No, you didn’t read that title wrong. I know, I know, you feel lied to. You feel betrayed. You feel like you can never trust me again. “How can this weeb who just talked about an anime for Christmas for over 5000 words a week ago not have played a visual novel before?”
Is it that shocking? First of all, I don’t appreciate being called a weeb. That is something only I, and those I give my permission to may ironically call me. Second, the phrase “I never played a visual novel before” is, in fact, correct. However, it has a caveat.
Yes, I have not played a visual novel before. Little Busters! is going to be my first one. Technically. While I’ve never played a true visual novel to completion before, I have played games with visual novel elements in them. The biggest being the Danganronpa series, which I adore.
Now, some will definitely consider that series to be a visual novel. However, I don’t. Or at least I put it in a separate category from Little Busters! and other VNs.
Visual novels are usually characteristic of long walls of text you mash through, with most of the actual gameplay being decisions you make along the way. Those decisions set you on a linear track to more decisions. Based on the combination of decisions you make, you get set on one of the many endings, typically related to how close your actions get you to a specific character over the others.
Danganronpa doesn’t quite fit that bill. As I mentioned when I talked about the gameplay in Danganronpa, the visual novel aspect is really only a third of the gameplay, what with the free time portions and class trials. Danganronpa also doesn’t have choices that alter the path you get set on. That’s because the games only have one ending. Well, two if you count the bad end.
Already, Danganronpa is breaking many of the element that makes visual novels what they are. So, yes, Danganronpa may be a visual novel in a sense, but I don’t quite consider it one. If I showed you games like Little Busters!, Clannad, Doki Doki Literature Club, and Steins Gate, then showed you Danganronpa, you’d know they aren’t quite the same thing even if they’re genre is.
Thus, the distinction I made in the title about this being my first “real” visual novel. Little Busters! is all of the things I’ve mentioned above, and I decided that after way too long, I’d finally give it a try.
The truth is, I’ve been interested in Little Busters! for a good bit now. Mainly because it’s another story by Key Studios, and they are something special indeed. Anyone who has seen their work could attest to that.
I had planned to watch the anime for Little Busters! Instead, I quickly changed gears and decided I would make it my first visual novel since I heard it was a good starting point. And then I didn’t play it mostly because I couldn’t.
When the seed was first planted in my mind, I didn’t have anything to play the game on. Then, it came out on the Switch earlier last year, and I still didn’t play it. Why? Beats me. Ask my past self. I was probably still busy playing Animal Crossing New Horizons for an unhealthy amount of hours every day.
But one event finally changed that. I managed to obtain a new computer for the first time in 8 years. Soon after that, I was filled with immeasurable glee that I could actually play PC games. This translated into me going on Steam and checking some games out – games I could finally play now.
So what do I do? I download Little Busters! and make it this PC’s maiden voyage into the world of PC gaming. (At least as far as playing an entire game goes. I can’t say I didn’t pop on and see how it could run other stuff.)
Yes, I decided that the best first game to complete would be a visual novel. A genre of game that I could run on the highest graphics by grabbing the apple that’s been sitting on my kitchen table for a couple of weeks, duct-taping a calculator to the front, and gluing on a flashlight. I’d say it’s appropriate. I don’t know about you.
A Place to Belong
Years ago, Riki Naoe lost both of his parents. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with narcolepsy, causing him to randomly and uncontrollably blackout at intervals throughout the day, making the already frail child even weaker. Because of these events, he has come to hate sleeping, and anytime where he’s alone, left to his own devices, as well as losing the ability to dream.
The build-up of all of this sends Riki into a spiral of depression where he loses interest in everything. He no longer knows how to have fun or what the word “fun” even means.
Then one day, like a knight in shining armor, a boy his age – Kyousuke Natsume – invites him to “preserve justice” and “fight the enemy” as a member of the Little Busters. He agrees, and Kyousuke takes his hand, dragging him out of his depressive state towards a better, funner future as the fifth member of the ragtag group.
While they don’t exactly save the world, Riki’s new life alongside Kengo, Masato, Kyousuke’s little sister Rin, and their fearless, enthusiastic leader himself, is a great one. Thanks to Kyousuke, every day is a new experience. Every day is a fun new game, even if that game is as simple as kick the can. He is the Little Busters, and they all followed him because of that.
