The English visual novel localization community translated 31 doujin Japanese visual novels from Japanese into English for three al|together translation festivals that took place in 2005, 2006, and 2008. I undertook a project to review nearly all of the (still free to download and play/read) novels, ultimately reviewing 29 out of 31, and then offered my subjective take in ranking the novels from 31 to 1 over the course of three articles.

With the exception of Narcissu, which has been re-mastered and made available on Steam, there are not many reviews of the now mostly-obscure al|together translations in the wild. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one site with reviews of all 31 al|together novels: The Visual Novel Database.

Scene in Narcissu featuring face of Setsumi Sakura.
Scene from the al|together release of Narcissu.

The Visual Novel Database (“VNDB”) is the top English-language resource for visual novels. For that reason, I always include a link to the VNDB entry in my visual novel reviews. As of the moment I am writing this article, there are 47,528 novels in the VNDB. While VNDB’s main value is in providing detailed information about visual novels, registered users can write reviews and score novels on a scale of 1-10. VNDB shows the review scores and averages for every novel.

All of the al|together novels have a decent number of reviews and were some of the first novels added to the VNDB. That they have a good number of reviews is not surprising in light of the fact that English translations of Japanese visual novels were far scarcer in the 2000s than they are today. It is on account of their former scarcity that I first came across al|together in 2009-10.

Having ranked all 31 al|together novels against one another (I declined to score them, however), I thought it would be fun to compare my ranking to the aggregate VNDB scores. However, before embarking on this comparison, I must note some major caveats.

VNDB Ranking Caveats

Firstly, VNDB collects reviews from all registered users. In an article that I wrote about rating systems, I argued that it is important for reviewers to define each step in a rating ladder and provide some context for how to understand their reviews. In the case of VNDB, five users may have wildly different interpretations of the 1-10 scale, not to mention different levels of experience with visual novels and different preferences. One reviewer may interpret 5 as being average (setting aside what that is relative to) while another may consider anything less than a 7 to be trash.

(The VNDB average scores are on the low side for 1-10 scales such that Adagio and its 5.09 is ranked 16311. Conversely, the second highest scoring al|together novel has a 7.06, which puts it at 3479 in the total ranking. Bearing in mind VNDB has 47529 novels in its database – with the caveat that many have no reviews at all – it seems that many VNDB scorers do actually treat 5 as being average.)

Secondly, the number of reviews that the al|together novels have varies wildly. For example, see the number of reviews that my top ten al|together novels have in VNDB:

1May Sky231
3Shooting Star Hill57
4A Midsummer Day’s Resonance362
5Red Shift550
6The Letter179
7Flood of Tears59
9Summer, Cicadas, and the Girl88
10The world to reverse.218

Let us set aside Narcissu for a moment since that will be the focus of my next caveat. The number of reviews for the nine non-Narcissu novels range from 57 to 550. In general, most of the novels with less reviews have relatively low aggregate scores on VNDB, although there are exceptions. But the wildly different review counts introduce some volatility in the VNDB ratings.

CG scene with Minori in her shrine maiden outfit playing the piano with orange sunlight filtering over her.
Scene from my top-ranked al|together novel, May Sky.

Thirdly, it is not necessarily the case that all of the reviews for every al|together novel are based on the al|together translation. For example, I am sure that there is a non-insignificant number of active VNDB reviewers who can read Japanese and prefer to play the original Japanese novels. Moreover, some of the al|together novels were subsequently translated into other languages, most often French or Russian. We cannot discount the possibility that some reviewers based their scores on a non-English language version of the novel. Finally, there are a few cases where novels were re-released in English. A good number of them were once available as web browser games (not many anymore). Even in cases where we are dealing with the same translation – I know that the Windows versions of the al|together novels had (or have) crashing issues for many users which I am sure may have negatively affected the experience of some people who posted review scores.

(Note: One point in favor of giving some weight to VNDB reviews is that just about anyone who takes the time to set up a VNDB account is likely a fan of visual novels, and most likely Japanese visual novels. Note that I do not even have a VNDB account and thus have never written a VNDB review. Beyond having a VNDB account, taking the time to read mostly obscure doujin visual novels from the early-to-mid-2000s further selects for experienced visual novel readers, albeit whether that helps or hurts some of the more amateur al|together pieces is debatable.)

Fourthly, Narcissu is a special case. Firstly, it has been re-released multiple times, including most recently on Steam. Secondly, VNDB counts Narcissu’s second side as part of Narcissu, this tying that into the overall score – but the al|together version does not include Narcissu’s second side. My guess is that the majority of Narcissu reviews (especially recent ones) are not of the Insani/al|together release and that there is no way to disentangle reviews for all of the different versions.

Finally, without checking the identity of all of the reviewers, I will venture that very few people scored, much less read, all 31 al|together novels. Many people most likely only played one or a few of the al|together novels. Thus, we have a dramatic difference in perspective. My ranking project was solely contained to al|together novels, and I was evaluating them against one another. Conversely, many of the VNDB scores are by people who may have read one or two al|together novels (or just Narcissu in some cases without knowing about the original 2005 English release) unaware of the three festivals or never having played through all or most of the collection.

