It’s been an odd year in the OELVN world. The long-awaited release of Katawa Shoujo back in January set the tone for an unexpectedly strong first half of the year. Several strong titles came out of this year’s NaNoRenO event, including Dischan’s first completed work: Juniper’s Knot. Shortly after NaNoRenO ended, Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story became the first EVN available on Steam with remarkable commercial success. More so than Moacube’s Cinders, which despite amazing visuals and lots of press coverage never became a breakout hit.
The second half of 2012 was markedly less strong. The only commercial release I wouldn’t feel guilty about calling a visual novel was Encarmine. Existing commercial groups seem to be turning further away from visual novels in favor of casual/simulation games. New commercial groups are able to deliver competing quality, but almost always with massive delays to their planned release dates (Cinders was originally slated for summer 2011).
Right, on to the "awards". My requirements for inclusion are fairly straightforward: any visual novel with its first full release in 2012 and English as its primary language. Simulation games and RPGs aren’t visual novels. In the case of hard-to-decide hybrid games I’m judging them purely on their VN parts.
The writing in Katawa Shoujo is both loved and hated and I too like some routes far better than others. If you ignore the bad routes however — and you can, easily — what’s left is quite good. The story touches on a lot of slice-of-life and romance VN clichés, but then just as it seems to delve into mediocrity, it flips them around or shows some unexpected maturity.
Hierofanía manages to create a unique and interesting world which reveals more and more layers as you go through the routes. Picking Hierofanía over Nanolife was a very close call, but the latter just wasn’t as memorable to me. Knife of the Traitor is another VN with a cool setting, but the story told in it isn’t as strong.
Cinders raises the bar for EVN visuals with incredibly detailed (and partially animated) backgrounds. Limited animation in visual novels seems to be on the rise, with the trend even spreading to some short freeware titles.
The special effects and cinematic feel of Juniper’s Knot are superior to Cinders, but the limited scope (taking place in a single location) nudges it to second place. Locked-in and Nanolife (with its cool-looking GUI) are other titles with good effects programming. Knife of the Traitor has some of the best sprite art.
Even finding titles with an original soundtrack was hard and Cinders’s is the only one I’d listen to by itself. The grandiose fantasy feel of the music certainly stands out, even if it was often a little too epic for the relative mundanity of what was going on in the story.
I chose Katawa Shoujo over Juniper’s Knot and Hierofanía for its variety. Cinders was a clear winner for me, but my pick for runner-up is close enough to change depending on whatever mood I’m in that day.
Katawa Shoujo is a step above almost every other OELVN in both breadth and depth. It handles the delicate subject matter with grace, never falling into the cripple fetish porn many thought it would be. It has its problems, as you’d expect from a long freeware VN made by a ragtag team of volunteers, but no other EVN released in 2012 was as complete as Katawa Shoujo.
Pretty much my surprise hit of the year. Its appeal doesn’t translate very well to screenshots; it looks like just another mediocre VN with bad art. When you start reading it however, you’ll find an engaging story with interesting branches and even the weird art feels oddly fitting.