Riki has managed to find a place to belong. A place where he can have fun. A place where he can truly smile once again. A place where he doesn’t have to be alone anymore. And he owes it all to Kyousuke for taking his hand that day and never letting go.
Now in high school, the Little Busters are at it again. Kyousuke proposes a new game for them to play, perhaps their biggest endeavor yet. Despite the fact that most of them have never played it, they would start a baseball team. What would they be called? Little Busters, of course!
Because it’s Fun!
Little Busters! has one of the most simplistic stories I think I’ve ever seen. You could sum the entire thing up with one sentence. “Childhood friends do stupid stuff.” That’s it. You’ve got the gist of the plot. Sure, it does become much more than that, but it isn’t until you get to one of the many endings. The story, at its core, is as I said.
And it does such a good job at that. I cannot even count the number of times I laughed playing through this. There are just so many stupid things that happen. So many mundane events become so hilarious because of the lovable bunch of idiots that we are given. It’s the most entertained I have ever been watching people attempt to satiate their boredom.
I mentioned kick the can earlier. That wasn’t a joke. There’s a portion of the game with the most intense game of kick the can you will ever see. It goes on for like 15 minutes. There’s action everywhere, the competition is fierce, and it’s absolutely stupid. These idiots will do whatever it takes to win.
I think that’s part of the charm. The fact that whatever is happening, the characters do it as if their lives depend on it. And all of the enjoyment of the story comes from this. You’re just watching these, no better word fits them, fools as they do whatever they feel like.
During the eventual baseball game you play (baseball isn’t actually that big of a part of the game), Rin gets too nervous about continuing. So Kyousuke and the gang walk up to her and try to come up with names for vol 1 of a manga series to calm her down. It’s a 2-minute interruption that happens a few times and is probably my favorite bit in the game.
Seeing them all play off of each other and try to piece together the hidden meaning of the ridiculous titles they just created that make no sense whatsoever is a blast. It’s just so undeniably dumb. It’s stupid. It’s gibberish that’s they’re just spewing to each other, and it’s exactly the way close friends who have known one another for years would act.
That’s what is at the heart of Little Busters! It’s a touching tale of friendship. It’s how these childhood friends can, and will, support each other through thick and thin. Whether they’re going through some deep-rooted problem or just figuring out how to kill time, they all help each other. They’re so close. They appreciate each other so deeply, and it’s very easy to see.
The baseball aspect, as I said, is not that important in reality. For some, that will probably be a letdown considering the plot. The whole “we’ll form a baseball team” thing is more literally, and figuratively, a way for the Little Busters to get closer to each other, and that’s as far as it ever goes. You only play a single actual game, and the rest of the time is spent practicing. It’s more just a plot device than anything else. Also, it’s Key, so they had to add it.
On the one hand, that’s a bit disappointing, but on the other, it makes sense. The Little Busters jump from game to game all the time. They do things on a whim because it sounds fun. They’re very hyperactive. It makes sense that they don’t commit fully to being a baseball team, even if they do take it seriously.
In the gameplay, the baseball aspect is explored a lot, but story significance just isn’t there aside from being a goal that drives you forward. The only real goal to drive you forward beside the goal of completing the game itself. It exists mostly to bring the future Little Busters to be into the equation.
This story sounds very lighthearted, and that’s because it is for the most part. To reiterate my earlier point, this is a story by Key Studios. Anyone who has witnessed Angel Beats and especially Clannad will know what their staff is capable of.
Little Busters is no exception. While the story is very lighthearted and cheerful, it knows how to get dark. And I mean dark. Little Busters does not shy away from themes of depression, abuse, death, torture in some cases, mental health in general, your sense of self-worth, suicide. It gives you the emotional works.
At times, I dare say it’s even darker than Clannad, but I wouldn’t say sadder. Mind you, my experience with that series comes from the anime, not the visual novel. Clannad is more an endless sadness, with very little joy anywhere in sight, while Little Busters gets incredibly dark really fast and then moves away from it just as quickly.
To sum up the story, I’ll leave you with a quote that I can’t remember for the life of me where I saw it. It May have been on Steam, maybe YouTube. Either way, I can’t find it, but it is more fitting than anything I could ever say.