In the end, I decided to not over-think the caveats. For my comparison, I will use the aggregate VNDB score to represent VNDB without worrying about how the score came to be. The purpose of this is to get an idea of how my ranking compares to the assessments of other people who played or read the novels – it is not a scientific paper.

VNDB offers weighted scores for novels with a small number of reviews. I decided that in cases where there is a weighted score, I will use the weighted score instead of the raw score since I presume VNDB offers it for low-review novels for a reason. Of the ten I listed above, Shooting Star Hill, Flood of Tears, and Summer, Cicadas, and the Girl have weighted scores.

Comparing My Ranking to VNDB

The below table lists all of the al|together novels in alphabetical order. For each novel, I will list the following information:

  • VNDB Score (or Weighted Score when VNDB offers both). Note that all scores are up to date as of February 2, 2024. They may be different in the future.
  • VNDB Rank. This is simply the al|together novel’s ranking against other al|together novels based on its VNDB (raw or weighted).
  • NLJ Rank. My ranking of the al|together novel against its peers.
  • Difference. The difference in relative al|together ranking. Positive means New Leaf Journal is higher while negative means VNDB is higher.

Now for the chart:

Novel (link to my review)VNDB ScoreVNDB RankNLJ RankDifference
A Dream of Summer6.89318-15
A Midsummer Day’s Resonance6.56844
A Winter’s Tale5.29251312
At Summer’s End5.3422166
Flood of Tears5.4520713
From the Bottom of the Heart5.33241410
I, Too, Saw Dreams Through Air5.2326197
Instant Death! Panda Samurai4.4330273
io [Christmas Eve]5.961625-9
May Sky7.06211
Midsummer Haze4.3131310
My Black Cat5.991421-7
Night of the Forget Me Nots5.551922-3
Plain Song6.001317-4
Plain Song Christmas Special5.561820-2
Red Shift6.7045-1
Shooting Star Hill5.3423320
Summer, Cicadas, and the Girl6.011293
The Letter6.34963
The Poor Little Bird4.7828235
The world to reverse.5.9815105
Until We Meet Again6.66611-5
Visions From the Other Side4.6429245
Wanderers in the Sky5.372129-8
Top 10 rankings in bold.

VNDB vs NLJ Analysis

Let us start with the top-10 since the novels the VNDB reviewers or I considered to be very good are most likely of the most interest.

The Top 10s

Six of my top ten novels are also in the VNDB top 10. My top novel, May Sky, is second in the VNDB scoring whereas VNDB’s top novel, Narcissu (granting the significant caveats) is first in the VNDB scoring and eighth on my list. My second (Collage), fourth (A Midsummer Day’s Resonance), fifth (Red Shift), and sixth (The Letter) also featured in the VNDB top-10. Moreover, my ninth- and tenth-ranked novels, Summer, Cicadas, and the Girl and The world to reverse, achieved solid ranks of 12th and 15th in the VNDB ranking respectively.

Yuuko Sasaki asking another character in Collage how she is supposed to know because it is his brain.
Scene from Collage (NLJ 2, VNDB 5)

In the reverse side (pun intended), the four VNDB top-10 novels that missed my top 10 still achieved respectable rankings on my list. VNDB’s sixth place Until We Meet Again just missed my top 10 in 11th as did its 10th place Crimsoness, which I had in 12th. VNDB’s choice for 7th, Moonshine, came in at 15th on my list.

There were three cases in which we saw a ranking difference of at least 10 spots in our top 10s, one with the VNDB ranking higher and two with me on the high side.

VNDB ranked A Dream of Summer 3rd whereas I had it a respectable, but far lower, 18th. A Dream of Summer may benefit from some extent to the fact that the English version is officially available online (different engine but same translation) – which saves people the trouble of having to install it or deal with ONScripter-EN builds. But I am not surprised to see it rank highly on account of its high production values. As I noted, however, I had some issues with its story which led to my crowning it as the biggest underachiever of the al|together set. Interestingly, I ranked A Dream of Summer, which is by the same developer as At Summer’s End and was submitted to the same al|together festival, six spots better than VNDB (16 to 22).

A text box overlays a CG scene of Mizuna leaning against the railing on the school roof in A Dream of Summer.
Scene from A Dream of Summer (NLJ 18, VNDB 3)

VNDB scores were so unkind to my third-ranked novel, A Shooting Star Hill, that I made a note of the unfairness in my piece on Shooting Star Hill’s ranking. I gave Shooting Star Hill my bronze medal with a 3rd place ranking, but VNDB’s average puts it at 23rd. Do not listen to the VNDB people here – I assure all of our readers that Shooting Star Hill is good. My seventh-place choice, Flood of Tears, fared only slightly better from the VNDB crowd, with a similar aggregate score yielding a 20th-place ranking on the VNDB chart. I can see where mileage with Flood of Tears may vary (Insani, which translated it, gave it a lukewarm introduction on its download page), but I articulated my reasoning for giving it a high marks despite its flaws in my top-10 article.

