Outside of Japan, the visual novel genre is all but looked over. Most visual novels are never translated, never localized, and never even made known to the west unless they happen to be one of the big-name hits, with fandom populations numbering in the quintuple digits.
The luckiest visual novels go on to get their own adaptions—anime, manga, drama CD, etc.—but those are few and far between compared to the plethora of visual novels released by major studios and indie devs alike every year.
Myself, I quite enjoy visual novels. This is likely due to my passion for reading, which is really what you're doing in visual novels—reading a "novel" only with pictures, music, backgrounds and the occasional interactive element. I think they're a great way to add that extra feeling of immersion to an already great story (and lets authors come up with their own soundtracks, to boot!).
One thing I've found that visual novels really excel at is scaring the bejeezus out of me. There are some truly frightening visual novels out there, which makes it even more of a shame that the genre isn't more widely-recognized. Whether you've played your fair share of visual novels in the past or barely even know what a visual novel is, this list might be a good place to start if you're in the mood for something unsettling, scary, or downright disturbing for Halloween.
The Best Horror Visual Novels to Scare the Life Out of You This Halloween Season
1. Corpse Party
The indie horror game that started it all, the Corpse Party series began back in 1996, made by a development team called Team GrisGris. While not a traditional visual novel in every sense, Corpse Party allows you to walk around and interact with objects. The amount of dialogue present in the games, its CG artwork so typical of the genre, as well as the sheer fact that it started so many of the tropes and themes present in nearly every horror visual novel since, make it a must-have addition to this list.
If you're a fan of gore, you will probably enjoy Corpse Party as it's chockfull of it. Make the wrong decisions and you'll wind up with any number of different "wrong endings", usually featuring some kind of horrific death; anything from swallowing a pair of scissors to being sliced by piano wire and even cannibalized. The story follows a group of students who perform a charm that transports them to Heavenly Host Elementary School, which just so happens to be haunted by ghosts of the school's murdered children.
A bunch of sequels and spin-off games have been developed, most of which are available in English for the happy horror hunter. There's even a short anime OVA rife with gore for those who'd rather sit down and watch something than play it.
2. Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni
If you've watched any anime, you've probably at least heard of Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni. Probably the first horror visual novel game to make it huge, spawning its own multi-season anime series, manga, live-action movie, and line of novels, it became famous for its depictions of seemingly innocent girls laughing maniacally (usually covered in blood).
One of the unique (and at times confusing) things about the plot of Higurashi is that it doesn't follow just one story line—it follows many. Each arc tells a different rendition of what happens within the peaceful town of Hinamizawa once the ominous Watanagashi Festival approaches. Of course, each rendition usually involves killing, violence, girls-turned-sadists, and creeps by the plenty, but each one is a little bit different, following different girls and killing off different characters in the process. There are "story" arcs and "answer" arcs, the former usually leaving you wondering what the hell just happened, while the latter tell the same story from a different point of view and answer many of the questions you may have had.
The games were originally made for PC by independent developer 07th Expansion, but have since gone on to be remade (and given spin-offs) for Playstation 2, 3, Vita, and the Nintendo DS.
3. Saya no Uta
Thought to be the ultimate horror visual novel by many fans of the genre, Saya no Uta, or "Saya's Song," is one of the most unsettling, disturbing, and downright stomach-churning games you'll ever play. This "Lovecraftian" horror visual novel developed by Nitroplus is equal parts gory and equal parts erotic (but all parts torturous).
The game follows a young medical student named Fuminori Sakisaka who is heavily wounded in a car accident, leaving his brain damaged. He winds up developing a severely exaggerated version of agnosia, causing him to view the world around him as some sort of hellish nightmare—everything is covered in stomach-churning gore and every person he meets is now a hideous monster. In fact, the only person who's not a monster is a girl he meets named Saya (cue the sadistic sex scenes).
What results is a mind-screwing trip through the unimaginable that will leave you at best disturbed, at worst, riddled with nightmares. Even the toughest of horror aficionados might have trouble with this one.
4. Gore Screaming Show
The name of this visual novel is enough to know just what you're getting into. Quite possibly the goriest novel on this list, Gore Screaming Show is not, not, not for the faint of heart. Developed by Black Cyc, it follows the story of a student named Kyouji Jinno who, upon returning to the town of his youth, is asked by his aunt to help solve some recent paranormal phenomena she's been investigating. This leads him to discover an old, decaying well—and a mysterious, nameless girl with a wealth of deadly secrets and a very sinister monster "friend."