“There are 3 things you can expect from a Key visual novel. 1. that you’ll laugh. 2. that you’ll cry. And 3. you’re going to play some baseball.”
All of those things were true.
The Little Busters
As you could probably tell, the characters are the reason this story means something. Characters will always be important in any story, they come as a pair, but in Little Busters! they mean more than ever.
The entirety of the common route (for those of you who don’t know, a common route is the initial portion of a visual novel where decisions that affect your ending are made) consists solely of the nonsense the cast gets themselves into. That’s about 15 hours of a plot driven solely by how entertaining the characters are to watch. That’s a long time. If they aren’t interesting, you’ve got a flop.
Luckily, Little Busters! doesn’t have that problem. Not really. Much of the cast is good, but they are one-dimensional until you get to each of their respective endings. This led me to not really liking many of the characters, outside of the original five Little Busters, until I got to their ending.
Most of them feel very tropey. Oh, hey, look! It’s the airhead girl. There’s the quiet one. Oh, there goes the stupid troublemaker. Look, it’s the girl that’s like 2 ft tall and speaks bad English. Can’t forget the jolly green giant, meathead muscle guy. Oh, wait, there’s the pervert.
The first playthrough of the game felt just like that. The characters really didn’t go anywhere. They never felt like they grew, and I didn’t feel like I gained any insight into them or their mindsets. They just felt stagnant the entire time. It wasn’t until I got to their endings that I began to like them all quite a bit.
I get why this is. Of course, the ending will have the most backstory about the respective character, that’s fine, but I should be left with questions about each character during the common route. I should have some sort of motivation to get the character’s ending that’s deeper than “I think it’s funny that she can’t speak English well.” Or, “I like quiet people that are philosophical,” and “haha, troublemaker funny.’
I should get a little bit of a preview of each character before deciding to go through their ending. The common route is where you spend most of your playtime. My first playthrough of it took about 15 hours, and to get the “Refrain” ending or the true ending, you go through it a minimum of 7 times, making different choices along the way.
Of course, you do skip through a lot during replays. Still, it’s the beginning of every ending. It’s the one point of commonality between them. Thus, the “common route” and why that route should be a cornucopia of everything the game has to offer.
By the time real character growth happens in the endings, it feels too late in a way. I finally like this character and finally understand them. I finally feel like I’ve bonded with them. Oh, ok, it’s time to go back in time and pick another, gotcha. It’s just disappointing that all the development happens at the end.
But once you get a look at all the developed characters, it’s a pretty solid cast. They are all likable in one way or another, and all have great chemistry with each other, making for plenty of hilarious moments throughout.
Riki is also a wonderful protagonist. Despite not having a visual representation for most of the game and being your typical sarcastic narrator like is common in these scenarios, he manages to go above and beyond. Not because he is extraordinary but because of how good of a protagonist he is for a visual novel.
In visual novels, or really any game in general, the protagonist often sticks their nose into everyone’s affairs. They’re nosy, and they hardly ever take no for an answer. They’re so helpful to the point where real people wouldn’t be.
That’s one reason (besides gameplay, of course) that money is often a reward for helping people in some games. Because what better incentive is there than cold, hard cash? This attempts to make it look more natural when Mr. Hates Everyone the protagonist decides to help little Timmy find his lost dog.
In Riki’s case, it makes sense why he sticks his nose in people’s affairs besides the fact that he is your representation in the game. Riki is a busybody. He doesn’t like to be alone. He likes to be around others. He’s at his most depressed when he’s by himself. He likes to have his mind occupied.
So Riki really doesn’t care if he has to suddenly stop to help someone move into a dorm room or do some cleanup work. He’s a nice person, so he helps his friends, but they, in turn, help keep him busy. So it makes sense both from a story perspective and a character perspective why Riki acts like a protagonist, and I really appreciate that.
The dynamic between Kyousuke and Riki is also something special. They’re essentially opposites, one being strong, capable of doing seemingly anything, and has the confidence any leader should, while the other is weak, can’t keep up physically, blacks out at random times, and typically needs to rely on others to get anything done.
