It’s always a treat when, here in the west. we are able to get our hands on visual novels from Japan, and though this rate is slowly increasing it’s still never enough! When Root Letter was announced for localisation I couldn’t wait to to get my hands on this gorgeous little mystery, but will it sate my VN craving? Read on to find out!
Game: Root Letter
Developer: Kadokawa Games
(Review code provided by publisher)
Now just to clear up one fact before I get started, this is not an Otome game but a Young Adult Suspense Thriller; part of Kadokawa games new mystery series featuring a character named AYA that will be placed in numerous settings. If you are looking for a full on romance adventure, well this isn’t the place for you. That’s not to say there isn’t any at all, it just isn’t the main focus of the story here.
You take on the role of the protagonist, a 33 year old male from Tokyo making a fresh start in life. As you begin to clear up your old room at your parents house you discover a pile of letters, correspondence between you Aya Fumino who answered your ad in a magazine for a pen-pal 15 years ago during high school. As you reminisce on old memories and your growing love for her, you recall that she must have broke up with you as communication suddenly ended after the 10th letter around graduation. It’s here that you discover an unopened letter with a shocking revelation; Aya had committed murder and wished to atone for her sin, you would not speak again. Unable to leave this mystery unsolved, you decide to venture to Shimane – the divine land of marriage to find Aya, with hope that the classmates mentioned in her letters will help you uncover the truth.
As much as I would love to go on, I can say no more without venturing into the realms of spoilers. Visual Novels are all about the story, so if this leaves you curious then you will have to solve this mystery yourself. Be prepared as Root Letter delves into a rural society obsessed with folklore, ghosts, UFO’s and demons; it’s beyond bizarre!
As you might expect, the game comes with a full Japanese voice cast (minus the protagonist) that has been magnificently selected. Each VO in my opinion perfectly reflects each character, their differing personalities and moods are very distinctive! Whilst some of you may question why there is no dub, retaining the original Japanese audio really helps build the authentic feel they are going for. There is an option to change the voice of Aya after the game has been completed once, a nice little touch to change your experience over multiple playthroughs. The soundtrack is one of the games most redeeming qualities, featuring soft, tranquil melodies that reflect the seemingly peaceful Shimane. It really is quite soothing, even someone in passing commented on how lovely it sounded! It’s not all cheery however, as a thriller some moments invoke a more chilling, heart pounding ambience that builds up suspense.
Another redeeming feature is of course the graphics. There is no denying that Root Letter is an exquisite thing to look at, with picturesque illustrated locations and characters in a watercolour style that reflects a hand painted feel. Perhaps the most wondrous thing is how the designs have been modelled after real locations in Shimane Prefecture. Each location you visit has been realistically captured to give your adventure that authenticity, it’s as good as a virtual tour. There are also many smaller details that make it seem more realistic. The animated opening is beautiful and there are also cutscenes after each investigation with a more abstract style. Whilst locations are static, subtle dust particles float about the air and character facial expressions can also change in the slightest way that really express their emotions. It’s this attention to detail which make the game so beautiful.
Sadly the rest of the game left me a little disappointed as I question why the same love and attention was not put into the story and gameplay mechanics, for what few of them there are. There is a total of 8 chapters, with one playthrough taking roughly around 8 – 10 hours to complete depending on how quick you read. Each chapter starts off with a letter from Aya on various cute stationery, each relating to one of her friends: Four-Eyes, Monkey, Fatty, Bitch, Snappy, Shorty and Bestie. This for me was was rather strange, why would you give your friends that you care so much about such insensitive nicknames? Each letter reveals Aya’s relationship with her friend and as with most visual novels prompts you with a choice, a question to answer and another to ask back. Your decisions here will influence the outcome of the story, with a total of 5 different endings to complete. In order to achieve the true ending you must raise your affection with Aya by selecting the right combination, however you can only tell this by reading her response in the following chapters letter.
Each letter will set you off adventuring around town in order to find the aforementioned friend, who of course you have never met; all you have are the clues from your letters. There are two maps to move around, each with various locations covering Shimane. Should you get lost or don’t know where to head, you can consult the guidebook to learn facts on the area or discover a location. In order to gather more information to help your search you can use the ask command to talk to the various locals; off course if there aren’t any the protagonist will often pass some sarcastic comment about talking to ones self. Everyone has to think to themselves though, at times you can often see his internal monologue, piecing together key information. When you do find someone to talk with you may gleam some new information or unlock new locations to visit. One thing you will quickly become accustomed to doing is using check to investigate everything! Using a magnifying glass to scan the area, you can find items of interest which are then stored in your inventory, some of which may come in handy later on. Another option you may use regularly is the think option; this will often help point you in the right direction or give you clues on what questions to ask based on the knowledge you have gathered.
Once you have enough evidence you can confront Aya’s friends, this is where the core mechanic comes into play. It seems that they are unwilling to cooperate and deny all knowledge of Aya; you must use your gathered knowledge and evidence, along with a few cheap tricks in order to get them to open up and reveal their secrets. This is unfortunately what I find to be the games biggest flaw. Each character must be investigated in order to progress the story, sadly this is where I fell out with the protagonist at first. Despite the serious nature of the subject of murder, the protagonist can be rather laid back and at times quite the (not so good) joker. In fact I find his sarcastic personality rather dislikable and feel he is at times quite the bully. For example lets say we are interrogating Four-Eyes; Investigation Mode starts and suddenly things seem a little bit like Ace Attorney. In order to crack their identity and in fact the person themselves you can ask various questions in order to get their version of the truth. When questions alone don’t work you can pull out items from your inventory as evidence or to provoke a reaction; this is where Max Mode comes in as you make the final push. A series of sentences are thrown out on the screen where you must pick one within a time limit in order to progress the investigation. When the correct one is chosen it makes a flashy display as the protagonist shouts it out in true Ace Attorney ‘Objection!’ style, leading them to essentially break down and reveal what they know.
This is where the hate kicked in; sure his penpal has disappeared and admitted murder, sure these guys are hiding something but his interrogations can be very intense, belittling them into submission with verbal abuse like a schoolyard bully. As I watched Four-Eyes utterly break down I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and hate myself! He does slightly redeem himself as he turns a little more sympathetic in subsequent conversations.
The biggest issue I have with the game is the lack of failure. During investigations you have 5 envelopes, 5 chances to get them to talk before they walk away. Each time you make a mistake they attempt to leave and when this does happen it’s not a failure, there is no bad end; instead you just start the investigation over again. Despite the sense of urgency they try to induce there is no challenge, no risk; you can simply try and try again until you succeed with no penalty. This applies to all conversations too, there is just nothing you can do to go wrong.
I was very excited when I first heard of Root Letter, it was so full of promise; sadly I have been left with mixed emotions. I adore the artwork and love the soundtrack, there is no question that it looks gorgeous. Unfortunately, overall it falls slightly short of how great it could be. The protagonist is not someone I could connect with nor sympathise with completely. The story is quite short and at points I couldn’t make head nor tails of what was going on; this of course was not helped by some localisation issues where phrasing just didn’t make sense and included bad grammatical and spelling errors. Despite these downfalls I still enjoyed Root Letter for the most part; I believe it could be an even greater series if they iron out a few kinks. With 5 different endings there is some replayability, however with the option to skip through to important decisions after one playthrough this won’t extend the games longevity by much. Despite some of my negativity, anyone who loves visual novels should certainly consider adding Root Letter to their collection, just maybe wait for a lower price. It’s a love / hate relationship right down to the roots!