This game will test your stomach in more ways than one. Amidst its blanket of blood and guts are some of the most disturbing sex scenes you'll ever read/see/have to imagine (the Japanese really like to mix sex with horror). Despite the gratuitous NC-17 content, however, you'll find a surprisingly deep story, well-developed characters, and intriguing twists. Definitely not one to miss if you can handle the shocks.
Developed by C's Ware and categorized rather specifically as "adult horror," this visual novel goes back and forth between terrifyingly grotesque and erotically bubbly. It makes for a strange combination that might not appeal to everyone (and, indeed, the story itself could have been planned out a bit better), but that doesn't keep this game from being a well-deserved mention on any list of horror visual novels.
The game follows the story of Ranmaru Hibikiya who's been stricken with a mysterious illness most of his life. He's lonely, depressed, and very much hopeless—not even knowing for sure how long he'll live. Just when things are beginning to take a turn for the better, however, he's asked by his uncle to become a spy of sorts at Asao Private School, the institute he's attending. His investigations unearth a whole host of sometimes mysterious, sometimes horrifying supernatural events that put his life (and others') in danger.
While I'm not a huge fan of the art style (why are all their arms SO long?!) nor the mostly gratuitous sex scenes, the creepy ambience and story that will keep you guessing will be a hit with anyone on the lookout for a scary romp.
6. School Days
Nothing about this visual novel says "horror." By all means, from the promotional images, it looks like one of your typical, romantic visual novels with a harem of cute girls to choose from standing in front of soft light beams and dancing flower petals, and even once you begin the game, this feeling will continue. But there's so much more to this oh-so-innocent visual novel from developer 0verflow. So much more...
The story revolves around a high school love triangle—your average high school boy Makoto Ito falls head over heels for the soft-spoken Kotonoha Katsura, but their mutual friend Sekai Saionji slowly becomes more and more jealous of the two's relationship. Who will Makoto end up with? It's all for the player to decide over the course of the story, but be careful! You might be able to get that perfect, sunset ending with one of the two girls, but you could end up with a bloody gore-fest on your hands as the girls go crazy and kill either Makoto or themselves.
So much for that happy ending...
7. Umineko no Naku Koro Ni
Another visual novel by developer 07th Expansion, Umineko, like its sister series Higurashi, is rife with characters, mystery, horror, and gore (with some laughs thrown in every now and then). It does, however, have something Higurashi doesn't have—witches. Personally, I've always enjoyed Umineko more than Higurashi, perhaps because of the whole gothic feel to it. I also think there's a bigger variety when it comes to characters. Don't get me wrong—both series are great and I enjoy them a lot, but if I had to pick just one, I'd go for Umineko.
Umineko takes place on a small, deserted island called Rokkenjima, which is owned by Kinzo, the head of the wealthy Ushiromiya family. The rest of the family takes a trip to the island for an annual conference of sorts, whereupon they spend most of the time discussing how the soon-to-be-dead Kinzo's assets will be divided upon his death. What they don't bargain for, however, is a deadly game courtesy of the golden witch Beatrice, who bequeathed ten tons of gold to Kinzo in the past. Now the family is forced to solve her riddle and find the gold or they'll slowly be killed off and Beatrice will be revived.
That's only one part of the story, though! A bit like Umineko, there are multiple versions of how events take place on the island. The days repeat themselves over and over as Beatrice and protagonist Battler Ushiromiya face off in bouts of logic and words. As the mystery deepens, the cast grows, the story evolves, and all your favorite characters keep getting killed off again and again and again.
Not enough horror for you?
That's it for my visual novel recommendations, but the horror doesn't have to end there. Check out these articles about other horror games here on Now Loading!
- 5 Totally Free Horror Games Sure To Freak Out Your Friends
- A Lovecraft Revival: 3 Upcoming Indie Horror Games To Keep You Up At Night
- Phantasmagoria, One Of The Goriest Body Horror Games Of All Time Is Available on Steam Now
- Why Agony Will be the Most Unsettling Horror Game to Date and Why You'll Want it