Or that’s how it seems. The story’s subtext is really about Riki becoming stronger and gaining the confidence to believe in that strength. While Kyousuke is the Little Buster’s fearless leader, Riki, though unintentionally, is the glue that holds them together.
The reason Little Busters members 6-10 join the baseball team has nothing to do with Kyousuke. It’s because they liked Riki. While Kyousuke has bravado, Riki is the one they all really care about.
He’s the one always using his head to help his friends out of tough spots. He’s the one willing to involve himself in those situations in the first place. Kyousuke may have been the spark that formed the Little Busters, but it would all eventually crumble away without Riki. He’s the one they rally around. And he wants the strength to hold them all together as they need him to.
That’s why, when faced with defeat, Riki makes a simple decision that sets him towards the true ending. He vows to “become stronger.” And that’s exactly what he does. He realizes that his strength doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s. That strength can be his own. He doesn’t have to be like Kyousuke. He can be Riki Naoe, and that’s all he needs to be.
Walls of Text
We’ve arrived at the part you’ve all been waiting for. What kind of fun gameplay does Little Busters! have? Or the question more likely on your mind, does Little Busters! have any gameplay at all?
Well, a majority of the gameplay is as you would expect. You read. You read a lot. The word “novel” is in “visual novel” for a reason. Whether this can be considered gameplay is, once again, a debate for another time. I personally don’t think so, not on its own, at least.
For something to be gameplay, you need to interact with or change something in the game. Pressing a button to advance text isn’t that. However, Little Busters! does have plenty of choices to make throughout the game. These can give you different endings or just different scenes. That lets me, the player, alter something in the game world. It counts as gameplay.
But this is very common for visual novels. Thankfully, Little Busters! takes it a step further. Scattered throughout the game at various points, you’ll come across minigames of some kind. They consist of serving food in the cafeteria or throwing Rin through a window at dangerous speeds. These are nice but are few and far between.
The most semblance of unique gameplay comes from three elements present in Little Busters! Battles, the ranking system, and baseball practice. These all show up much more consistently throughout the common route.
The ranking system is part of battles. All the little busters are given a rank, 1-10. They can challenge each other to a battle – which happens during “wander” periods – and whoever wins moves to the rank of the person they defeated and gets to give them a nickname they’re called until the victim can get rid of it.
The nicknames are wonderful and even mildly offensive on some occasions. They’re, again, I will use my favorite word today, stupid, and I just love them so much.
Some characters will call you specific insults like “Masato’s fool” or “Kengo’s henchman” and stuff along those lines. While some will just put two random words together and create things like “Sightseeing fish” or “Elegant dustcloth.” As I was playing through to get a screenshot of nicknames, I came across “Old-smelling caterpillar Rin” and, my favorite, “Soft DJ Kengo.” I have not stopped laughing about that one.
It makes absolutely no sense, and I couldn’t love it more if I tried.
How the characters advance in the ranking is, of course, with battles. Battles are interesting in the way they really have no player interaction. Everything about it is random to some extent. So calling them “gameplay” may not be correct.
After the random weapons are selected and the few stat boosters the characters can obtain are calculated, it just plays itself. Stuff happens. You just cross your fingers and hope you win.
It’s a bit underwhelming, but I do find it charming. I just wish I had some input. Don’t give me a full-on JRPG battle system – I don’t want to play Final Fantasy here – but let me do something simple. I’d rather press a button now and then instead of just watching the character’s portraits grunt at each other.
I’d suggest giving the player simple inputs like “light attack,” “strong attack,” “defend,” and stuff like that. For instance, if you use a strong attack, but your opponent defends, it staggers you, and you miss out on a turn. However, if you bash them with it as they’re attacking you, you deal big damage to them. Light attacks could be the safe bet, causing only a little damage when defended.
It could be some kind of super simple, easy to grasp, rock paper scissors style combat, and have the weapons, stats, and various other random aspects calculate the amount of damage you deal and receive.
Still, it is cute, and I’m glad it’s in the game, even if it could have been done much better.
By far, the most interesting (and somehow the most simplistic) of the elements is baseball practice. You do this quite a bit. Typically once at the end of every day, sometimes more.