Big Scoring Differences

Beyond the top 10, the most interesting ones to analyze are the ones with big ranking differences – especially since many of the lower-ranked novels on the VNDB list ran into the issue of having a relatively small number of reviews. Here, I will examine novels for which there was a ranking difference of eight or more positions, excluding A Dream of Summer, Flood of Tears, Moonshine, and Shooting Star Hill because I discussed those in the previous section.

Setting aside the ones we already discussed, I ranked two novels at least 8 spots higher than VNDB. I rated the short From the Bottom of the Heart 14th whereas the VNDB average put it at 24th, and I placed A Winter’s Tale at 13th while VNDB placed it 25th. I was a little bit surprised with how poorly those scored with VNDB. From the Bottom of the Heart is very short and a bit cryptic on some points, but I think it was a creative, well put together, and worthwhile read. A Winter’s Tale has a generic story, but it has strong production values for what it is and the English version reads very well. While it was not ambitious, it did what it set it out to do very effectively.

A scene from the From the Bottom of the Heart visual novel. Shirou, the player character, is on the left. A mysterious girl is on the right. Shirou is overlaid by text. The background is a merry-go-round.
Scene from From the Bottom of the Heart (NLJ 14, VNDB 24)

On the flip side, I rated five novels at least eight spots worse than VNDB. Setting aside Moonshine (which I gave a respectable 15th place rating), the other four came in close to the bottom of my ranking. First, I had io [Christmas Eve] 25th while VNDB had it 16th. io [Christmas Eve] did a bit better with VNDB than I would have thought, but I granted that its first half was solid – so I can see how one could rate it more highly than I did with a better impression of it second half. Next, my 26th place OMGWTFOTL came in 17th with VNDB. I had expected this over-the-top dumpster fire to rate higher with VNDB (it was certainly one of the more-downloaded Insani torrents), but in the end many VNDB readers may have had issues similar to my own.

A boy and two girls on a sled in the snow in a CG scene in io [Christmas Eve].
CG scene from io [Christmas Eve] (NLJ 25, VNDB 16)

My 29th place novel, Wanderers in the Sky, came in at 21st with VNDB. I will submit for the record that although its VNDB score is only .03 higher than Shooting Star Hill, there is no universe – and no rating caveat – that explains these two novels being close. While I grant that Wanderers had good intentions, it is a mess. I thought VNDB would have it closer to me on the ranking, but perhaps some readers were more forgiving of its shortcomings.

I was not too surprised that VNDB had LEAVEs high – 11th – compared to my 30th. Again, there are positive assessments of LEAVEs out there in the wild, but I will never understand them.

NAFNLJ and VNDB agree 100% on one novel

There was only one novel out of 31 that had the same ranking on my list and on the VNDB list.

Last place: Midsummer Haze.

Look, I may not agree with the VNDB consensus on everything. I do not think that many of the VNDB readers read Shooting Star Hill with sufficient care. In reverse, some of the VNDB reviewers may argue that I was too hard on A Dream of Summer. But we can all agree that a novel that makes the player do the same thing countless times (or 43 in my case) to unlock half of its content with a random chance mechanic is not good, not the best.

The player in the Midsummer Haze visual novel is asked to choose between the general store and the book store. The main character stands between her two female friends, all in school uniforms, in a shopping strip.
The choice in Midsummer Haze that anyone who dreams of completing the novel 100% will see many times. (NLJ 31, VNDB 31)

There is a lesson here: Do not lock significant visual novel endings behind an extraordinarily low-probability random trigger mechanic.

Final Take-Aways

It was interesting seeing how my al|together evaluations compared to the VNDB consensus ratings. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of my top-12 had solid VNDB scores – pleasantly surprised not for myself, but because this may inspire more people to read novels that I think are worth reading. I hope that my list and comprehensive reviews shine a positive light on some of the good al|together novels that have currently received less kind VNDB treatment – namely Shooting Star Hill and Flood of Tears. Conversely, the VNDB ratings may inspire some of you to look at al|together novels that you may have passed over if you were only following my recommendations. For example, I had many issues with A Dream of Summer (granted I think it is a decent final product), but its relatively high VNDB score may inspire some readers to give it a longer look beyond my complaints.

Of course, readers who want to be safe can start with the novels where VNDB and I agreed. Since there is no real way to disentangle all of the Narcissu reviews on VNDB, it is fair to say that looking strictly at al|together, VNDB account-holders and I agree that May Sky is the best al|together novel. It remains free to download and play and runs with no issues, so there is nothing stopping you from trying it. Collage (Japanese environment and font requirements) and Red Shift (the original executable has crashing issues) are a bit trickier, both VNDB and I agree that they are good, and I explained how to run them without any issues in my full reviews. If you do not know where to start in your al|together journey, you could do worse than with the novels that received high marks from multiple sources.