Root Letter Review – The Root of the Problem Is…
Developer: Kadokawa Games
Platform: PlayStation Vita*, Playstation 4
EU:October 28th, 2016
NA: November 10th, 2016
ESRB Rating: M
*The Vita version was played for this review
From big budget games over-hyping themselves and failing to live up to expectations, to a small, very niche title that isn’t as good as the premise made it out to be, disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes. Personally, I have a soft spot for niche titles. Bonus points if it’s a visual novel and even more points if it grabs me by the premise alone. Root Letter managed to do all three, making it love at first sight.
Here’s a bit of background information: Kadokawa decided to make a series of visual novels in the mystery genre, beginning with Root Letter. All of these games (with Root Letter first and so far only,) will be sharing some of the same characters, with Aya being one of them. This information isn’t necessarily in the game but a fun little pretext of it. As for the game itself, you, the main character, are getting ready for a new job and find letters you received from your penpal 15 years ago. Going through the letters again, something is wrong. You only exchanged ten letters with Aya Fumino, so why is there an unopened eleventh letter? Upon opening read that she claims to have killed someone and won’t be writing to you anymore. Albeit a bit late to responding to the letter, you decide to pay her a visit and see what’s going on… Only to find out that her house burned down 15 years ago. Naturally, with a head full of questions, you take it upon yourself to find out the truth no matter what.
Since it’s a visual novel, there’s not much in terms of gameplay. In fact, it’s more of a point-and-click adventure because of how it goes— minus all of the puzzle solving that comes with that genre. Almost every chapter begins the same way: you re-read your letters from Aya, and remember how you responded to them; using Aya’s letters as a clue as to who her classmates were, and track one of them down. For one reason or another, they each refuse to acknowledge Aya’s existence, let alone that they are who Aya said they were. Throughout the chapters you talk to people around town and gather intel on one of her classmates and prove to them that, not only did Aya exist, but that they were classmates and friends as well, by showing them the evidence that contradicts whatever they say. And when the main character wants to drive a point home, he enters MAX mode. In this mode you have four responses with each becoming more intense than the last, and you have to figure out which response is best suited for the current conversation. The problem though is that if you contradicted a statement and failed, you get penalized. Mess up too many times and it’s game over. However, no such penalty exists in this mode. It’s just guess and check. If you were to imagine two random adults discussing their senior year in high-school, like civilized adults, with one of them being completely in the dark about it, this is far from that. The main character knows what he wants and will do whatever he can to get it. Even if it means harassing (and at one point even traumatizing) the recipient. It’s completely understandable that in this situation both would be completely on edge, but at the same time, the tone of the game completely changes going from “okay, so who’s the person Aya is talking about in this letter?,” to “okay now that I have all of their details, it’s time to make a complete ass of myself and force the information out of them”.
If anything, the game’s calm and relaxing music and beautiful character artwork by Mino Taro does help out a bit, plus the fact that the game is a faithful recreation of Shimane. So faithful, in-fact, that the locations, and some of the people in the game, are actual real people. The game provides a small guidebook, and you can use it to read small descriptions on each location and even find new areas to go to.
The game features three different endings on your first go around, with an additional two more after you’ve played through the game once— meaning five endings in total. How you get an ending is completely dependent on how you respond to Aya’s letters. I hate to say it, but with how everything in the game goes, the true ending isn’t satisfying in the slightest. In fact, the bad endings and even an ending that was more bittersweet brings a better closure than it. The game offers some neat bonuses like meeting the author and him actually giving you the literal script of the game for you to read at your leisure. While unlocking them isn’t necessarily a hassle, it’s the only purpose to actually traverse from place to place in the game instead of the game doing it for you.
In the end, the game is just boring. It has no real personality to it. The game’s artwork is great and the music is nice to listen to. But one of the most important parts of a visual novel is the story element, and there’s just nothing in the script itself that makes it a worthwhile read. The premise and general outline is great, but the the characters of it just bog it down. The main character himself is just unlikable and pretty much makes playing the game more of a hassle than it feels.
+Is great for tourists
-Completely fails to capitalize on the premise
-Most of the endings are non sequiturs and don’t flow naturally