The second “Root”-titled game this year*. (*Not related)
What They Say:
Root Letter is the first in a brand new ‘Kadokawa Game Mystery’ series – a collection of Visual Novels with exceptionally high production values. Set in Shimane prefecture – a place rich in history, culture and natural beauty – Root Letter revolves around the mystery of Fumino Aya, your old high school pen friend who went missing 15 years ago. On receiving her final letter 15 years late, in which she confesses to a murder, it’s up to you, the player, to unravel the mystery of what happened to her. Reminiscing through previous letters from Fumino Aya, you must piece together the truth, alongside the testimonies from seven witnesses who knew her. Did she really murder someone, was she telling the truth in her letters – was she even real? Travel from location to location in Shimane prefecture and interrogate people from her past – only by examining her letters can you unravel the mystery. Boasting beautiful character artwork from Mina Taro and some of Japan’s best-loved voice actresses, Root Letter represents one of the most exciting additions to the Visual Novel genre in years.
Root Letter features a nice, if not typical, range of tracks that are played across its story. The catchy, upbeat sounds of the game’s location, Matsue, as well as the more slow, methodical piano songs all help in setting the mood for each and every one of the scenes. The playlist does seem shorter compared to similar visual novels, with a lot of repeats. For instance, I quickly figured out ahead of time what song was going to play every single time during a flashback. While the soundtrack is nothing to write home about (sorry for the lame pun), the voice acting is quite the opposite.
Advertisements for Root Letter emphasize its all-star cast, and for good reason. Each of the core 8 friends the story focuses on, as well as the few supporting cast members, are well-acted and versatile, easily nailing the over-the-top comedic and dramatic scenes. The game only features the original Japanese audio language, but the acting more than makes up for it for someone like myself who prefers English voiceovers.
There’s no denying that Kadokawa Games put a ton of work into recreating the Shimane prefecture for Root Letter. The painstakingly-detailed backgrounds and set pieces are simply stunning. Many real-world locales and spots around the city of Matsue are visited in the game, with a level of attention-to-detail not seen in most visual novels. Revisiting the familiar locations over and over isn’t a chore like in other games, either, as the areas just feel alive and pretty to look at.
The character designs are unique, too, giving off a hand-drawn feeling. Each character has a nice variety of expressions that are well used throughout the game. The presentation of the menu and smartphone are intuitive as well, seemingly taking cues from and enhancing upon PQube’s other localized work, Steins;Gate.
Content: (warning as parts of this section may contain very light spoilers)
Root Letter begins with a very short prologue, introducing the player to the story and main character that is nameable. The MC receives a letter 15 years late from his old penpal stating that she killed someone. Thus begins a decades-old mystery, spurring him to find and meet her in person for the very first time. Set somewhere in between Ace Attorney and Kara no Shojo in terms of tone and structure, Root Letter never quite reaches the heights of either franchise, but is at its best when it focuses on what makes it unique.
Gameplay takes the typical reading and choice-based parts of typical visual novels and adds touches like Ace Attorney-like investigation/debates and a Kara no Shojo-esque city map that feature dozens of visitable areas. The gameplay is more engaging compared to other visual novels due to these interactive elements, as well as its extremely well-paced story.
However, the plot is years away from genre greats like the Zero Escape or Dangaronpa series, simply because it lacks necessary focus. The game is consistently good up until the end where the mystery falls apart. Without spoiling anything, I felt like the multiple endings actually did the story a major injustice. Narrowed down to 1-2 endings total would have helped out a lot. The endings are just so vastly different and contradictory that it would take a well thought-out twist to make sense of why, but there is never one given. Instead, the player has to make sense of it on their own and the only reasoning I could come up with was weak at best.
That doesn’t mean the game isn’t worth playing, as everything else is solid storytelling. The game hinges on its setting and cast, and for good reason. Kadokawa Games really used the game’s setting of the Shimane prefecture to its fullest. I felt interested in the shops, restaurants, inns, and more that you visit because of their dedication to recreating the real places. Little tidbits like local superstitions and legends only helped to make the city of Matsue feel more alive than an open world game. If anything else, the game has me excited to visit the city someday for reals and sit in the same places the characters did.
And those characters are what make the game worth playing, too. From the great voice acting to the exploration of each and every one of their personal stories, there was never a dull moment in the 10 or so hour game. I became truly invested in their lives. The game hits just the right balance between comedy and drama, much like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. There were many times that I found myself laughing out loud, and gasping in surprise the next moment. Being the part of a brand new trilogy of mystery games, I’m not sure at all where the story will go from here, but I’m excited nonetheless. Altogether, Root Letter is the perfect starting place for anyone that has never played a visual novel before.
Certainly a more interactive visual novel than most, Root Letter engages you in a flawed but charming story of friends. The entertaining cast, stunning artwork, and realistic city all come together to overlook the flat ending. It is easy to recommend this short and sweet game to not only visual novel aficionados, but newcomers looking to dip their feet in the genre for the first time.
Released By: PQube
Developer: Kadokawa Games
MSRP: $59.99 (PS4), $39.99 (Vita)
Release Date: 11/10/2016
Platforms: PS4, Vita
This review was done with a review copy of the game provided by PQube. We are grateful for their support.