonishing to me how the medium continues to grow throughout the years. Colleagues will speak of the medium as if it’s dying. However, I disagree and believe English visual novels will take the genre higher. Here’s my favorite reads from last year.
People say beginning a new adventure is perhaps the most difficult thing to do. To clarify, it’s because you need motivation. When I accepted the role of reviewer for Operation Rainfall, I did so adamantly with visual novels in mind. However, I had no idea where to start. Countless stories are out there and to pick one to be my first review was a challenge. Would I go with a romantic tale or something more adventurous? Thankfully, there’s a release right around the corner that checks all the boxes. Studio Élan‘s Heart of the Woods appears before me and I promptly fall in love. Its fantastical setting with otherworldly romance and hints of comedy are music to my ears. I didn’t just feel the desire to cover, it felt like I needed to do so. An interview comes and upon release the review shortly after. Match made in heaven.
Heart of the Woods is a quintessential modern day fairy tale. It’s an emotional roller coaster unlike anything I’ve seen before. Furthermore, it was my first review and I couldn’t have had a better start to my writing adventure. It has outstanding direction and writing which flows perfectly with the art and music. In my opinion, Studio Élan’s entry is what gives me hope for the genre. I see it as a beacon of hope to other developers. The power of storytelling is immeasurable and with enough love, your impact will be felt. For all of this, plus what’s written in my review, I happily announce that Heart of the Woods is my visual novel of the year. Lock and Key certainly has big shoes to fill as the next project. However, I have no doubt that Studio Élan will be impressing us further.
While Heart of the Woods changed the formula for its narrative, there are those who choose to stay traditional. Whether it’s a tale of finding love in an unexpected place, or living out your high school days only to be presented with a most difficult situation. For now, let’s discuss the latter. The long-awaited visual novel by ds-sans, Chemically Bonded, went through a lot of hoops to release. Anybody who follows the developer through the socials can preach as such. However, when it finally did, readers could welcome a fresh romantic take in a classic environment. Naturally, questions were plentiful surrounding its development and a interview came to be. Couple weeks later, here we are.
Chemically Bonded surprised me when it released and, before I realized it, swept me off my feet. Its deceiving use of a traditional setting masked a unique tale of conflict and romance. The addition of a vivid art style coupled with characteristic voice acting gave this story life. I felt absorbed in it, and I never wanted to put it down. Chemically Bonded‘s development history in combination with the final product makes this a very happy ending. Naomi and Kiyoko are the most memorable of characters and their story shines the brightest. In other words, I genuinely loved it. I’m very happy to name Chemically Bonded as my runner-up for visual novel of the year.
I think I may have enough in the tank to talk about one more and this one’s truly special. While the other two took different routes for storytelling, the one I’m about to talk about went realistic. Let’s face it, the world’s in a tough spot right now. It almost seems like it’s ending thanks to all the negativity. There’s a lot of us who don’t pay much attention to it because we’re trying to distract ourselves from the pain. Sometimes we just need a story that reflects some of our emotional struggles. Ebi-hime‘s The Language of Love is a standout story for just keeping things real. Those familiar with Ebi know that she’s a writing master. Her previous entries including Blackberry Honey and Sweetest Monster are known for their emotional impact. No traveling to the past or dealing with the supernatural for this one.
The things I love about The Language of Love are at its core. The drama of a troubled young man adapting to a society which rejects him despite the circumstances. Whom, in turn, meets a troubled single mother whose innocence was clearly taken advantage of. Connecting these two troubled souls is absolutely wonderful. Furthermore, with the masterful writing of Ebi, you feel the trouble. You feel the attachment to these characters, their problems and so forth even harder. Why? Because it’s real. This is stuff that happens. While the art and music aren’t as mind blowing as the others, the message hits even harder when you don’t have to stray that far from reality. Being in difficult circumstances at the time of reading, The Language of Love definitely helped me through some difficult times. That’s why it is my noteworthy honorable mention.
2020 looks to be an exciting year for visual novels. To clarify, two of the developers on this list are making games for this year. However, it’s important to take notice of the ones who came before. The stories that impacted lives whether directly or indirectly. Furthermore, recognizing the narratives that will serve as inspirations for future developers. These teams and many others are hard at work on their next project. It is my mission while at Operation Rainfall to let you know of these efforts. All I can do is hope that you check them out. Thank you very much for reading this piece, and I hope you stick around for when I make the eventual top visual novels of 2020 piece.
2019Chemically Bondedds-sansEbi-himeEnglish Visual NovelevnHeart of the WoodsSTUDIO ÉLANThe Language of Lovevisual novelVN