All this consists of is Rin pitching balls to Riki, and you batting them to the other little busters in the field. It’s simple, but man is it fun. This is one of the only times in the game where you see everything from a new perspective. Gone are the portraits, hello beautiful sprites. Well, I guess there’s still some portraits.
This is honestly just a blast. I truly don’t think I have a negative thing to say about it. As I said, all you do is move Riki and time your swings to hit Rin’s various pitches. Your goal is to hit the ball to your teammates. They then throw the ball back, and if you’re good enough, you can get a combo going. Repeat until you’re out of balls.
The purpose of this is ultimately to raise your stats. This helps you in battle and in the eventual baseball match. Again, this is just a pleasure. I loved it. It’s cute; It’s fun; it breaks up the occasional monotony of the game; it’s gorgeous to look at; it stays interesting thanks to getting new members of the team. It’s just super solid all around. I always looked forward to it.
To say one bad thing, though this isn’t practice’s fault, it got me so hyped for the baseball match, which is a giant letdown. I won’t spoil it, but it’s not very exciting. I would have preferred something much closer to the joy that is practice. Unforeunately, we don’t always get what we want.
But the best part of all these features is that you can just turn them off.
Why would you want to do that?
Well, for as much as I find these features endearing, they take time. Time I don’t want to spend. Visual novels require you to play through them many, many times to get all the endings. As of the point I’m writing this, I’ve not gotten all the endings, but I’ve gotten all the main ones.
If you take all the playthroughs I’ve done trying to get images for this, or just to get the endings I’ve got, I’ve likely played through the common route around 17 or so times. My playtime is currently just shy of 61 hours. If I had to do baseball practice, battles, and all of that each time, you can count on that playtime being a decent bit higher than that.
While I do like the cute gameplay elements, they aren’t necessary, and I just don’t want them around all the time. It’s like it usually tells you, doing good or bad on them have little to no story significance. When you get right down to it, they’re trivial. It doesn’t matter if they’re there or not.
Even raising your stats is ultimately pointless since there are no battles tied to the story, and the baseball match is unimportant. Doing well in them is more for personal achievement. For me, that all I need. That and the fact I enjoy them. Still, the main point is to experience the story, and there are times when they get in the way.
That’s why the many ways the game lets you advance text is a lifesaver. You can speed it up, rewind it, or just skip forward to the next choice. All of this, combined with being able to skip the minigames, makes for repeat playthroughs being far more enjoyable than they may have been otherwise.
And that’s a good thing. Did I tell you you’ll have to beat the game dozens of times? That’s pretty important to mention. It’s kind of the whole point.
Talking about art in visual novels is a bit of a weird thing. You really wouldn’t think so since the “visual” portion seems so important. Well, that’s the thing. The “visuals” are just there for the most part. They are far less important than the “novel” portion.
Art in visual novels is there to accompany the dialogue. A visual novel is what it sounds like. Picture your favorite novel voice acted, with portraits of the characters making expressions over a background, and you’ve got the gist of it.
The portraits are all nice. I don’t particularly have any problem with them. They give each character a good few expressions that help convey what they are saying. It’s better to have them than to write, “she smiled at me,” or something similar to get the same point across. It’s something visual novels have over normal ones.
Still, what is far better at bringing the characters to life is the voice acting, which is stupendous. The whole cast is so good. I laughed like crazy every time Masato got dramatic and yelled about what an idiot he is. But it is JP only, so there’s that.
The backgrounds are drawn well, and there are quite a few of them, sometimes with just little alterations that are a nice touch. These, again, remove the need to say things like “I was in the garden” or other descriptors because the player can clearly see that.
Of course, another big part of visual novels is the CGs or computer-generated graphics. This term is more a tradition in visual novels rather than meaning exactly what it says.
These are usually static images, with only minor differences on occasion, that take up the whole screen. There are a few reasons these happen, much of it is tied to the ending you are on, but they are usually there to show some important moment.
You can also use them as a guide to know what endings you’re missing since a gallery of all the CGs is on the title screen, like in pretty much every visual novel. But in the age of the internet, where game guides are as easy to get your hands on as clicking a button on Steam, that isn’t necessary much anymore.
There are quite a few CGs, especially if you count the variations, and they all look good. My main issue is that the CGs are often placed a little unevenly. For some characters, they may get CGs spread out nicely, while some get all of them right at the end.
