Visual novels may be relatively simple in their gameplay mechanics, but they can be incredibly complex when it comes to storytelling. They don’t have to tell a clichéd love story, either. Some classic visual novel stories will have you pondering about philosophy and the meaning of life.
That’s why we’ve put together this list of seven tearjerker visual novels for your mobile phone. These titles will have you soaring through the sky and serving coffee to the undead, making you feel bleak and hopeful, bitter and sweet.
One thing is for certain: You better have the box of tissues handy while playing these games.
From publisher Annapurna and developer Mountains, the studio behind the mobile hit Monument Valley, Florence is a visual telling of the emotional, intimate feeling of falling in love.
Florence tells the story of 25-year-old Florence Yeoh, an accountant struggling through the early years of adulthood. Through a series of gameplay vignettes, you live through the monotony of Florence’s life, from commuting to mindlessly browsing social media. Before long, however, Florence falls for a street performer named Krish, goes on a series of dates, and moves in with him.
It’s hard to talk a lot about the story of Florence without spoiling the different emotions the game evokes. The story wraps up in under an hour, making it perfect for showing off to anyone who doesn’t believe in the power of video games.
The gameplay is simple, the art is breathtaking, and the soundtrack drives the story forward. In short, Florence is accessible. And it will tug at everyone’s heartstrings.
2. Summer Pockets
With its visual novels turned anime Angel Beats! and CLANNAD, developer Key established itself as a juggernaut of the genre. Summer Pockets is cut from the same cloth, telling a rousing story of Takahara Hairi and his travels to the secluded island of Torishirojima. What follows is a slice-of-life story with stellar characterization and perfect pacing.
Over the course of a 30- to 40-hour runtime, Summer Pockets introduces a cast of characters with intricate backstories and personalities. You get to know their motivations and ambitions without the game ever feeling too slow or fast.
As you learn more about each character, you discover bits and pieces about the larger story, be it through details of the island or its inhabitants. After an intriguing build-up, the true route of Summer Pockets pays off spectacularly.
3. A New Life
A New Life isn’t about branching narratives or a massive cast of characters. Instead, it’s an intimate love story about meeting someone, dreaming of marrying and growing older together… and then getting hurt.
Developer Angela He has built up a reputation in visual novel circles as a master storyteller. Their 2020 title A New Life asks the following question: “When your loved one hurts you, what do you do?”
A New Life feels like a page out of a real-life story. Its protagonists, May and August, are genuine people who have genuine conversations. While the gameplay is linear—your dialogue choices have a rather gentle effect on the story—there are different endings to uncover. The game even tells you the chapters with choices you haven’t explored, making it easier to do multiple runs.
And, good news for you, each playthrough and ending will move you to tears.
4. If Found…
From developer DREAMFEEL and publisher Annapurna, If Found… describes itself as “a game about going home, coming out, and erasing everything.”
The interactive visual novel combines two story threads. The fantasy sci-fi thread tells the story of a young scientist called Cassiopeia, who is trying to save the world from a black hole. The second, reality-based story is told through the journal of a 20-something-year-old Kasio, who studies in Dublin and is visiting home on Achill Island for a month.
The two story threads unfold side by side, with you working the needle. Your cursor serves as an eraser; by erasing an image completely, you’ll uncover the next one. Such a simple mechanic lets you immerse yourself in the adventures of Cassiopeia and the complex story of Kasio, both of whom deal with their own pain and trauma.
5. OPUS: The Day We Found Earth
It’s the year 16,000, and genetic enhancements have become so popular that humans are now trying to find a sample of ancient human DNA found only on Earth. Doctor Lisa and her assistant Makoto are at the forefront of this mission.
To aid her in her mission, Lisa programs a robot helper named Emeth and imbues her with a human personality. After a mishap, however, Emeth wakes up alone on Lisa and Makoto’s ship. A point-and-click adventure unfolds, telling a story of purpose and pursuit as you operate a giant space telescope.
This simple but profound title will simultaneously warm and break your heart.
“This is a story about death and coffee.”
Route 59’s Necrobarista tells you what it’s all about, right from the jump. But that description doesn’t come close to describing the emotional depth of its story.
The premise is simple: The dead are granted one last night to join the living. Necrobarista tells its story through a fantastic cast of characters, home to the city of Melbourne and its hipster-y coffee culture. The game’s set in a coffee shop run by a barista named Maddy, who welcomes those on the precipice between death and life.
Necrobarista’s main form of currency is time—namely, the final seconds of the people in the café. The style is beautiful, with striking 3D art and engaging first-person sequences. The dialogue is quirky, the characters are complex, and the story is surprisingly deep and philosophical.
All in all, this blend is equal parts bitter and sweet.
7. If My Heart Had Wings
If My Heart Had Wings was released internationally in 2013 as a game “presenting a lovely and bittersweet tale of youth.”
You play as Aoi Minase, who goes through a rom-com story interacting with various girls in his hometown. Together, you will work toward rebuilding the school’s “Soaring Club” to realize their shared dream and passion of flight.
What adds a wrinkle to this classic romance tale is that Aoi has a messed-up knee, and the main girl Kotori can’t use her legs either. This results in the players realizing the characters’ passion for flying.
If My Heart Had Wings remains an award-winning classic.
While mobile phones have become synonymous with gaming on the go due to an abundance of puzzles and card games, visual novels have added variety and substance to the platform. The VN genre has found the perfect home in mobile phones; not only do touch screens make for accessible gaming, but they also allow developers to experiment with gameplay mechanics in novel ways.
We hope our list of visual novels elicits the strongest of emotions in you. Most of these games can be found on the iOS App Store, so make sure to get some iTunes Gift Cards from OffGamers here to get past those paywalls.