(Disclaimer – this is a review I wrote for The Vita Lounge originally, hence the difference in formatting. I’m moving it to my own site for archiving sake. If I replay the game one day, I may re-write this for consistency reasons)
The world of visual novels has been a fairly recent revelation for me. Thanks to an intriguing trailer, my first experience was with DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc – which gently eased me into the genre with its murder-mystery story and numerous gameplay elements. It wasn’t until 2015’s Steins;Gate that I really got to grips with a ‘pure’ visual novel that required little interaction, yet that game ended up becoming one of my favourite games on the handheld.
Fast forward to this year and Root Letter‘s trailers presented it as a mix between the two – some of the gameplay elements of Danganronpa with the choice-based narrative of Steins;Gate which led to my interest being piqued. I’m pleased to say that by-and-large, Root Letter is a great game – but it’s let down by a number issues that stop it from reaching the dazzling heights of its contemporaries.
You’re immediately dropped straight into the story as a character who uses the nickname of ‘Max’ (relating to his tendency to go ‘to the max’ with things). While rummaging though his belongings he finds some letters from his old pen-pal Aya Fumino whom he abruptly stopped corresponding with 15 years ago. Among the documents is – mysteriously – an extra undated letter which he never read at the time, which reveals that she killed someone and must atone for her sins. This kicks Max into action to visit the town she grew up in to discover who she killed and where she went.
Once there, you discover that Aya died 25 years ago – 10 years before you supposedly received the letters from her – and no-one knows anything about the pen-pal who Max describes.
It’s a very loose thread, but it provides enough motivation to pull you in and keep the mystery going throughout the early chapters. Max uses the letters Aya wrote to him – many of which mentioned her friends by nicknames such a ‘Shorty’ or ‘Four-Eyes’ – to track down her classmates who are now 15 years older and question them on her whereabouts and unravel the mystery.
The game plays like a mix of a point ‘n’ click adventure and a classic visual novel. You’re given a number of options for interacting with the environment – you can use the ‘ask’ command to talk to anyone around you; the ‘check’ command to click on and trigger items in the area or the ‘think’ command to give you hints about what to do next. You’ll often be given multiple conversation topics when talking to other characters, but there’s always a correct choice to make and other options simply add small bits of superfluous dialogue.
In general, the game’s chapters follow the same cycle – you’ll read an old letter from Aya that describes a classmate; you’ll use what you know to find out where they are now; then you’ll gather evidence to prove they are the person from the letter and then grill them on what they know about Aya. To begin with, you’ll head across Matsue talking to other characters who will give you clues to gather important items, which in turn will lead you to further locations and characters to interact with.
Once enough information has been gathered, you’ll enter interrogation mode, during which Max will attempt to get the classmate to confess they’re the person from Aya’s letters. This involves listening to their denials and rebutting with facts – a certain sentence or piece of evidence at the right time to show they’re lying, until they break down and reveal key information to you about Aya’s whereabouts. It’s an effective system – highly reminiscent of the class trials from DanganRonpa, that often got me thinking about where the conversation was heading next.
Sadly certain features during interrogation don’t work as well as others – the game also features a mechanic named ‘Max Mode’ where four options will cycle on screen and you have to choose the most appropriate to rebut the statement of a classmate. These are often impossible to figure out and merely rely on guess-work until the correct answer is chosen and ended up being a frustrating mechanic that I wish hadn’t existed (thankfully, there’s no punishment for picking the wrong choice).
Despite this, the structure of gather evidence -> question suspect kept me hooked and the interrogations remained particularly thrilling (in part thanks to the amazing soundtrack) throughout the game, meaning I stayed engaged until I reached the conclusion.
Where the game is let down is in the writing, in more ways that one. The classmates who you are hunting down – described in Aya’s letters by broad nicknames relating to character traits – are often rapidly identified in the story yet the game attempts to mask their changes in obvious ways. For example, when the game introduces the character of ‘Fatty’ my immediate thought was “I bet he’s not fat anymore”, yet the game labored this point until Max finally made the connection many conversations later.
Max is also an inherently unlikable character and never develops or matures. While someone like Okabe from Steins;Gate starts out as a jerk but grows as the game goes on, Max remains immature throughout. At points he practically blackmails certain characters, as well as regularly stalking them and accosting their relatives to get what he wants. While it could’ve been presented as his clear love for his long-lost penpal, he comes across as a mean-spirited jerk. Thankfully, the game’s supporting cast come across much better and are a quirky group of characters that elevate the game beyond Max’s annoyances.
In addition, I found the game’s endings particularly weak, which is a massive shame as I felt the journey getting there was extremely memorable. There are five endings in total which generally follow the same series of events but then splinter off in extremely different tangents – including a particularly bonkers Corpse Party-esque ending involving a curse. In order to make these wildly different endings work, a fairly broad set of events had to take place and it feels like not enough thought was put into making everything make sense – one ending ties up all of the loose ends a lot better than others and feels like the ‘true’ ending, while others ignore many important story threads before concluding.
In terms of visual presentation, Root Letter is a seriously impressive title, packed full of gorgeously drawn character portraits and beautiful vistas. The game is set in Matsue, a picturesque area of rural Japan that sets a relaxed, laid-back tone for the game – I found the setting was one of my favourite things about the title and it made me yearn to explore the rolling hills and secluded castles of the country on my own. It also provides the perfect setting for the mystery to take place – there’s a real sense of this being a small-town community that would hide a secret from the world.
Characters are equally vivid, brought to life by Mino Taro’s unique style. There’s a innocence to his portrayal of the main characters that’s particularly enhanced during the cutscenes at the end of an interrogation, showing them changing from the initial blank portraits in Max’s mind; to the teenagers they were when they knew Aya before maturing into the adults they are today. It’s a shame that character portraits don’t animate at all, but in general visuals are top-notch and the direction throughout is just superb.
There’s a romantic element to unraveling a decades-old mystery that’s brought out by the setting and character art, but is most prevalent in the beautiful soundtrack. While a couple of tracks were a little overused for my liking, the OST is just full of fitting pieces – peaceful at times; tense at others, but always incredible to listen to.
Overall, Root letter is a solid game with some issues that stop it from reaching greatness, but in spite of any criticisms I may have about the game, it’s still something that I really enjoyed playing and would easily recommend to fans of the genre or even just someone looking to break into the genre with an intriguing, beautiful adventure.