It’s not a big issue but is there on occasions. There’s also a tad bit of favoritism with how many CGs a character gets. Some hover around 13, while some get 6. There’s also the matter of what is depicted in the CGs.
It feels like they didn’t really know what to do for some characters, so we get just a closeup or something like that. Again, these are small issues. The CGs are quite good, but the problems do exist. And sometimes, something may be depicted that was probably better left to the imagination. But it’s few and far between. I’ll let it slide.
Music is yet another part of game design that has to be approached differently regarding a visual novel. Because you’ll be reading mostly everything, the music shouldn’t distract you from that. At that point, it would be better if it had none at all.
That means most of the songs in the game are going to be more ambient tracks. The kind of tunes you’ll lightly bob your head to. It exists to set the mood and give you some nice background noise as you read the text. Not so much for assaulting your ears with rock & roll.
And it’s great for that. I could see myself listening to some of the tracks as I read a normal novel. Songs like “Ring Ring Ring!” just put me in a good mood. You find me someone that isn’t happy when they hear this song.
“Slow Curve” is the best song ever for taking a leisurely walk in the park at sunset. I swear it makes more sense than it sounds.
Little Busters! isn’t short on emotional tracks either. “Untitled “Playing a Cappricio for Your Love,” “Sunshine After the Rain,” and “Boy’s Don’t Cry” are all great tracks for ignoring what that last title told you.
“The Cat the Glass, and the Round Moon” is a favorite of mine. That’s only partly because that ending made my eyes sweat the most, I promise. Some tissues have cooling properties, didn’t you know that?
It’s a much better OST than I expected, especially since music isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind when I think “visual novel.” It was a pleasant surprise. And as a bonus, you can listen to all the tracks you’ve heard on the title screen. I really appreciated it, at least.
Little Busters! was a great first visual novel to start with. It has all of the tropes you would expect from one, yet it has many interesting minigames that add charm to the overall experience and help break up some of the monotony that comes from the genre.
Having a great, emotional story with fairly deep character endings doesn’t hurt that either, even if those characters stay one-dimensional until those endings.
Though this was just my first one, I’d definitely recommend it to those wanting to dive headfirst into visual novels. It worked for me. Considering the fact I have a few more lined up, Little Busters! without a doubt, won me over.
It may not be perfect. The common route may be lacking a bit, something I notice as I play through it more. The characters could have each been giving more development outside of their endings. The battles could have been expanded upon a bit, and all the minigames could have been less trivialized.
While I understand this is so anyone can enjoy the game despite skill levels, it would have been nice to have a bit more input. You could have just as easily added a “simple” and “complex” mode or something along those lines. It would have helped make things more interesting. In fact, one minigame during a specific character route does just that already.
Still, Little Busters! is far from a bad experience, and I’d recommend anyone interested in visual novels to try it once.
In summary, I laughed a lot, I cried a lot, I did the muscle dance a lot (muscle yay yaaay!), and I sure as hell played some baseball.
As always, this was just my opinion, and it isn’t any more or less valid than yours.
If you have a problem with that, I will forever refer to you as a “Soft DJ” as well. Not fair to let Kengo have all the fun.
I highly recommend you don’t listen to an eye sweater like me, play the game yourself, and form your own opinions. If you do, you too may understand (muscle yay yaaay) the joy of (muscle yay yaaay) the Muscle Sensation, and grab a spot on the (muscle yay yaaay) muscle arc to the new muscle world. Yeah, I don’t blame you. Goodbye. That was the best ending, though. You know it was.
Thank you very much for reading
What visual novel would you recommend to a first-timer? There’s a lot out there, and I’m sure many of them would be a great starting point.
More to Come
This was my first visual novel, but it will not be my last. As I eluded to earlier, I already have about 6 others lined up, ready to go. However, I will likely not talk about these on the site. Not one at a time, at least. I have a piece I want to write about visual novels that I mentioned a few posts ago, but before I can talk about that, I want to have more experience with them.
So over the coming months, I will take my time and train in the art of visual novels. We will meet one day again. I will be stronger then. I will be able to play in the big leagues. Or at least I won’t be a fool when it comes to them anymore. So yeah, that will happen at some point.