Here in America, visual novels are, for the most part, an untouched entity. While the genre is widely known in Japan, to say these text adventures are niche in America would be an understatement.
Despite this, some companies are trying to push the medium forward. Aksys Games, known best for localizing and publishing the Zero Escape and Blazblue series, have found some success in this venture. Russell Iriye, Aksys's marketing manager, says moving to visual novels was a natural step. "We tend to take risks, so we thought that this (visual novels) would offer us a great challenge. With the Jake Hunter series, then Zero Escape and Hakuoki, we saw that there is a pretty passionate fan base out there. We definitely get encouraged when we hear fans say, 'I didn’t think it would come here, thank you!'"
Zero Escape is a visual novel series that tells the story of people put in different scenarios, fighting for their life (much similar to that of Saw but with less gore and more intelligence). The first title in the series, 999: 9 hours, 9 persons, 9 doors was a sleeper hit in America, selling 230,000 copies. The series continued success with its 3DS and Vita sequel, Virtue's Last Reward, adding critical acclaim and numerous game of the year nominations to its repertoire. And this isn't their only series.
Aksys has also localized the Hakuoki series, which was originally a popular anime in Japan. The plot revolves around something that many young female adolescent can get behind, beautiful vampires. Much of it involves playing as a female character, trying to romance many of the male characters in the story, which open up new paths. Iriye says "I’m not sure that Hakuoki appeals to any American-specific values or ideals, but I think there is a universal appeal that really makes Hakuoki successful both in Japan and abroad. With movies like the Twilight Saga and shows like The Vampire Diaries, audiences are really digging the vampire right now."
What is even more shocking about Hakouki is its (otome) female-focused gameplay, making the demographic both small and very specific. Yet, it is both unique and rare in a market that always demands more. "At the time, there were virtually no 'otome' games on the market and after working with fans at events such as Anime Expo, we thought that this might be a good genre to introduce to North American audiences. By the time Hakuoki came to us, it was already a phenomenon in Japan. A couple of staff members recognized this and convinced the rest of us, as well as upper management that we should really test the otome market here in North America."
Released this year on the 3DS, Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi was a very quiet title, appearing in only select stores (I couldn't find it in the bigger retailers). Despite this, Aksys is releasing Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi next year, continuing the Hakuoki and the visual novel genre in America. Perhaps in the future, these games can find a home on iPad or Kindle. For now, they remain mostly on the 3DS and Vita, finding a unique and specific niche to flourish in.