Poor old Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo. One of the best games of 2023 — it’s in my personal top 10, for what it’s worth, and has nearly 2,000 Overwhelmingly Positive reviews on Steam if you don’t want to just take my word for it — was never going to get a look-in when it came to giving out serious recognition at the end of the year. That’s because Paranormasight is such a rare beast in the industry at the moment that it’s basically a cryptid: a visual novel developed in-house by a AAA company for worldwide release. Some people loved it, but most still don’t quite know what to make of it.

Visual novels are a bit niche at the best of times, especially among western gamers, who have been a bit slow to get a feel for the delights of the slower-paced genre that’s been a hit in Japan for a good couple of decades now. Appreciation for them is gradually picking up steam though, if you’ll pardon the pun, since it’s indie or AA productions distributed mainly via Steam and Itch.io that make up the bulk of the new VNs taking off at the moment.

But aside from occasionally snapping up the publication rights to a promising indie title, there are only extremely rare exceptions — and to be honest, I’m thinking almost exclusively of Capcom’s Ace Attorney series here — to the rule that AAA publishers aren’t doing much with visual novels right now, at least not on an international scale. When they do, it’s mostly okaying remasters or sequels within existing IPs. That’s what made Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo such a weird little addition to this year’s extensive catalogue of truly excellent games.

An original horror visual novel developed and published by Square Enix, Paranormasight was quietly announced during this February’s Nintendo Direct, which briefly left many of us under the misapprehension that it, like so many of its peers, was going to be a Japan-only launch. This was not an entirely unreasonable mistake, given that its announcement was cut from international versions of the stream and only shown in Japanese.

It’s still not clear why Nintendo left Paranormasight’s trailer off the list for most viewers — perhaps it speaks to the belief that visual novels just aren’t newsworthy outside of Japan, even if the team behind this one did have the resources for a simultaneous global launch. Whatever the case, and despite that initial confusion, when the game launched a month later it was available worldwide to players on Steam, Switch, iOS, and Android.

Despite its AAA origins, Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo is a relatively straightforward visual novel from a production standpoint. Even VNs produced on a presumably more modest budget than even the most frugal Square Enix project often incorporate elements of other gameplay genres at key points in their narrative: from Danganronpa’s rhythm-action mini-games to the mecha-brawler sections in Extreme Meatpunks Forever (to pick examples from opposite ends of the AA-indie scale).

But Paranormasight takes a more traditional approach. With the exception of its light point-and-click elements and some fourth-wall-breaking puzzles that require you to remember that you’re playing a video game in order to solve them (I’ll say no more now for fear of spoiling some of the best bits), most of your time will be spent reading dialogue and thinking about how to apply the knowledge you’ve gained in other interactions. Choices are scant on the surface, and it might take a while to understand how your way of interacting with the game impacts on what you see next.

Image credit: Square Enix

Of course, though, that surface is cleverly concealing some pretty elaborate and creepy goings-on under the hood. Players familiar with visual novels will be right at home for the first couple of hours, but the weirdness really ramps up once you’re out of the prologue. The fact that Paranormasight manages to almost continually up the tension without engaging in any genre-busting tricks is one of its many strengths as both a visual novel and a horror game.

Considering its status as a punchy horror visual novel that’s not shy about throwing out the odd jump-scare, I’m surprised by how little Paranormasight took off among streamers. Speaking as a fan of watching internet funnyfolk get the living daylights scared out of them, I can’t actually think of a single content creator I follow who’s touched Paranormasight this year. The only answer I can think of is that it’s less on-the-nose than the likes of, say, Doki Doki Literature Club, even in its more outlandish moments. For all its well-executed twists and turns, Paranormasight isn’t out to subvert your most basic expectation: it sells itself as a horror visual novel, and it is one. A very good one that touches on all the sinister and sensitive subjects you’d expect from the genre but that is, I think, just a bit too subtle about it all to be meme-able.

Yoko, visibly terrified, points at an unseen presence behind the player and screams incoherently.
Image credit: Square Enix

One less-than-traditional thing Paranormasight does as a visual novel, though, is tell its story quite succinctly, with a complete playthrough running to a tight 12 hours. In contrast, the classics of the genre typically run to at least twice that, with many clocking in at dozens of hours in length. That’s brilliant if you’re already invested in the concept, but quite daunting if you’re approaching a series — or even the VN genre as a whole — for the first time.

Maybe that appealing brevity is what prompted Square Enix to take a gamble on this oddball horse in their stable and take it worldwide at launch, instead of waiting the traditional year or two to see if there was appetite for localisation outside of Japan. They hedged their bets a bit with the prospect of a sequel too, hiding the gentlest of hints towards a potential follow-up in an Easter Egg most players will miss at the very end of the game, but ensuring that it’s fully enjoyable as a stand-alone experience first and foremost.

Despite its spooky premise, Paranormasight is well-engineered as an experience compact and self-contained enough not to scare off potential fans, even if they haven’t played anything quite like it before. It tells an original story that even the most genre-savvy player will enjoy, but never over-promises on what a traditional visual novel can be expected to deliver.

At the cost of never realistically courting big money or accolades, Paranormasight quietly laid a solid foundation that could help see AAA visual novels becoming less like unicorns not too far down the line — so if ever there was a moment to sate your curiosity about the genre, it’s surely now.