My latest recommendations for visual novels that take a few hours or less to read. This installment features a witch, a robot, a knight, a stalker, and a group of very strange classmates.
Crystal the Witch
Crystal the Witch is a fast-paced, mostly dialogue-driven visual novel about a purple-haired witch brewing potions, talking to her cat, and getting involved in internet drama. The protagonist’s impulsive meanness at the beginning might be off-putting to some readers, but the rest of the story does largely center around her dealing with the consequences of her actions and learning to improve—plus, some really adorable facial expressions help make her a bit more sympathetic. My personal favourite aspect of this one was Crystal’s reactions to and interpretations of the frequent meows from her cat Lily, which are especially amusing since it’s kind of ambiguous whether she can really use her magic to read the cat’s thoughts or she’s just making them up herself. I also really appreciated the lovely, very purple aesthetic and the attention to detail in both character and background design.
This entry to last year’s yuri jam centers around a conversation between three people in the eponymous café: the cheerful and outgoing Clem, her slightly awkward robot wife Lotus, and a retired time traveler searching for a new purpose in life. Reading this one after Crystal the Witch created quite the contrast in writing styles, as Café Bouvardie is far slower-paced, dedicating a lot of time to exploring the details of its setting and environment, as well as giving each character the opportunity to relate the story of their past. But each story’s style suits it well; the in-depth worldbuilding of Café Bouvardie added a lot to its characterization, and made me interested in the possibility of reading more stories set in the same universe in the future. My only minor issue with it is that the developers included a few too many pauses in between different lines of text appearing. I can sometimes appreciate the effect of simulating a moment of silence in conversation, or just forcing the reader to take a moment to reflect on the previous sentence, but I would personally have done it a lot more sparingly. But that might not bother some readers at all—especially not if you take those moments to sip from a nice cup of tea, which would fit the story perfectly!
Rose of Winter
In this short otome game, sweet and earnest aspiring knight Rosemary has the choice of four princes to escort on a treacherous mountain journey—during which she will inevitably uncover some secrets and have a chance at romance. The route choice comes very early in the narrative, and I think it would have been a bit more fun to get to meet all the princes first before choosing, but I almost always read all routes in VNs anyway, so it’s not a major issue. My personal favourite love interest ended up being the gruff and mysterious Crow, who serves as caretaker to the bratty young prince Elgandir, but all of the other three routes—for buffoonish beast prince Kuya, elegant fae prince Falkner, and surprisingly frail dragon prince Tirune—are cute and enjoyable as well. I loved the cartoony art style, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Toby Fox composed the music! I would also recommend that anyone who reads this takes the time to get all the bad endings as well as the good ones. Unlike the very basic failure endings you sometimes see in other VNs, these ones are all fitting in a bittersweet way. And you’ll definitely want to read every possible interaction you can have with all the fun characters.
Kill or Love
I read both this visual novel and the next one on the recommendation of my friend Bishounen-P, who has a knack for finding strange, offbeat little games that I might never have considered playing without hearing about them from her. While it’s a bit rough around the edges, Kill or Love—a story about an amnesiac trying to escape a stalker who claims to be from his forgotten past—made me want to keep an eye out for what its first-time developer, Andy Church, will come up with next. I found it hard to get into at first, with the main characters all seeming a bit strange and undeveloped, but some of that does make sense when you consider that the story is told from the perspective of a confused and unstable man trying to find his way out of a hostage situation. And I especially liked some of its unsettling and unique visuals, such as the blurry face of one character sprite, and the disturbing children’s picture book that provides a revelation about a forgotten trauma. It’s always nice to see new VN writers taking some interesting risks.
Moe Era belongs to the interesting subgenre of VNs that take the tropes of slice of life high school romance and then gradually twist them a bit as it becomes clear that there’s really something very different going on. In that, as well as in its aesthetic, it has a fair bit in common with Doki Doki Literature Club—but it has none of DDLC’s violence and much less of its metatextual commentary. Instead, it’s a story about the pressure placed on teenagers to plan their careers and futures, full of fascinatingly strange moments and fun references to other media. (I especially appreciated that the writer took inspiration from some of the same sources that I did for my own upcoming VN project—I wonder how many people will read both and spot the similarities!) There are a few points where it felt like the translation from Russian could have used a bit more editing, but nothing that affected my enjoyment too much. And it also has some really lovely details in the visuals, like the little illustrations that accompany the books the characters discuss in their literature class, and the flickering streetlight in one of the backgrounds. Comfy Company is another newcomer to visual novel development, and I hope they stick around for a long time.